Jeffrey Katzenberg interview: Penguins, DreamWorks, universes

The boss of DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, on too many blockbusters, 20 years of DreamWorks, Marvel, and Penguins....

It’s been 20 years since DreamWorks Animation set up its stall, originally as part of the broader DreamWorks SKG project, but since splintering out on its own. One of the constants in that time has been the man heading it up: Jeffrey Katzenberg. Having overseen animation at Disney from the mid-1980s through the second golden era for the studio in the early 1990s, his company has made 30 animated films.

Here, he chats to us about film 30, The Penguins Of Madagascar, as well as the state of the business, the changing face of animation, and his fears for 2016…

Let’s start with The Penguins Of Madagascar. I’d argue that the Madagascar films to date make for about the best comedy trilogy of recent times. I’d take them over The Hangover for a start…

[Laughs] Alright!

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Where does this one leave things then? Are you looking, as per modern movie parlance, to do an ‘extended universe’ here? Are you spinning the penguins off and leaving the main line of Madagascar films in tact?

Well, the answer is yes. I think every once in a while… remember, we’re still young. Our business is young, our movies are young. Our company is young. And so we’re still discovering as we go, but in the same way when Puss In Boots first arrived in the Shrek movies, he was a scene stealer, and seemed to beg for his own film. I think that’s true of the penguins. It’s a different path for them, so from movie to television show, and now from TV show to their own film.

So yes, it is an expanding universe. I think we imagine and hope that with success, there will be a series of films. Certainly, this type of super-thriller lends itself to multiple chapters. But they’re great characters, and people love them. It’s as complicated and as simple as that!

Do you foresee a point where DreamWorks characters could intermingle in a shared universe on screen?

No. We’ve talked about it. They exist in such separate worlds. You look at the Marvel characters, those superhero characters, there actually feels like there’s a level of comfort in there. They’re all human worlds, even though they’re not all exactly human characters. But they’re human-esque. The world itself that they’re in, they’re fundamentally human.

Madagascar, for us, is a human world. Kung Fu Panda is an animal world. Shrek is a fairy tale world. They just feel very disparate.

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What about Monsters Vs Aliens crashing into Over The Hedge?

Well that’s at least possible! [Laughs]

You say you’re a young company, but you’ve gone through a lot of living for such a young firm. This is film number 30, and you’ve back with the director of your first movie, Antz. A lot of the questions you get seem to focus on how the animation techniques and technology has developed in the 20 years of DreamWorks. But how have the people developed? It’s the human beings that interest me…

Good, because they’re the ones that count. The technology? Those are the tools.

But it’s interesting. Hundreds of years later, nobody thinks about what paints or paint brushes that Monet or Rembrandt or Picasso used. Nobody talks about that, we talk about their art and their work. And I don’t mean to be pretentious about it, but I think it is the storytellers and filmmakers that matter. And they’ve all grown.

Most of them when they started, their movies with DreamWorks were their first films. Eric Darnell [director of Antz, The Penguins Of Madagascar] this is his fourth. Simon [Smith, co-director The Penguins Of Madagascar] has actually done multiple projects, multiple films for us. He has directed shorts, and many other meaningul contributions in our filmmaking process and our films.

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Today, we have this amazing creative leadership in the company. People who are now knowledgeable and experienced, and I think very, very gifted. So honestly, it makes my job easier!

In that 20 years, it seems that an invisible divide has come down between live action and animation. That you have people like Guillermo del Toro and Tim Minchin working with DreamWorks. Are you finding people of that ilk are coming to you more and more? Or are you actively seeking them out?

Both. The genre of animation has become universal in its appeal and its interest, both behind the camera and in front of the camera. For actors, for filmmakers, for great storytellers, more and more people from the live action world are wanting to work in animation. We reach out for them all the time, and from time to time, they found us. Guillermo del Toro came and found me very specifically. He said he was a big fan of our studio and would like to work here, and I said great, the red carpet is out! Bells and whistles and confetti, and we’ll carry you in on our shoulders! He’s a unique and brilliant talent, and has been great inspiration to many of our filmmakers.

Is Guillermo del Toro still involved with the studio now? I’ve not seen his name on the credits of one of your films for a while?

