Tuesday, 3 June 2014

In Conversation with Jeffrey Katzenberg: CEO of DreamWorks

I live in a the cultural capital of Australia, Melbourne. The first ever feature-length film was filmed in Melbourne, The Story of Kelly Gang. Although, aside from this fact, Melbourne is not a city known for its contributions to the film industry. Recently, however, DreamWorks studio celebrated its 20th anniversary and the Australia Centre for Moving Image (ACMI) stepped in to help honour the occasion. Debuting on the 12th of April, ACMI opened a DreamWorks animation exhibition. The show itself is a lively archive of storyboards, props from the film sets, concept-drawings and interactive displays of the animated delights. On its opening night, a very special guest was invited to participate in a Q&A session: none another than CEO of DreamWorks, the man himself Jeffrey Katzenberg. And this is the legend I found myself seated before on that very night. 

Jeffrey Katzenberg is no mere businessman. He is the co-founder of DreamWorks, known for his tenure as co-chairman of the Walt Disney Studios during its Renaissance Period and his time as President of Production at of Paramount Pictures. But he is also a notable film producer, having conceived the early ideas for The Lion King, Kung Fu Panda, The Little Mermaid and Madagascar and served as executive producer for The Prince of Egypt, Shrek, Shark Tale and Chicken Run. The night was hosted by Channel 10's Executive General Manager and panellist of The Gruen Transfer, Russel Howcroft. 

It was a compelling night of storytelling by a man who'd risen swiftly in the ranks of the film industry, fallen hard and yet rose once again. Notable for his collaborations with Steven Speilberg, Katzenberg was once in politics and had no ambition in the venture of cinema. Yet today, he is responsible for having created some of the most celebrated animated films of all time. He spoke about how he derived the story of The Lion King from his own trials and tribulations in his time serving in politics. We learnt that the idea of Madagascar was one conceived by Katzenberg as a child when he would visit Central Park Zoo. He told us of how he envisioned these animals, now spoilt and treated like royalty at the zoo, would cope if placed back in the wild. The product of all this, as well know very well, is a fantastical creation of humour and visual spectacle. 

It was Katzenberg's cross-over from politics to film that really intrigued me. While he did not disclose explicit reason for this decision, it at least made me slightly hopeful. As a law and commerce student, I was encouraged not to study film, given 1) the lack of vocation in the field itself and 2) the lack of necessity for such a qualification to actually go into the industry. Here, Katzenberg has perhaps merely demonstrated that such is possible. 

Katzenberg provided much insight into the cinema of his world. He spoke of how he was "kicked to the curb" by Disney and then joined forces with Steven Speilberg and David Geffen to create a new film studio. From there, he and his co-founders worked hard to forge a place and name for the project in the exclusivity of the US film industry. And so he did. 
It was a privilege to listen and hear first hand from the man responsible for so much of the laughter, beauty, truth and joy we find on our big screens today. 

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