Katzenberg: the prince of animation

Published Dec. 8, 1998|Updated Sept. 14, 2005

Jeffrey Katzenberg wants you to know he isn't bitter about being fired by Walt Disney Pictures in 1994.

He has lawyers who take care of that.

Katzenberg has other measures of justice in mind. You can sense it ticking behind his eyes, even as he cautiously chooses his words and when to go off the record.

At 47, Katzenberg is still an eloquent pitch man, but he chatters with more enthusiasm than usual about The Prince of Egypt, a $70-million animated version of the Book of Exodus produced by his bounce-back studio DreamWorks SKG.

The Prince of Egypt opens worldwide on Dec. 18.

The phrase that comes to mind is: "beating them at their own game." Katzenberg diplomatically calls it writing a new set of rules.

"For 70 years, animation has been used for one kind of story: fairy tales," he says. "That's it. I love them, I love making them, but Disney does that the best of anybody in the whole world.

"Personally, I didn't have any interest in going out knowing that the best I could ever do would be Avis to their Hertz. Trying harder and being No. 2 is not of interest to me."

A desire to be different led Katzenberg and his DreamWorks co-founders Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to choose the story of Moses as an animated project.

A desire to be discreet prompts Katzenberg to go off the record twice on a drizzly Miami afternoon. It's a professional safeguard that clicks on whenever the words "Disney" or "Eisner" are mentioned.

Likely, it's advised by those lawyers who are still sorting out what happened in 1994.

Soon after Disney CEO Michael Eisner dropped a dismissal memo on Katzenberg's desk, those attorneys _ "the toughest killer pit bulls that you wouldn't want to face" _ started clawing for everything their client was due by contract.

That amounted to 2 percent of profits from films he controlled over a decade while Disney regained its stature, including The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Katzenberg's cut, according to his lawyers, should be $250-million. An undisclosed settlement last year awarded him nearly half that amount, according to the industry grapevine.

Disney is playing out its legal string ("The fun stuff's over," Katzenberg said, "Now it's just the write-the-check portion of the game."), and Eisner took potshots at Katzenberg in his autobiography Work in Progress. Recently, DreamWorks' Antz boldly anticipated Disney's similarly themed A Bug's Life, causing the latter film's creator, John Lassiter, to cry foul in Newsweek, claiming Katzenberg had inside knowledge of that project when he was fired.

Katzenberg tries to put the prickly topic to rest:

"I had 10 great years at Disney. I loved being there, loved doing the work there, I'm proud of what was done there and after the day I left there I moved on."

"I will admit to having a couple of months that were very hard for me to take on a personal level," he says. "Not understanding how you could give as much of yourself to somebody and an organization, then having them try to (professionally) kill you. It was a hard thing for me to reconcile, but I did, pretty quickly."

The guy loves to talk about the Disney fracas, although the next few minutes are off the record. However, much of his passionate rebuttal is crystallized in a quote later reported in The Washington Post:

"One of the things about that (Disney) group _ the whole kit and caboodle of all of them and I'm not going to name names _ is that they're particularly ungracious winners," Katzenberg told the Post.

"They are even worse losers. If they could have reversed the tables, they have shown many, many, many times to all of us out there that they're more predatory than all of us put together and multiplied by a thousand. Much more predatory."

When a tape recorder is switched on again, it's suggested that Katzenberg should write his own book about the matter.

"I'm not writing a book," he says. "I didn't read (Eisner's) book. I don't want to know what he said about me. I'd just get angry, right? It's not nice, don't worry. I don't need to read the book to know it's not nice. I'd be an idiot."

Obviously, Katzenberg doesn't consider himself an idiot. However, his renowned self-confidence (some may whisper "egomania") had to be tempered by Geffen when The Prince of Egypt was merely a suggestion.

"Geffen said: "Jeffrey, you know this is not a fairy tale. When you were at Disney, fine, you took The Little Mermaid and put a whole new ending on the movie that had nothing to do with the original literature. You can't do that here.

"So, if you're going to do this story, you must do it faithfully, you must do it accurately and you don't know anything'."

Katzenberg smiles more about the advice now than when it was offered.

"I had to blink for a second because I don't like to be told that I don't know anything about anything," he says. "But, after David said it, I understood exactly what he meant."

Katzenberg plunged himself and more than 100 artists and technicians into lessons on theology and archaeology to make The Prince of Egypt as accurate as possible considering the varied interpretations of faiths around the world.

DreamWorks publicists say that 680 private visits were conducted with historians, Biblical scholars, Egyptologists and other specialists. Production notes list such notable names as the Rev. Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell among the consultants.

"We asked other people who have a very big stake what they saw," Katzenberg says. "Did they see anything that was offensive? Not one single person who visited us had a political agenda. Intentions don't matter. What matters is perception."

Alterations were made whenever glaring problems arose. The marriage of Moses and Tzipporah included an image of a wine glass being smashed underfoot, a tradition at Hebrew weddings today. Then, a rabbi informed Katzenberg that the act is a remembrance of the first temple being destroyed _ 1,000 years after Moses freed Hebrew slaves from Egyptian rule. The anachronism was deleted.

Lyrics in the theme song When You Believe initially included the lyrics "You can do miracles when you believe" until producers were reminded that most religions consider humans incapable of performing miracles. The formerly sacrilegious lyrics now declare "There can be miracles when you believe."

"We did make a handful of decisions that stray from Biblical text," Katzenberg says. "But we always asked people about the level of sensitivity and how problematic they would be. We never compromised ourselves as story tellers.

"Nobody knows the relationship between Moses and Rameses. The Bible is silent about it. Those themes are not affected by that story of two brothers, which is the heart of our story. By the way, when Cecil B. DeMille did The Ten Commandments, he put a woman between them. We don't know whether that existed, either."

More evidence of the respect DreamWorks SKG is displaying for this story is a notable lack of commercial tie-ins with corporate sponsors. A three-CD collection of music from, and inspired by, the film and a storybook are the only items announced at this time. Wal-Mart is packaging those products with two tickets to see The Prince of Egypt, which Katzenberg considers "selling the movie experience, not some ancillary of it."

What if anyone still complains that DreamWorks SKG is merely cashing in on the Bible?

"They can say what they want, and maybe we are," Katzenberg says. "If we've done an honorable job doing it, I don't know if that's a bad thing."

Neither will it be a bad thing if The Prince of Egypt earns Disney-size profits and prestige, although Katzenberg won't publicly admit it.

"Look," he says, "if you want Disney to (fail), which is not my agenda _ say it again, I swear, not my agenda _ but if you do, because you think they are the evil empire, nothing will pain them more than if this movie goes out and makes a trillion dollars. Nothing.

"All that I said off the record, you can put it in headlines on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and it wouldn't pain them nearly as much as this movie being a hit. So, here's the most wonderful thing in the world: If we do great work and it succeeds, that's my agenda.

Katzenberg mischievously smiles and adds: "If somebody wants to see Disney get some religion . . . well, you know what to do."