Dreamworks is one of the most successful film studios in Hollywood history. It was started in 1994 by media moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen (together SKG) to make a live action film and animation studio. Now we know it could also be called DyslexiaWorks.
It’s hard to even discuss the impact that Dreamworks has made on the motion picture and animaton industries. In the SKG era (1994-2004) the animation studio put out Antz, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run, Shrek, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Shrek 2, and Shark Tale. In the same time, Dreamworks put out 60 movies, including Saving Private Ryan, A Beautiful Mind, and Minority Report.
We had known for many years that Steven Spielberg was dyslexic, thanks to his interview with Quinn Bradley (watch video below). David Geffen, not quite as in the limelight as Spielberg, was nevertheless in our headlights because he often talked about how he had dropped out of college and used a fake UCLA degree to get a job in the mailroom at William Morris Agency. Apparently, he barely graduated high school, too, with a 66 average.
At William Morris, he quickly found a niche where he could succeed according to his ambition. His super-power? …Recognizing talent.
Geffen later founded Asylum and Geffen Records and launched the careers of The Eagles, Aerosmith, and Guns N’ Roses. In the last few decades, his philanthropy contributed to the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, LA County Museum of Art and MoMA, Lincoln Center, and many more.
But I happened to come across Jeffrey Katzenberg’s connection to dyslexia just last week. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mom and dad were a stockbroker and an artist. His first job was as a gofer on a New York mayoral campaign, but his desire to learn how real life really worked was present already at the tender age of 14: From the New York Times:
”He was always there, at 2 in the morning, eating everything up, swallowing everything,” says Richard Aurelio, who became Deputy Mayor in Lindsay’s second administration. ”You couldn’t satisfy his intense desire to know every scheme, leadership trick, management technique and strategy.”
Katzenberg’s first real job was as an assistant at Paramount Studios that came about because of connections through his time working the mayor’s campaign. Said Jeffrey:
“On my first day of work, I came into the office at 9 o’clock in the morning, and (Barry Diller) pushed a manuscript across my desk and said, “Go read this.”
There are two things you need to know about that: 1) I’ve never read a manuscript before. 2) I have dyslexia, and I read really slowly because I interchange words. Anyway, I went and took something like eight hours to read the book… I read the book and thought it was actually quite brilliant, it was told from the point of view of inside (a woman’s) mind, and I had no idea how to make a movie out of that. So, I came back and I said to Barry, “What do you think of the book?” He said, “Well, I thought it was quite riveting, and an amazing story.” And, I said, “I have no idea how you visualise that, how you turn that into film narrative.”
He said, “That’s not your job, that’s what a filmmaker does…Do you think it’s a movie that people would want to see?” And I said, “Well, I think, for sure, it’s a movie that would appeal to young women today.” And he said, “How would you know?” I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Well, you’re not a young woman, how would you know?” So, once again it was this great instructive lesson, in which he said to me, “Your job is to find those things that appeal to you, and that if you like it and believe in it, then you have to pray that there are many millions of people out there that share that point of view. You are not a housewife in Detroit, you are not a student at a university in Paris: you’re you.”
Jeffrey turned out to be successful at ‘knowing’ what other people would like, but that wasn’t his only strength. He also had an incredible work ethic. He was known to always be first at the studio and last to leave even as he kept climbing up the studio ladder.
He also was known for finding scripts before other studios even heard about them…and it wasn’t just luck. He knew he needed to be out meeting with people personally and looking ahead to what could be on the horizon.
Jeffrey had a practice of having two breakfasts, one lunch, and two dinners every day so that he could meet personally with writers, agents, and directors.
In 1994, after Jeffrey was riding on the incredible success of The Lion King, Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, he found himself unexpectedly fired in his job of Studio Chief at Disney as part of an upheaval that happened after the President of Disney died in a helicopter crash.
Jeffrey’s firing was a very controversial move at the time because Jeffrey had been acknowledged as having “80 percent of the credit” of Disney Animation’s comeback. Ultimately he would be vindicated though, as he built an Animation Studio (Dreamworks SKG) from the ground up and also successfully settled a lawsuit with Disney which apparently dealt with the profits he was owed from the Disney hits he managed.
How did Jeffrey pick up the skills of managing such a big creative business as Dreamworks?
“I started as Barry’s gofer,” says Katzenberg, who relocated to L.A. in 1977 and remained with Paramount until 1984. “In retrospect, Barry was the most important mentor of my career. Over seven or eight years he put me in almost every area of the business. I was in marketing, distribution, international, negative pickups, and business affairs. I think it was deliberate: he was training me for someday actually becoming the head. When they made me president of the studio I had already worked in all the key areas.”
In setting up a new studio in Dreamworks, all of those abilities came in handy:
“The new studio came with a legion of mundane management tasks — human resources, cost-cutting, spreadsheets, taxes — and, yet, with his generalist background, the details didn’t deter Katzenberg. “I am, by trade, a builder,” he says. “In the partnership we each brought many different qualities. Steven was the dreamer and the storyteller. David was the entrepreneur. And I was the builder. We all understood our role in that partnership…”
But beyond the hard work and generalist training, some of Jeffrey’s closest associates call his greatest super power – his ability to recognize ability in others. This super-strength is something that we’ve recognized in other dyslexic leaders…it’s a leadership quality for sure that can be seen in some of the most successful entrepreneurs, corporate execs, and talent recruiters.
Jeffrey is also eager to thank people who became great mentors in his life. Sid Davidoff, for instance, was like Jeffrey’s older brother when he worked on the mayor’s campaign: “Sid, even as a teenager, taught me these very fundamental courtesies, if you will: be on time, respect people’s time, their time to them is as valuable as your time is to you, be punctual, answer and return every phone call every day, answer every letter that is written to you. And, he sort of set me on this path about just trying in the things you do every day to do them really well, and even to the point of doing them better than people expect of you. And, I didn’t really I understand or relate to it, other than I was always anxious to please…”
Dreamwork’s latest release is Boss Baby:
Coming this summer, Dav Pilkey’s (yes, he’s also dyslexic!) Captain Underpants
Jeffrey Katzenberg has recently stepped down as CEO of Dreamworks Animation, but he’s apparently raised $600 million so far for his next act, WndrCo.