Fortune interviewed Jeffrey Katzenberg at a moment when the Dreamworks Animation chairman appeared to be in a particularly foul mood. Of the movies so far in 2011, he said: “They suck. It’s unbelievable how bad movies have been.”
The moment was part of Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech confab in Aspen, Colo., where Katzenberg asked the audience, “Let me have a show of hands of people that would say the last seven or eight months of movies is the worst lineup of movies you’ve experienced in the last five years of your life.”
Katzenberg also attacked the Hollywood gold rush to 3D:
I think Hollywood has managed to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory here… for sure the bloom is off the rose for a moment in time, driven by a singular and unique characteristic that only exists in Hollywood, greed. There were, unfortunately, a number of people who thought that they could capitalize on what was a great, genuine excitement by movie goers for a new premium experience, and thought they could just deliver a kind of low-end crappy version of it, and people wouldn’t care, or wouldn’t know the difference. And anything ‑‑ you know, nothing could have been further from the truth.
However, the oddest part of his attack is he doesn’t seem to listen to his own advice.
It’s been 20 years since he wrote what’s now known as the Katzenberg Memo, a 21-page call to arms in which he excoriated the studio system for “a tidal wave of runaway costs and mindless competition” and its reliance on big budgets and big names to carry the day. He wrote:
We found ourselves attracting the calibre [sic] of talent with which “event” movies could be made. And, more and more, we began making them. The result: costs have escalated, profitability has slipped and our level of risk has compounded. The time has come to get back to our roots.
You can read the full memo here. But maybe he needs to reread it.
There’s no shortage of crap movies this year. Among the 3D movies he might be talking about are “The Green Hornet,” “Gnomeo and Juliet,” “Cars 2” and “Green Lantern.” And since he didn’t except his own films, “Kung Fu Panda 2” (although it’s currently the no. 9 among the top grossers of 2011).
From this vantage point, we haven’t even gotten into the Oscar season and it’s already been a fairly extraordinary year for films.
Films like “Troll Hunter,” “Take Shelter,” “Attack the Block,” “Bellflower” and “Another Earth” take well-worn genres and turn them on their heads with great stories — and with special effects that neither break the budget nor embarrass the viewer.
And Werner Herzog might well agree with Katzenberg’s assessment on the onslaught of crappy 3D, as Herzog has benefited from being the exception that proves the rule. In terms of return on investment, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” could well be the most profitable 3D film this year.
Of course, the problem with all of these examples is none of them were a sure thing. In fact, they’re made from 100% risk. All were produced with the hope, not the promise, of distribution. In the case of Herzog’s “Cave,” it was made without the assurance that the theaters existed to screen it.
For publicly traded corporations such as the major studios, that kind of optimism doesn’t fly. And in fairness, who can blame them? It’s hard to imagine presenting that kind of risk to the board, much less the shareholders.
And while these are very good movies, they’re also much smaller ones. Much, much smaller. “Cave” has earned nearly $5 million in North America since its April release. That’s reason for celebration at IFC Films; at DreamWorks Animation, that would be a hari-kari tragedy of an opening weekend.
And really, if you’re talking about the bottom line, how much can quality matter? Consider the current top 10 for 2011: With the exception of the final “Harry Potter,” they all received critical responses ranging from mediocre to miserable.
Can you successfully run a publicly traded corporation that demands quarterly reports, financial forecasting (and reforecasting) while also producing a product that will never hew to assembly-line best practices? It’s possible that quality doesn’t scale.
The goals of high quality and high profits may always be at odds. Still — maybe there’s something to be learned from the “Troll Hunters” of the world. In any case, it probably couldn’t hurt; according to Katzenberg — and to the stock market — the current methods aren’t working.
While we’re at it: What are your favorite movies so far this year, indie or studio? Do you think 2011 is any better or worse than the five years before it? Tell us in the comments.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.