Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg talks Hollywood and hi-tech in Tel Aviv

The key to his success in both entertainment and hi-tech, he said, was in “exceeding expectations.'

 JEFFREY KATZENBERG with  Alex Bouaziz, co-founder and CEO of Deel. (photo credit: Menash Cohen)
JEFFREY KATZENBERG with Alex Bouaziz, co-founder and CEO of Deel.
(photo credit: Menash Cohen)

‘What started out as my problem became a passion, and my passion became my success,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder and CEO of Dreamworks Animation and founding partner of WnderCo VC. He was in the country, attending the Silicon Valley Comes to Tel Aviv Summit on Sunday at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where he explained the trajectory of his successful career, beginning in entertainment and moving into hi-tech.

Sarona Partners, which describes itself as “the growth ecosystem for Israeli hi-tech start-ups” hosted the two-day tech conference, to bridge the worlds of Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley. The conference took place for the second time this year and more than 1,700 participants took part in lectures, panels and master-class workshops delivered by world-class hi-tech executives. The aim of the gathering was to create connections between Israeli technology companies, investment funds, and senior figures from Silicon Valley in the US. 

Katzenberg, who first made a name for himself in the entertainment world, began his master class with Alex Bouaziz, the CEO and co-founder of Deel, by describing his meteoric rise in Hollywood. In the 1960s, he skipped college to work for New York City mayor John Lindsay, then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as an assistant to studio executives at Paramount, among them Barry Diller. 

His time in Disney

Later, working with Michael Eisner, he revived Disney as a top movie studio in the 1980s. Ever since then, animated films have been a key part of his career. At Disney, under his management, the studio created some of the greatest animation films of all time, which have become modern classics, among them The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, along with some edgier, more adult-oriented fare such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

He also guided Disney as a maker of live-action films for adults, and under his tenure, the studio released such hits as Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Three Men and a Baby (1987). 

Bilbi and a friend  (credit: Courtesy)
Bilbi and a friend (credit: Courtesy)

He co-founded Dreamworks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen in the 1990s, taking responsibility for its animated division. At Dreamworks, he oversaw such movies as The Prince of Egypt and the Shrek franchise, moving from traditional animation to CGI, which was one of the factors that sparked his interest in technology.

Today, his focus is on developing technology, through his company, WnderCo. He said the curiosity and ambition that guided him through his entertainment career are just what is required for success in the hi-tech arena as well. 

WHEN HE joined Disney, he had “zero interest” in animated films, he recalled, but when Eisner pointed to the building where Disney’s foundering animation division was located and said he had to revive the Disney animation brand, Katzenberg got busy learning the business. 

With his playful smile and child-like enthusiasm, he realized he had to think like a child “if I was going to make movies for children,” and quickly learned such maxims of the animated world as, “You’re only as good as your villains.” 

After discussing villains, he segued to a discussion of how he had “the most amazing year” at Disney in 1994, when The Lion King, one of the most successful animated movies of all time, was released – and then got fired. “Here’s another great lesson,” he said. 

Extolling the virtues of perseverance, he discussed his shift away from entertainment and into hi-tech. “I can say that I know very little about any subject in the world, but I’ve always been really good at knowing what I don’t know and looking for the solutions to how I can know it.

“My entry into the world of technology and start-ups was out of the desire to find a solution. I look at each decade as a chapter in my life. The last decade in which I was involved in hi-tech is very interesting and exceptional, because of the impact you bring to people with the help of technology. That’s how I realized how important technologies are and affect every area of our lives.”

As striking Writers Guild of America members demand that AI in screenplay writing and project development be regulated, Katzenberg acknowledged their concern. “I don’t think there is any industry that generative AI will disrupt more than the creative industry. What and how it will change is unimaginable at this point, but I know it will be stunning,” he said. 

“Today, media and entertainment is not a growth market, due in large part to the fact that the consumer standpoint is unclear: consumers are undecided on what they want, when they want it, for how long, and how much they are willing to pay for it.” 

A case in point of a misunderstanding of the consumer standpoint was his own venture into creating Quibi – short-form content aimed at mobile-phone users. This company was announced with great fanfare in 2018 and shut down after seven months of operation in 2020. 

Some analysts said its failure was partly in its timing, since during the COVID pandemic, people used their phones, less since they had time to watch longer content on computers and televisions. Katzenberg noted the pandemic’s impact on entertainment, saying, “Out of all the industries, the media industry is the number one lagger in coming out of COVID.”

He said that his work nurturing start-ups was not so different from what he did as a studio head. Likening the work of companies that develop technology to truffle hunters, he said, “They were out looking for the rarest and best, and when they found them, they did everything they could to protect them. They gave them resources, they put sunlight on them, they watered them.

“That’s what I did in Hollywood. I always thought I was a truffle hunter, I was looking for the best in our world. Our goal at WnderCo is that we want to be that next-generation VC.”

The key to his success in both entertainment and hi-tech, he said, was in “exceeding expectations. It’s pretty simple. If you exceed the expectations of your customer, your business is going to go through the roof.” If customers see movies that are even better than they hoped, “you’ve got a blockbuster.” 

This philosophy has guided him in his friendships and as a parent, but he concluded his talk saying that he had really honed this approach to life as a husband. 

“The all-time high bar of them all is – I’m married 48 years. I’m still trying to exceed her expectations.”