Ideas/CommentaryInternet Television

Katzenberg Wants To Do For Web Video What He Did For Animation—And That’s Not Necessarily A Good Thing

The post-Dreamworks Animation career of Jeffrey Katzenberg officially launched last week with a cover story in Variety touting grand plans for his short-form mobile/web video company WndrCo.

Armed with $600 million in investment — and still needing an additional $2 billion to launch — Katzenberg’s goal is to re-invent web video for 18-34 year olds. He calls it “New TV.” And what is the 66-year-old’s plan for re-inventing television? It basically boils down to: Make it more expensive to produce.

As Variety points out, made-for-mobile content generally tops out at around $10,000-per-minute, with many viral amateur-filmed videos and genres like Let’s Play vids produced at virtually no cost. Katzenberg’s mission is to raise production budgets tenfold, as high as $125,000 per minute.

His thinking is that if producers and studios earn fees for mobile content that are similar to traditional tv, they’ll be more likely to create content for broadband consumption. “We need dozens and dozens of suppliers to be incentivized to see this as a financial boon to jump on the bandwagon,” Katzenberg told Variety. “They’re not going to do it without a cut of the action.”

To get the extra $2 billion needed to launch, Katzenberg is looking for either a tech or telco partner, and so far has pitched the concept to Apple, Verizon, and Youtube. He’s also eyeing producers like Disney and CBS as content providers for the new venture.

Richard Rushfield observed in his film industry newsletter The Ankler that Hollywood isn’t quite convinced of Katzenberg’s plan to turn on the money hose for web content:

The best part of the article are the jumbo pull quotes from [Disney CEO Bob] Iger and [CBS Corp. CEO Leslie] Moonves praising Jeffrey’s plan in vintage Hollywood Brush-offese. Hint to Hollywood newcomers: When you have a pitch meeting that ends with a bearhug statement of support like this – “It’s an interesting new company and it’s something we’re clearly keeping a close eye on…I think it has a great chance for success.” – Make a beeline for the parking structure to be sure your car isn’t already being towed off the lot.

What I haven’t seen anyone mention yet about Katzenberg’s plan for web video is that it’s the exact same plan he had for animation. And that plan worked…until it no longer did.

When Katzenberg launched Dreamworks in 1994, he set out to make high-end animated features to compete with Disney at whatever cost necessary. He aggressively recruited artists from Disney for top-dollar amounts, bought an established cg studio in northern California (PDI), erected a custom campus in Glendale, and built up a management/support staff as bloated and ineffective as the largest studios in Hollywood.

The gambit worked for a while, as Katzenberg hit the jackpot with franchises like Shrek, Madagscar, and Kung Fu Panda, but audiences eventually tired of the studio’s tepid filmmaking-by-committee approach, and by the 2010s, Dreamworks features routinely cost $150-million-plus and were unprofitable.

The final nail in the coffin was when more nimble outfits, particularly Illumination, showed that it was possible to create similarly successful films for half the cost of a Dreamworks film. After Katzenberg had exhausted all his options, including a fling with 3D filmmaking and another fling with China, he unloaded the company to Comcast-NBCUniversal for $3.8 billion, walking away with $400 million personally.

At this stage of Katzenberg’s career, it’s unfair to expect him to bring anything new or revolutionary to the world of entertainment. He’ll continue doing what he does — and what he does best is throw money at things. But his recently-aborted career as an animation studio exec might best serve as a cautionary tale: there are limitations to the Katzenberg approach when the bags of money aren’t supported by a creative vision.

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