London Film Fest: Jeffrey Katzenberg Calls DreamWorks Founding a "Great Hustle"

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Jeffrey Katzenberg

The mogul also discusses China and that famed 1991 Disney memo in his keynote

Jeffrey Katzenberg celebrated the 20th anniversary of the founding of DreamWorks at the BFI London Film Festival on Tuesday with a birthday cake, a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" and a lively keynote in which he suggested the company’s initial creation involved some serious hustling.

"In 1994, Steven Spielberg had won the Academy Award for Schindler’s List and had just released Jurassic Park. David Geffen had just sold his record company for the third of fourth time for another couple of billion dollars. I was fired, the boot, out the door," Katzenberg told an audience at the BFI Southbank in the U.K. capital. "The fact that I somehow or another was able to convince these two geniuses that one third of me was worth one third of Steven Spielberg and one third of me was worth one third of David Geffen is one of the great hustles in humanity. If you went to Vegas and actually tried to make a bet on that, nobody would take it. And this happened eight days after I got fired."

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Now Katzenberg is the CEO of the spun-off DreamWorks Animation, and Spielberg's DreamWorks is a separate company that releases its films through Disney.

Twenty-nine animated films on, Katzenberg said he was looking to China for future growth, with the studio recently opening the Oriental DreamWorks facility in Shanghai, now home to more than 200 artists.

"Five years from now, maybe less, China will be the largest movie market in the world. It’s going to pass $5 billion this year and is still on this extraordinary trajectory," he said, adding that the Chinese have been "so embracing" of DreamWorks Animation's output. "I think of the top 10 animated movies of all-time in China, I think six or seven of them are DreamWorks. Our movies do exceptionally well."

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The studio in Shanghai has been working on Kung Fu Panda 3, plus two original films based on Chinese legends.

"So these are movies that will be made in China, for China, and then exported for the rest of the world," Katzenberg said. "When we finally announce what these two stories are, my guess is that there will be a phenomenal sense of enthusiasm and pride from the moviegoing public in China, because they’re their stories."

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BFI London Film Festival director Clare Stewart also asked Katzenberg about his famed 1991 internal memo to Disney employees, which he admitted was one of his biggest career mistakes.

"I’ve learned some of my best lessons from some of my dumbest things, and that’s one of my world-class lessons," he said. "Don’t write that shit down. You can say it, you can think it, just don’t write it. And remember, it was 1991. They hadn’t invented the Internet yet. So today, don’t write it down."

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