Film

How Jeffrey Katzenberg sold pandas to China

Kung Fu Panda 3 is breaking box-office records in China. DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg says that animation is about communality

When it comes to film moguls, there are few as successful or influential as Jeffrey Katzenberg. He had a hand in Raiders of the Lost Ark and reunited the Star Trek crew for their big-screen outings (getting on his hands and knees in a restaurant to beg Leonard Nimoy to return to his pointy-eared Vulcan) – but his biggest achievement was to bring about Disney’s second golden age of animation.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, Disney released a string of lacklustre animations that threatened the future of the studio. Katzenberg turned the tide, overseeing the release of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, which paved the way for Disney to become the entertainment monolith it is today. Katzenberg left Disney in 1994 and set up DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Their stable includes the Shrek, Madagascar and How to Train Your Dragon franchises, as well as a Kung Fu Panda.

“Those three words, no matter who you say it to, no matter where you are in the world, it makes people smile,” Katzenberg says. One imagines the pitch meeting for Kung Fu Panda was one of the shortest ever. “It was a eureka moment and those are few and far between,” he confirms.

The first Kung Fu Panda came out in 2008 but its full potential is only now being realised. Kung Fu Panda 3 has just become the highest-grossing animated film in China. Box-office tills are still ringing but the film has already made more in China than in the US. China is on the brink of becoming the biggest market for films. Did Katzenberg see that coming?

“The answer is no but neither did anyone else,” he says. “If you go back when we started the franchise, China had not really begun its ascendency. When the first movie came out there was a huge excitement and, frankly, respect and admiration for the movie. It was the first time any western film did such a good job of embracing the culture and values of China.”

That is one of the great traditions of animated movies – they are borderless

Will Chinese influences become more apparent in films, as they try to capitalise on that market?

“Over the many decades I’ve been making movies, they have come from all corners of the planet,” Katzenberg says. “The Lion King from Africa, Aladdin from Arabia, How to Train Your Dragon from Nordic countries. Our movies transport audiences to fanciful places but also to real places that have amazing cultures. We love to celebrate them in our films.

“That is one of the great traditions of animated movies. They are borderless. Their appeal is meant to cross all geographies and come to things that are common for all of us.”

As well as being a key Hollywood player, Katzenberg is well connected politically. He was one of Obama’s earliest backers and biggest fundraisers, hosting dinners on his behalf since the 1980s. One event held at George Clooney’s home in 2012 reportedly raised $15m.

Obama awarded Katzenberg a National Medal of Arts – and the two meet frequently. So what is Katzenberg’s take on the presidential race? “It’s not an easy explanation,” he says, “and even with an explanation it’s inexplicable because it’s insane right now. Hopefully it will find its sanity sooner rather than later.”

Until then, Katzenberg will continue to focus on films. “We are in a golden age for animation,” he says. “There are a number of studios making great movies so it’s become more competitive, which is good for the moviegoers because it raises the bar. I love making these movies, it’s still exciting, challenging and fun.”

It must be, when you never know when the next eureka moment will arrive. I’m sorry I didn’t have a three-word premise that could have spawned a billion-dollar franchise. “I would have been listening…” says Katzenberg.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is out now

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