One of the most powerful and controversial figures in the business of American moviemaking since the early 1980s, Jeffrey Katzenberg was the CEO of DreamWorks Animation and a principal partner in DreamWorks SKG, a film studio he created with Steven Spielberg and music mogul David Geffen. Under his watch, DreamWorks and DreamWorks Animation released some of the most successful films of the 1990s and 2000s, including three consecutive Oscar winners for Best Picture and the phenomenally successful "Shrek" (2001) animated franchise. Prior to his tenure at DreamWorks, Katzenberg was in charge of motion pictures at Walt Disney Pictures, where he reversed the venerable animation studio's declining fortunes and shepherded some of the biggest hits in its history, including "The Little Mermaid" (1999) and "The Lion King" (1994). He also brokered the deal to bring Pixar Studios and Miramax into the Disney fold before a much-publicized dismissal by CEO Michael Eisner.
Born in New York City on Dec. 21, 1950 to artist Anne Katzenberg and her stockbroker husband, Katzenberg's desire to become a mover and shaker began at age 14 when he volunteered to work for New York mayoral candidate John Lindsay. Nicknamed "Squirt" in the campaign room for his size and tenacity, Katzenberg quickly worked his way up in Lindsay's organization to aide and unofficial treasurer before departing the position at age 21 after allegations of bribery helped to derail a presidential run for the Republican candidate in 1972.
Katzenberg then focused his tremendous energies on the entertainment business, where he hoped to become a talent agent. In 1973, he worked at International Famous Agency, but quit within a year to take a job as assistant to Paramount chairman Barry Diller. He quickly worked his way up the corporate ladder at Paramount, eventually settling in the marketing and programming department. Among his charges at the time was the defunct "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69) franchise, which Diller charged him with reviving in the form of a major theatrical film. The result was "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979), a critical disaster but a fan favorite and respectable box office hit which kicked the slow-boiling obsession over all things "Star Trek" into high gear. His ability to take a questionable project and turn it into a money-maker did not escape Diller's eye, and by 1982, Katzenberg was President of Production at Paramount, having replaced Don Simpson after the colossal failure of "Grease 2" (1982). His new position reported directly to Chief Operating Officer Michael Eisner, another wunderkind executive who Diller had poached from ABC. The pair began an enormously successful partnership at Paramount, overseeing the release of such blockbusters as "48 Hours" (1982), "Terms of Endearment" (1983) and "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984).
Diller unexpectedly left Paramount for 20th Century Fox in 1984, and Eisner followed suit by taking over as CEO at the ailing Walt Disney Studios, which was in the middle of a lengthy slump in its features department. Eisner recognized the work that Katzenberg had done at Paramount and quickly hired him to become chairman of Disney's motion picture divisions, including its slumbering giant, Feature Animation. With Eisner and COO Frank Wells, Katzenberg performed what can only be described as a complete overhaul of Disney's status as a film company. A self-described "student of animation," he revitalized the company's status as the dominant force in film animation with such hits as the groundbreaking live action-animation comedy "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) - the first animated theatrical feature to be nominated for an Academy Award - "Aladdin" (1992) and "The Lion King" (1994), which held the box office record as the highest grossing animated feature in Hollywood history until 2003.
Katzenberg also ushered Disney's live action division into the 20th century by developing and distributing PG- and R-rated fare through its Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures film divisions. Among the projects brought to light during his tenure as chairman were such enduring hits as "Pretty Woman" (1990), Disney's first R-rated feature "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986), "Three Men and a Baby" (1987) and "Dead Poets Society" (1986). He also purchased the independent and arthouse production company Miramax from Bob and Harvey Weinstein in 1993, bringing such films as "Pulp Fiction" (1994) to a mass audience. And in 1991, he brokered the deal with computer animation powerhouse Pixar to produce three pictures for Disney, including the Academy Award-winning "Toy Story" (1995).
Katzenberg's relationship with Disney and his friend Michael Eisner began to unravel after the release of Warren Beatty's $100 million-plus film version of "Dick Tracy" (1990). The project had been a particularly trying one for Katzenberg, and its box office yield had been lower than expected. In 1991, he penned an internal memo to his fellow Disney executives that urged the company to return to smaller-scale projects. When the memo was secretly distributed throughout the film industry, Katzenberg found that not only had his reputation been tarnished - in that his request for more modest fare flew in the face of his then-latest project, the phenomenally expensive racing picture "Days of Thunder" (1993); a costly flop - but his long-standing relationship with Eisner had been irreparably damaged. When Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash in 1994, Eisner did not elect Katzenberg to replace him, but instead assumed Wells' duties himself. And when Katzenberg questioned the decision, Eisner forced him to resign in 1994. A lawsuit followed in the wake of dismissal, with Katzenberg netting an estimated $250 million in an out-of-court settlement.
Two weeks after his departure from Disney, Katzenberg announced that he was joining forces with director Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, former head of Asylum and Geffen Records. The three cemented the deal at a White House dinner for Boris Yeltsin, with each partner contributing from their own personal wealth to launch the company (Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen added $500 million to the project). Katzenberg mortgaged nearly his entire net worth to contribute the $33 million necessary to launch DreamWorks SKG, an all-purpose production company that planned to release films, television, albums, and video games at a price lower than most major studios.
DreamWorks SKG - or DreamWorks Studios, as it was more commonly known - endured nail-biting ups and downs during its 11 years as a multi-purpose production company. Among its successes were "American Beauty" (1999), "Gladiator" (2000), and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), which brought home three Best Picture Oscars for its mantlepiece. DreamWorks Animation also saw massive hits in its "Shrek" franchise (2001, 2004, and 2007), "Madagascar" (2005) and "Over the Hedge" (2006), but the company suffered tremendous losses as well. Despite the presence of Geffen, its music division delivered few, if any, hit albums, and was eventually sold off to Universal Music Group in 2003. The video game unit also tanked, and plans to build a studio in Playa Vista, California, were scrapped. Its television division's record was equally spotty, though it could claim "Band of Brothers" (HBO, 2001), "Las Vegas" (NBC, 2003- ), and "Rescue Me" (FX, 2004- ) among its more successful efforts. Surprisingly, its biggest failures came in Katzenberg's specialties: the feature animation and live action film department. "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" (2003) cost the company an estimated $125 million in losses, and the company's flagpole projects for 2005 - actioners "The Island" and "War of the Worlds" - were devastating failures and a hit claimed primarily by joint partner Paramount. By Geffen's estimate, the studio had come close to bankruptcy twice during its lifetime, so in 2006, Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen sold DreamWorks to Paramount, which sold off its live-action library to European financier George Soros. Katzenberg retained DreamWorks Animation SKG, which was independent of the Paramount deal.
Despite the troubled history of DreamWorks, Katzenberg continued to score substantial hits as a producer and executive on such animated feature films as "Prince of Egypt" (1998), "Chicken Run" (2000), the Oscar-nominated "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" (2003), "Shark Tale" (2004), and the "Shrek" series. However, his venture into animated television, "Father of the Pride" (NBC, 2004-05) was a resounding and costly failure. In 2006 and 2007, he showed his first inklings of interest in the political arena since the 1970s by first supporting Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign to become governor of California, and later, by raising $1.7 million for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. In 2006, he and his wife Marilyn received a study center named for them at Boston University after donating a substantial sum to the school.