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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Jeffrey Katzenberg in 3-D: Hollywood is rolling its eyes

February 10, 2009 |  4:29 pm

When it comes to promoting his company, his causes or himself, Jeffrey Katzenberg has no peer. Surely Hollywood's greatest salesman, the man could sell ice to the Eskimos and oil to T. Boone Pickens. But it's been a rocky month for the DreamWorks Animation chief, who has been taking it on the chin at almost every turn.

KatzenbergFirst off, imagine Katzenberg's reaction when he heard the news that his longtime pal and DreamWorks partner, Steven Spielberg, had signed a deal taking their old company to (gasp!) Disney, which will now distribute DreamWorks' live-action product. That's Disney, irony of all ironies, the home of Pixar, Katzenberg's arch animation rival and the same studio that helped spark the creation of DreamWorks by unceremoniously giving Katzenberg the boot instead of installing him as Michael Eisner's successor back in the mid-1990s.   

If that weren't bad enough, the Wrap just posted a startling new investigative look into the recent debacle involving the Motion Picture & Television Fund that made headlines with the news that the fund would be forced to close the hospital and long-term care facility at its Woodland Hills retirement home. Katzenberg is the fund's chief fundraiser, and the story calls into question Katzenberg's claims that the fund is on the brink of financial ruin, charging that the dire numbers that Katzenberg and others have used as a rationale for the closings don't square with the fund's own official accounting and tax returns.

And, to add insult to injury, Katzenberg's biggest P.T. Barnum stunt of all -- spending a reported $9 million to wow Super Bowl viewers with a 3-D ad for DreamWorks' upcoming "Monsters vs. Aliens" 3-D film -- was a fiasco, creating a backlash against Katzenberg's own very public 3-D crusade. The blogosphere was full of mockery of the stunt. As SpoutBlog put it in a recent post: "Katzenberg may have done irreversible damage" by attempting to advertise "Monsters vs. Aliens" "by way of an anaglyphic 3D Super Bowl commercial necessitating outdated red/blue glasses." To say that the ad missed its target audience would be an understatement. When Cinematical did a poll asking for reaction to the ad, the biggest segment of voters -- 41% -- checked the box saying: "I never picked up the glasses to begin with."

The reaction was so bad that the chief executive of RealD Cinema, the company that does the projection technology used on a number of 3-D films, including "Monsters vs. Aliens," had to issue a statement distancing his company from the Super Bowl ad, saying: "It's important to recognize that today's RealD in theaters is a quantum leap better than what they saw on TV."

The bad reviews haven't slowed Katzenberg's 3-D drum-beating in the slightest. He doesn't return my phone calls, but in a lengthy story that ran this Sunday in the New York Times, Katzenberg was still full of bluster, saying of "Monsters vs. Aliens" that "comparing the 3-D of the past to this is like comparing a Razor scooter to a Ferrari."

What really strikes me as strange is that Katzenberg is unable to resist the urge to engage in hyperbole, even when it seems to undercut a quieter, more logical argument. Bragging to the New York Times about DreamWorks' recent box-office successes, he boasted: "This company is a flower that is just begining to blossom," prompting the reporter to add, "Cut to Hollywood rolling its eyes." When Katzenberg was in tandem with Spielberg and David Geffen, he had to check his most outlandish impulses, for fear of embarrassing his older and wealthier partners. But now Katzenberg seems a prisoner to his own worst instincts, unable to stop himself from overselling 3-D or sniping at Pixar, the company that has cornered the market on the artistic validation that Katzenberg so desperately seeks for DreamWorks.

The Super Bowl flameout was a classic example of Katzenberg's execution not living up to his showmanship. No one could find the 3-D glasses and even worse, the ones being given away were cheesy red/blue glasses, not the cool black polarized glasses that would've been a great selling point for the 3-D experience. Katzenberg keeps saying the new 3-D isn't "your father's old 3-D," but the Super Bowl ad came off as just that -- the old 3-D, not the new one. Hollywood marketers are saying that "Monsters vs. Aliens" still looks like a hit in the making. But all of the hype in the world can't disguise the fact that, in the midst of a deep recession, audiences are going to be asked to pay extra money -- according to some reports, as much as $5 more per person -- for the privilege of enjoying the 3-D theatrical experience.

The more I listen to Katzenberg tout 3-D, the more it sounds like he sees 3-D as his industry legacy. But for someone who is so eager to usher us into a new world, he sounds more and more like an old-school huckster, using hype to paper over the flaws of his product. Someone should tip Jeffrey off -- audiences are resistant to pop culture evangelism. The golden era of hype is over.   

Photo of Jeffrey Katzenberg by Ric Francis /Associated Press.

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