Exclusive Interview : Jeffrey Katzenberg

Jeffrey Katzenberg recently flew downunder for the premiere of “Monsters Vs. Aliens 3D”. Davin Sgargetta caught up with him to discuss his magnificent new pic.

Is 3D film the future and the revolution like so many are claiming it to be?

The question I would ask is what did you think?

I though it wasn’t definitely an experience. I feel like it’ll almost be like a genre of its own, rather than something that takes over. I definitely think there is a place for it and a big market for it.

Well, here’s the fun part… we shall see.

Do you believe?

I think it brings a reinvention of what it means to see a movie in a movie theatre, which has not changed in many many many decades. I think fewer and fewer people are going to see movies in movie theatres and if we don’t do something to raise the bar and to compete with what people today are able to do in their homes, I think it’s a questionable future for the movie theatre, or at least it’ll become much less important and much more of a niche business. That would be extremely disappointing to me and that is why I’ve got so exited about this new technology and I think the experience of seeing a movie in 3D, or at least the new reinvention of 3D is exceptional. It’s not going to make a bad movie good, but I really do believe it takes a god movie experience and makes it great.

Do you think there is a greater potential in 3D animated film than 3D live action?

No, and I think when moviegoers have an opportunity to see what some of the greatest filmmakers in the world are going to do with this new technology they’ll be as blown away by what it means to live action films as hopefully they are to animated movies.

When did the interest reach you?

The light-bulb went off for me when I saw Polar Express about three years again at IMAX 3D and I actually was just blown out of my seat. I thought it was just one of the most excited theatre experiences that I had ever had. It was unlike anything I had ever imagined before and I came out of that convinced that there was a very big opportunity for our movies to pursue what Bob Zemekis revealed in that very first instance a couple of years ago.

With this particular film was it simply a decision to make a 3D film and then you went looking for a script or… ?

No, this was the next movie in production for us, as everybody I think is now aware, it takes us a good four plus years to make these movies and the key to this 3D experience that really elevates it to what anybody has seen or done before is the fact that all of the elements of the movie from the very beginning are using this technology, so the movie is authored in 3D as opposed to a post production special effect. So the next movie in production at DreamWorks Animation after I saw Polar Express was Monsters Vs Aliens.

On the production side of things, will there be an evolution in the way a 3D film is written and the way the shots are framed?

I don’t think it changes the story but I definitely think it changes the way filmmakers interpret stories, the way in which they can see and visualise the telling of their story. I watched it on the making of this movie and I saw how, over time their comfort and more importantly their confidence and how to use these tools became more and more adept. And so the images that they were making in the last three or four months of making this movie versus what they were doing  in the first few months, at least for me I can actually see a difference in how much more skillful they have become in using these tools. And that is something that is continuing to evolve and is, I think you’ll see many different styles of 3D work.

Do you think it’ll be a genuine filmmaking art form on its own, independent because of those differences?

Again, I see it as being a lot more mainstream than I think you do. It’s like asking me about what I thought when movies went from black and white to colour. Not everybody embraced it over night, and even to this day, every great filmmaker, every great cinematographer, they all use colour and light in very singular and unique ways and this is adding another tool in their filmmaking and so, not unlike colour and light, now dimension is another artistic tool and it will be used differently by different talents.

I guess what you’ve down within animation is truly amazing, when you first took on this role did you see the potential, did you see how big these films could be?

I came to animation in 1985 when I arrived at the Walt Disney Company, which was probably at its lowest point – to give you some history of the Walt Disney company – and it was dumped in my lap. And at the time, I was neither a student of animation nor a particular fan of animation. I saw a few movies as a kid growing up but it was not something that I had any expertise in or any real particular interest in but it was part of the job. And over the course of a number of years of trying to resurrect the business at Disney I very much fell in love with it.

And you saw the potential that it could have been, because I have read that at the time it was a struggling area…

I don’t think any of us saw ultimately what its potential would be because here today, animation may be the single most successful genre of movies being made today. Pretty consistently over the past four or five years, at least two of the top 10 or 12 movies have been CG animated movies. And I don’t think there has been any other genre that has so dominated at the top and so consistently, because it’s not like we make, you know, 150 of these a year. There are five of them made and two of them make it into the top 10, if not more.

For that reason, I wanted to ask you, is there a guaranteed winner in film? Can you see something in the concept stage that makes you say, yes, this can get there?

No, I don’t think it’s that formulaic. Great story telling is difficult and it takes a lot of time and it takes a very unique and very special talent to do. All the bells and whistles and all the technology in the world is not a substitute for great story telling. As I said where we started our conversation, the technology is not going to make a bad story good.

You’ve been a risk taker in your career, you’ve thrown yourself in the deep end. Would you call yourself a calculated risk taker or a reckless risk taker?

(Laughs) I have no idea. I am a gambler at heart, so I like to think that there are smart gamblers and reckless gamblers and I hope that I’m a smart gambler.

Can you be both?

No.

How do you bounce back when a project takes a hit and isn’t what you might have anticipated it to be?

That comes with the territory. Any time you are doing things that are original and unique, it means you are taking a risk. If you are taking a risk, and there is a genuine risk to what you are doing, it means that from time to time, you are going to fail. It must be built into the business model if you will, that failure isn’t the end of the game, that it’s part of learning and growing along the way. Because if you take away the opportunity or take away the right to fail, you take away the right to be risky, which means you take away the right to do things that are original and unique. And I think that that’s something that I learned 35 years ago as a young kid starting out in this business from Barry Diller who hired me first in the movie business and it was one of the things that so impressed me about his leadership because as demanding and as tough as he is, he understood that not everything that we do is going to work and that needed to be okay. It can’t be good, it just needs to be ok.

Considering the media attention your projects get, how do you use that to the advantage of the project?

I have no idea. The things that we make tend to be of interest to people and readers and listeners. So they like to know about it…

How much do you feed them? When do you say, we really need to keep this close to our chest?

Part of this is keeping a little mystery to what we do. People don’t want all the answers all the time. Part of the fun is discovering for themselves.

What has the feedback been like on the 3D experience of Monsters Vs Aliens?

People have been very impressed, they’ve loved what they’ve seen.

Is 3D now your focus?

Yeah, everything we do from here on in is going to be in 3D. We’re excited about it.