Katzenberg Pavilions
Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Jeffrey Katzenberg: Mogul on a mission – Part II

by Danielle Berrin

Part 1 can be read here.

Ready to Take a Gamble

Katzenberg grew up in Manhattan, the son of an artist mother and a stockbroker father. By the time he was 14, he was volunteering for John Lindsay’s successful mayoral campaign. Even as a kid, “I was entrepreneurial, always looking to do things, organize things, you know, when there was a snowstorm, we’d go shovel sidewalks for storeowners on Madison Avenue, and we’d have our lemonade stands and all those things that kids do.” Katzenberg says his mother encouraged him to pursue his passions. “I didn’t like boundaries, and she was pretty good about letting me explore the things that excited me.” And his father? “My dad put the gambler in me,” he says: “Sport, competition, gambling was just a part of everyday life. [My father] was a stockbroker, incredible card player, incredible tennis player, great backgammon player. He was always involved in hustle. Hustle and play and gamble. And he was very good at it, and he sort of taught me that.”

Judaism also played a role, albeit a peripheral one. “I wasn’t bar mitzvahed, but on the other hand, faith was in our life. I went to Sunday school; we belonged to Emanu-El,” he says, referring to the historic Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue and East 65th Street. “I would say it was a part of our culture.”

Given that his Jewish upbringing wasn’t religiously immersive, I ask Katzenberg what his Jewish identity has accorded him in life. He thinks for a minute, then says, “Pride. Conviction. A sense of belonging. The Jewish community of New York is one in which there is a lot of connection. Much more connected [than in Los Angeles]. You’re a part of something there. [In Jewish life] there’s a connection to your roots and to Israel, a sense of belonging and a sense of obligation.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, can speak to Katzenberg’s Jewish life, if not religiously, then in terms of his commitment to the community: “If you know Jeffrey, you know that Jeffrey doesn’t like long telephone conversations,” Hier says sardonically. “Sometimes Jeffrey can speak for 30 seconds, but to me, he is the epitome of the talmudic dictum in Pirkei Avot that says, “Emor me’at — say little, v’asey harbeh — but do much. That fits him to the T. You ask him to do something —  he says, ‘Yes’; you have about a 30-second conversation, but when you come to the delivery, it’s amazing.”

Over the years, Katzenberg has not only helped fundraise for the Wiesenthal Center, attending its annual banquets and inviting his friends, he has also helped secure celebrity narrators, such as Sandra Bullock to voice Golda Meir, for the center’s award-winning documentaries. Hier also said that it was Katzenberg — along with Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer — who advised him to create an in-house production company, Moriah Films, instead of outsourcing the center’s film work.

Katzenberg clearly takes his role as community leader seriously, most evident in his commitment to philanthropy. His business success has, of course, made him vastly wealthy — “He’s the world’s greatest salesman,” one longtime observer put it. In 2005, Forbes estimated Katzenberg’s fortune at somewhere between $850 million and $1 billion, and when it comes to giving it away, Katzenberg deploys skill and strategy. He and his wife, Marilyn, are committed to a number of causes, most notably the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF); Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and USC and Boston University, the alma maters of their twin children, David and Laura, now 30.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Katzenberg says, explaining that they give to institutions and organizations that have most intimately touched their lives — the hospitals where their children were born, the schools where they were educated, and to the social service organization that supports tradesmen in the industry Katzenberg feels he owes so much.

“Every dollar I’ve made in my career has been in this industry, and I have a very strong socialist point of view about society” — something he attributes to his parents’ tutelage — “which is, the people who are rich and successful need to take care of the people who are not.”

The Katzenbergs, married for 38 years, created a private family foundation through which they donate around $1 million and sometimes much more each year. Recently, they gave $1.25 million to Boston University; they also made two other major gifts, in amounts they would not disclose, to the Katzenberg Center for Animation at USC and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Additionally, they contribute about $25,000 to each of the many charity dinners they attend each year — including ones for the annual Simon Wiesenthal Center, which Katzenberg frequently chairs, Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League.

