Oscars 2013: Jeffrey Katzenberg on the Highs -- and Lows -- of Raising Money in Hollywood (Q&A)

Issue 8 FEA Oscars Katzenberg - P 2013
Rainer Hosch

Issue 8 FEA Oscars Katzenberg - P 2013

On the eve of his glittery Night Before party, the MPTF's fearless fundraiser opens up to THR about raising more than $200 million for the organization: "We take care of our own."

This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If charity begins at home, the MPTF is the perfect one for Hollywood: The 92-year-old organization known as the Motion Picture & Television Fund provides housing services and much more to people in need in the industry from the cradle to the grave. MPTF's Samuel Goldwyn Foundation Child Care Center, its medical clinics (which help subsidize the uninsured), Saban Health and Fitness Center and the Wasserman Campus residential community for the elderly in Woodland Hills annually "touch the lives of close to 70,000 industry members and their families," says Ken Scherer, CEO of the MPTF Foundation, its fundraising arm.

Foundation chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, 62, personally has raised between $200 million and $225 million, of which as much as $60 million was generated by The Night Before the Oscars gala, his brainchild of 11 years. Its creation was not a moment too soon: "There was a time when this amazing institution was on the precipice of disappearing," he says. The studio kingpin behind the Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar and Shrek franchises gave $30 million to move the needle on the MPTF campaign that kicked off last February to raise $350 million, of which $240 million has been donated. "He gives his own money before he asks," says Scherer of Katzenberg's talent with driving donations. "Jeffrey never hears from a donor he is talking to, 'No, I'm not going to give you the gift.' What he hears is, 'I'm not going to give you the gift right now.' "

The campaign, co-chaired by George Clooney with Michael Douglas, counts Steven Spielberg ($30 million), David Geffen ($30 million), Barry Diller ($30 million), Steve Bing ($30 million), Kirk and Anne Douglas ($20 million) and News Corp. ($20 million) among its contributors, with unspecified amounts from Tom Cruise, The Hangover producer Todd Phillips, Joe Roth and Wasserman Media Group CEO Casey Wasserman, among others, as well as nearly 8,000 smaller donations. "I have been beyond blessed in my career, and this industry has been so good to me, far beyond any wildest dreams," says Katzenberg, who received a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar in December. "To be able to give back and to help those who had a tough go at it -- I start with that feeling."

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The Hollywood Reporter: While MPTF is a big charity for you, your activities cross a range of groups, from Animation Academy of Inner-City Arts to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Why not just pick one?

Jeffrey Katzenberg: I want to do them all. I probably shouldn't say this -- it will get me in trouble -- but when someone makes the effort to solicit money from me or someone in my family for a worthy cause, we give. Now I can't say yes to everything, but in our community, our city, our state, our country, we like to say yes. I have a partner in this, my wife, Marilyn. It goes back to advice I received from Kirk Douglas. He said to me in a way I was able to hear, "Jeffrey, you haven't learned to live until you've learned to give." That's more than a phrase. It's an incredible insight and quite truthful. To hear those words, which he said to me 25 years ago, from Spartacus, you never forget it. When you see the example of Kirk and Anne and what they've done with their philanthropy, it's inspiring.

THR: Is that what has made you so generous?

Katzenberg: We're lucky to have the resources to give, and it's incredibly rewarding to do it. The one thing that maybe has been a little crazy on my part and a little maniacal is that I tend to want to see the things we're giving actually fulfill their promise. And that means getting involved. So it's not just writing a check, but it's actually giving of your time and whatever knowledge and experience and resources that you can. It's not just money.

THR: Has it been a constant joy?

Katzenberg: No, in fact, some of it falls into the category of "No good deed goes unpunished." The Motion Picture Television Fund [long-term care facility] went through a period of time in which it was in a very difficult place. It was facing a set of decisions that were unthinkable about whether it would continue to exist or not. I became the focal point of protests. It's almost three years ago to the day that there were 250 demonstrators in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel holding up signs equating me to Hitler and a Nazi. They said I was throwing people out on the street. Now certainly that was not the case, but in the world of getting beat up and publicly ridiculed, I don't think there's been anything harsher or nastier in my professional career or even close to it.

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THR: How did you react?

Katzenberg: I've always presumed that they were unfortunately either misinformed or uninformed as to what was going on. There were some very sincere people and others whom I had to question their objectives and agendas. I knew there was never a moment in which myself and the board of the MPTF wasn't doing what in our heart we believed was the right thing for the enterprise and more importantly for the people that we serve. So I never had sleepless nights.

THR: Where is the MPTF today?

Katzenberg: We have a great CEO [Bob Beitcher] and a very strong board. Financially, we are on much more solid ground, and it would seem to have a fantastic future. Nobody in health care today is without problems. But we have passed that moment in time when this amazing institution that has been around for 90 years was really on the precipice of disappearing, just going out of business. That would have been an incredible loss for our industry. There's no industry in the world that has an enterprise like the MPTF. We take care of our own, and that has been its mantra from the beginning, and it's still to this day.

THR: What did it mean to you to receive your honorary Oscar in December, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award?

Katzenberg: I am prouder of that than anything else because it's not about something that I achieved for myself. When I came to L.A. and went into the movie business, I was 22 years old. Barry Diller hired me as his assistant. I remember thinking, "OK, win an Academy Award and own a house on the beach in Malibu." That's it. You do those two things, you have arrived. Well, I've been involved with movies that have won Academy Awards. They don't have my name on them, so that certainly differentiates them, but those Academy Awards are for great creative and artistic accomplishments, for work that we've done in the imaginary world, the world of the silver screen. What made this special for me, the proudest thing in my career, is that this is for things we've been able to achieve in the real world. Because in the end, I'm the guy who just did the asking. It's more than just what Marilyn and I have given of ourselves. I've been able to ask them, inspire them, twist their arms. The impact is more by a factor: 10 or 20 or 100 more. Hollywood is an incredibly generous community. It's not just money. Think about what all the great people have done. George Clooney and the Sudan. Angelina Jolie and the United Nations. Tom Hanks and the veterans. Steven Spielberg and Shoah. David Geffen and everything, right? I can go on and on.

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THR: You are famous for your use of the phone to wrangle help and donations for so many causes and events.

Katzenberg: It's a weapon of mass communication. (Laughs.) I have actually thought about this. Every single person has a gift, and some have multiple gifts. My greatest gift is my ability to ask other people to do stuff -- and not only stuff they want to do. But being able to just fearlessly and with unbridled enthusiasm ask people to give.

THR: The Night Before party, which has raised millions for the MPTF, was your idea. How did it come about?

Katzenberg: Many of us remember those years when Swifty Lazar had his Oscar parties. As a young kid, I actually remember having the impression of how our tribe would all come together one weekend a year. It didn't matter who you are, where you are, what you're doing. Just one weekend a year in which we all come back together for that special night to recognize the best work done by our community. So about a decade ago, there was an opening where there was nothing happening that Saturday. We had the idea that we could have an event where there is no press, no photography, a party where everybody could come and see one another and support our own cause. It turned into a phenomenal fundraising opportunity. Every year without fail, we've raised between $6 million and $9 million. I don't think there's any charity event in Los Angeles that raises this much money.

THR: Is it a fun night for you?

Katzenberg: No, it's a working night for me. I just want the guests to be happy. I feel people are there who have given a lot of money in support of it, so I'm sitting there worrying, "Did everybody get the cheeseburger and fries?"