Yes he is.

Outside of the technical innovations again, the other thing is that your audience has changed a lot in 20 years. If there was still any residual feeling that animation was something for children, that should be long gone by now. Now, when you’re scheduling your films, I saw that you swapped The Penguins Of Madagascar and Home around, because Penguins presumably has a better chance of finding its feet in the end of year crush. That now, live action films are direct competition, and that wasn’t always the case to the same degree.

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How do you sense that your audience has changed and developed over the two decades of DreamWorks Animation?

Well, I think it has.

Firstly, I think you put your finger on it, which is I think about 25 years or so ago began what was the reconception in the eyes of the audiences that animation was no longer cartoons for kids. They were for everybody. Whether it was Beauty And The Beast, or Aladdin, or The Lion King – or all three – that’s what really set the stage for it. In the 20 years since those movies, animation has become perhaps the most beloved genre of films throughout the world. Every year, when we look at the top 10 or 20 movies, animation tends to be if not the top genre, then close to it. Maybe now, today, the superhero Marvel movies are a bigger part of that, but it has not diminished us. We are still very big and very popular. And they are no longer cartoons. That’s I think been very exciting.

At the same time, also as you say, it’s more competitive. We are competing with live action movies that have become more cartoon.

I think if you go back even to 2005, Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith is for large parts an animated movie for me.

Well, or I’ll go and say Guardians Of The Galaxy has a talking raccoon and an animated tree! [Laughs]

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I’m a huge fan of your Guardians film, Rise Of The Guardians as it happens. It came at a point though where you were diversifying, and injecting your business with a lot more television. Turbo, for instance, it felt like the box office was mitigated by the fact that you had the television series in place beforehand. Is that a natural evolution for you? Do you see the cinema scren still pivotal to what DreamWorks Animation is about?


How do you want keep splintering things?

I think the wellspring of our company and our creativity is feature films. So I think that’s where these great characters, great stories and great franchises are born. And what’s exciting, creatively and also as an opportunity for the company to grow, is that they have more and more value in the related  extensions that now exist for our business. Whether it’s TV, or a game, or short form content online, or a plush toy, or a T-shirt. These are characters that our audience falls in love with, and they want to engage and interact with them in as many interesting ways, and as many parts of their daily lives, as makes sense, and where you can maintain the quality of it.

I don’t think it diminishes or importance of the theatrical film. I actually think that’s the locomotive. You don’t have a locomotive, you have a bunch of cars sitting on the track that aren’t going anywhere.

You wrote back in 1991 a piece that seemed to call where we are with movies now. That after going through making Dick Tracy at Disney, you questioned the financial effort, and the human demands, on getting such a huge project made. How do you feel now that it seems that everything is a Dick Tracy sized project now? You’re putting out two to three films a year at DreamWorks Animation alone, that seem to take exhaustive amounts of effort? Is this a healthy thing for the industry?

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Well, y’know, it’s a dangerous thing.

I think that as both a moviemaker and a moviegoer, too much of any one thing ultimately runs its course. That’s the concern and the fear that I have. It has been really an essential of movies over many generations the diversity of them. There was a world in which different kinds of movies could exist for different audiences and have success. It wasn’t all movies are for all people, and all movies had to achieve success with all audiences in order to be successful. There are a lot of those movies being made today. A lot.

And I worry. When I look at 2015, but probably more so in 2016, it seems as though it doesn’t hold up. It seems as though the audience is going to have to expand in ways in which it has not in the past. That’s possible, and it’s my hope that there are so many big, interesting movies, if they’re all as good as Captain America or Guardians or Maleficent or Hunger Games… these films have been really rewarding. They’ve been fun movies, the audience loves them, they’ve done really well. Maybe the audience will expand, I hope it does. But it’s going to have to in order to be a success for the business.

And just going off in a completely different direction, do you have any plans to bring your third Aardman films to Blu-ray? And Prince Of Egypt and Antz too? Are there rights issues or anything holding any of those up?

I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t have any answers for you, I’m sorry! I wish I did have that answer for you.

Oh, last thing. Did you really get on your knees to Leonard Nimoy to get the first Star Trek film together?

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Oh yes I did!

Jeffrey Katzenberg, thank you very much!

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