But far and away, Katzenberg’s foremost philanthropic passion is serving as chairman of the board for the MPTF, which he has done for nearly two decades. MPTF manages the Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, best known as the Motion Picture home, a sprawling retirement facility for industry veterans, along with six outpatient health care centers that together service an estimated 60,000 patients. In January 2012, Katzenberg and George Clooney announced a $350 million capital campaign to support the future of the fund, to which Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen each made gifts of $30 million, helping Katzenberg bring the fundraising total, thus far, to $250 million. “The movie and television business have given me extraordinary wealth,” Katzenberg says, “so in the very industry which has given so much to us, it is, to me, the first and most important place to give back.”

In 2010, however, Katzenberg found himself in the hot seat when MPTF was facing a budget shortfall of nearly $10 million per year. The financial reality that threatened to bankrupt the fund prompted a controversial decision to shutter its long-term care facility and hospital, which served the home’s most infirm residents. Adding insult to injury, mismanagement of the crisis led to a nasty public imbroglio (the subject of a 2010 Jewish Journal cover story) that pitted some of the vulnerable residents against wealthy Hollywood donors in a prolonged battle that has only recently been resolved. When I bring up that whole mess, Katzenberg becomes heated — and for the only time during our interview, he goes off the record. When his diatribe finally reaches its denouement, he says, “Anybody else would have walked away from this.”

So why didn’t he?

“Because I don’t give up. Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser. I was never going to give up. I wasn’t going to give up on the people. You know, Lew Wasserman put this in my hands on a very personal level. He said, ‘This is your responsibility now.’ ”

Wasserman, the legendary studio executive and talent agent who, for a time, was considered the most powerful man in Hollywood, is clearly a role model for Katzenberg. Known by insiders as “The Last Mogul,” as a biography of the former chair and chief executive of the Music Corp. of America is titled, Wasserman famously cultivated relationships with rising politicians (he was an early supporter of then-Gov. Bill Clinton), unabashedly demanded support for Israel and united the entertainment community in support of causes he believed in.

No Hollywood titan since has been able to fill the vacuum Wasserman left behind when he died in 2002 — until, some say, Jeffrey Katzenberg.

According to a recent article by Andy Kroll in Mother Jones, Katzenberg is currently the nation’s most powerful and effective Democratic fundraiser. Since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Katzenbergs have donated an estimated $4.8 million to Democratic causes, topping every other star political donor in the United States — including George Soros and the right-leaning Koch brothers — except for Sheldon Adelson ($94.2 million).

Kroll portrayed Katzenberg — who did not consent to be interviewed — as a “deep pocketed kingmaker” much cherished by the Obama administration for his fundraising efficiency and low-maintenance personality. When he and George Clooney hosted a final-stretch campaign fundraiser for the president last spring, it became the highest-grossing campaign dinner in history, raising $15 million in one night. Katzenberg’s strategy for getting wealthy democrats to pony up their pocketbooks was simple: Show them a good time. He reportedly “fussed” over details like seating arrangements — leaving an extra seat at each table so Obama could “mingle” (something the president is oft criticized for doing poorly) —– which prompted Kroll’s winning description of the dinner as “a night of political speed dating.”

Another of Katzenberg’s tricks is his old-fashioned etiquette. In the age of mass e-mails and Facebook posts, Katzenberg is old school, plying his friends with “personal calls and handwritten thank-you notes.” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, described him to Kroll as “one of the best, if not the best, fundraisers out there,” and, according to the same piece, he doesn’t ask for much in return: “No ambassadorship to Switzerland, no regulatory tweak, no nights in the Lincoln Bedroom,” Kroll wrote. Although, he added, there are some perks: “Obama takes Katzenberg’s calls, and he and his political adviser, Andy Spahn, visited the White House almost 50 times between them during Obama’s first term.” Not to mention, “It has also left [Katzenberg] well positioned to advocate for his industry’s and his company’s interests in China’s booming film market.”

East Meets West

In 2012, Katzenberg launched a major joint venture with a group of Chinese investors. Dubbed Oriental DreamWorks, it is a China-based Disneyesque company that plans to produce original Chinese movies, as well as theme parks, games and other products.

