The new print issue of Mother Jones (May/June 2013) has a fascinating piece about DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and his central role during the 2012 U. S. Presidential elections. The article will be an eye-opening read for anyone who considers the animation business to be detached from American politics. It makes clear that Katzenberg’s involvement in Obama’s Presidency has opened doors for him at the highest levels of both U. S. and Chinese government, and given him the ability to more quickly expand into the Chinese film market, whose box office returns are expected to overtake the American film market within the next decade.
The six-page Mother Jones piece by Andy Kroll isn’t online so here are some of my takeaways from the piece:
- Katzenberg, who is worth an estimated $800 million, donated $3.15 million to Democratic super-PACs during the 2012 election cycle. (He potentially donated more to other groups which aren’t required by law to disclose donor lists.)
- He helped raise nearly $30 million from other Hollywood figures, including a $1 million donation from Steven Spielberg. According to actor Will Smith, “Jeffrey has no problem asking you for, like, way too much money.”
- Katzenberg is considered unique among President Barack Obama fundraisers for his tenacity and personal involvement. One person in the article said, “He’s like soy sauce in Chinese food: He’s everywhere,” and another commented, “No one in the United States did what Katzenberg did. He is in a class of one.”
- Katzenberg and his political advisor Andy Spahn visited the White House an average of once a month during Obama’s first term as U. S. President.
- Obama takes Katzenberg’s phone calls personally.
- The son of a Wall Street stockbroker, Katzenberg has been involved in politics since childhood. In his teens and early-twenties, Katzenberg worked as an aide to NY mayor John Lindsay, and helped during Lindsay’s 1972 run for President.
- Katzenberg’s wife, Marilyn, first saw Senator Obama in 2006 on Oprah and encouraged her husband to meet him. Obama reminded Katzenberg of John Lindsay. Katzenberg said in a TV interview that Lindsay was “very much about hope and about engagement and change. All the things we hear today were things he represented in 1965.”
- Obama has said of the Katzenbergs: “Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg have been tireless and stalwart and have never wavered through good times and bad since my first presidential race, back when a lot of people still couldn’t pronounce my name. I will always be grateful to them.”
- It’s not clear what Katzenberg’s endgame is from supporting the President, but most presume that easier access to the Chinese film market is a big part of his motivation.
- When China’s top leader Xi Jinping visited the U. S. in 2011, Katzenberg sat next to him at a State Department luncheon. Later that week in California, Katzenberg announced a $350 million deal to open Oriental DreamWorks, with Jinping’s personal approval.
- Vice-President Joe Biden asked Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney CEO Bob Iger what they thought was a fair solution to the profit-sharing disputes between the Chinese government and U. S. film studios. Biden was able to craft a new agreement that gave 25% of the profits to film studios, and also allowed more American 3-D and IMAX movies to be released in China.
- Katzenberg’s advisor Andy Spahn denies that Katzenberg had discussions with anybody in the Obama administration about his Oriental DreamWorks venture or that he played a role in the deal that Biden made with the Chinese government about film profit-sharing.
- DreamWorks is among several studios that are under federal investigation for possibly violating US anti-bribery laws in China.
- Katzenberg is involved in politics beyond Obama. He is set to cohost a fundraiser soon for the 2014 Senate bid of Newark mayor Cory Booker. He also helped raise $150,000 for the Los Angeles mayoral bid of former DreamWorks employee Wendy Greuel.