DreamWorks Chief: On Changes and Challenges in the Film Business

Photo Gallery: Surprised by Shrek Photos
AP/dpa

Jeffrey Katzenberg has had a phenomenally successful career bringing animated films to the big screen. In a SPIEGEL interview, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation discusses why movies are more popular than ever, the rise of the Chinese market and how Germans prefer movies stars with four legs.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Katzenberg, these days, your animation productions cost nearly as much as major blockbuster movies, or rarely less than €150 million ($205 million). Why have computer-generated films gotten so expensive?

Katzenberg: The movies we've been making are among the most complex films being made anywhere and by anyone in the world today. Animated films take four to five years to make and involve between 400 and 500 artists. On average, our movies have 130,000 frames a piece. Each frame has to go through 12 different stages of production in the course of making the movie, And, in each stage, each frame goes through anywhere from 10 to 100 revisions. If you do the math, that's about half a billion frames for making each one of our movies.

SPIEGEL: Can you cut down on costs by outsourcing a lot of the work to Asia?

Katzenberg: No. We have a studio in India, but it's not low-budget. We are there because there is great talent, and not because of the costs.

SPIEGEL: With animated films, do you always have to have children as the target audience? The 2011 Western comedy Rango, for example, was everything but a children's movie, but still very successful.

Katzenberg: Successful? Not really. It didn't make money. I don't know how you gauge success. It won an Academy Award, and it appealed to adults. But the movie lost money.

SPIEGEL: At what point are you able to estimate how much money your movie will make?

Katzenberg: In the US market, usually after a day or two. In the international market, it's much more complicated. You have movies that play differently in different parts of the world. But in the US market, you don't always know exactly the size and scale, but you do know if you're a success or a failure within literally two or three days.

SPIEGEL: Do traditional feature films without animation elements have any change of surviving in the future?

Katzenberg: I'm no spokesperson for the movie industry. But, if you ask me as somebody who loves and goes to movies, I think the answer is: yes. Let's not forget that 2013 is on track to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest year in box-office history. The movie business has its challenges; but it's very, very popular. People all over the world are going to the movies.

SPIEGEL: Macau recently hosted the equivalent of the Chinese Oscars. How important is the region for you financially?

Katzenberg: China is a tremendous market. Five years from now, it will be the biggest market in the world.

SPIEGEL: How does Germany differ from other countries as a market for animated films?

Katzenberg: It's a fantastic animation market and particularly one of the strongest for DreamWorks. Our movies have been wildly popular in Germany. I would say that one of the things that is clearly distinctive and stands out in Germany is that there is a great preference for movies that are fables. And fables are films that have animals as the main characters. So they much prefer animated films with animals as the main characters as opposed to humans.

SPIEGEL: Does it worry you that Netflix and other online movie platforms are overtaking the market?

Katzenberg: No. Netflix has been a blessing for DreamWorks. We were one of the first movie companies to make a deal with them. We also recently made a so-called "Blockbuster TV" deal with them, which means our new TV productions will be exclusively available on Netflix. It's one of the biggest deals in the history of the television business.

SPIEGEL: Which of your animated films came to you as the biggest surprise?

Katzenberg: I would say Shrek. When we made Shrek, we were doing something that was so different from anything that anybody had ever tried before. It basically took the whole concept of a fairy tale and turned it upside down and inside out. It was very risky enterprise for us, but it obviously paid off.

SPIEGEL: Legend has it that, at the beginning of your career, you would start your mornings with several hours on the phone in order to gather all the relevant information about deals, scripts and productions in the industry. Is that true?

Katzenberg: I used to spend a lot of time on the telephone. I don't have that kind of time anymore; it's just not how the world works today. Today, there are many ways to communicate and collaborate besides the telephone. But the telephone is still very effective.

SPIEGEL: After all your time in Hollywood, have you gotten tired of all the big egos?

Katzenberg: No, not at all. Hollywood is a place that actually has a lot of really nice, very normal people. Not everybody is the cartoon exaggeration that mythology has made up. I'm a family man. I've been married for 38 years and have two amazing kids. They're over 30, have great careers and are doing wonderful work. Not everybody in Hollywood is cuckoo.

Interview conducted by Martin U. Müller

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About Jeffrey Katzenberg
  • AP
    Jeffrey Katzenberg, 62, is one of the world's most successful film producers. While chairman of Walt Disney Studios from 1984 to 1994, he was responsible for hits such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. In 1994, he teamed up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to launch DreamWorks SKG, whose animation unit he heads. The company has revolutionized animated films with some of the biggest-grossing hits of all time, including Shrek and Kung Fu Panda.

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