Katzenberg, however, is adamant that he has not, and will not, call in any political favors on behalf of his business interests. “Frankly, that complicates things, it doesn’t help things,” he says. But in April 2012, the story broke that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was investigating DreamWorks Animation, along with 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Co., alleging they had bribed Chinese officials “to gain the right to film and show movies there.” Katzenberg says the accusation is outrageous and admits that although he’s heard the news reports, he insists, “There has never been an SEC investigation of us. I’m telling you, no one has ever asked us for anything with regard to an investigation of us in China; nobody has asked for documents, nobody has subpoenaed us. I don’t know what they’re talking about.” (A spokesperson from the SEC would neither confirm nor deny an ongoing investigation.)

What we do know, however, is that commerce between the two countries, and especially between the two entertainment industries, has required political maneuvering. In fact, also in 2012, Joe Biden personally intervened to end a three-year trade dispute between China and the Motion Picture Association of America, which had been lobbying unsuccessfully to increase film quotas for American-made movies in China, as well as to increase Hollywood’s percentage of the box office gross. Katzenberg happened to be with Biden and then-vice president of China, Xi Jinping, now the president, in February 2012 when a winning deal was made during Xi’s visit to Los Angeles. “That had nothing to do with me,” Katzenberg insists. “I happened to be standing in a corridor when he was making this deal, and [Biden] asked me, you know, what was my opinion.”

Nevertheless, Katzenberg has a lot riding on the U.S. relationship with the Chinese. If DreamWorks Animation has any hope of becoming like Disney, much depends on the success of this investment — and Katzenberg has been doing his part to see it through, having traveled to China at least once a month for the past two years. His business bible, he tells me, is Henry Kissinger’s “On China.” “I literally read it twice. It’s brilliant,” he says.

“Ten years from now, China will be the center of the universe,” Katzenberg declares. “And that’s what’s exciting — climbing mountains.”

What drives him now isn’t fame or fortune, he says. “It’s not about the money — it was never about the money.”

His goal is simpler: “New mountain. New challenge.”

Two minutes before the end of our hour, I realize I’ve forgotten to ask Katzenberg about Israel. He tells me he has personally taken Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock on visits there, which I hadn’t known. “I think it’s important,” he says. Israel “is a jewel. It’s this amazing beautiful gem that exists in a place where there are not a lot of gems.”

So, in addition to the business, philanthropy and politics, Katzenberg quietly supports Israel and even leads trips there. It is all so very Lew Wasserman. The Wiesenthal’s Rabbi Hier even compares Katzenberg to the unnamed heroes  of the Bible, the characters who never starred in the Jewish story, but who nevertheless made an impact on the whole of Jewish destiny.

“If you want to know who’s going to change the course of Jewish history, you don’t necessarily find them in the temple on Shabbos getting an aliyah,” Hier says.

Hier acknowledges the skepticism with which more observant Jews might view the likes of Katzenberg, who rarely steps into a synagogue. “When I was in yeshiva, I thought everyone there who wears a yarmulke is the epitome of all goodness, but it’s often people not involved religiously who do more work for the Jewish people than some who wear yarmulkes.”

“Who’s gonna say Theodor Herzl didn’t work for the Jewish people because he didn’t wear a yarmulke?” Hier says wryly. “You might not see some of these people on Shabbos, but what they do affects everybody.”

At 60 minutes on the dot, my time with Katzenberg is up. The PR chief peeks his head in with an interested expression. “How’d it go?” he mutters.

Katzenberg answers: “Very lively.” Done.

This is part two of a two-part article

This article was reposted from the Jewish Journal

Danielle Berrin

About Danielle Berrin

Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for JewishJournal.com which was awarded “Best Blog” in Los Angeles by the L.A. Press Club. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her 'a natural born provocateur' for her commentaries on the business, culture and characters of Hollywood. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, British Esquire and The Huffington Post. Follow Danielle on Twitter @hollywoodjew

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