The Quiet Force Behind DreamWorks; Bill Damaschke, the chief creative officer of the film studio, is increasingly calling the artistic shots as the head of DreamWorks, Jeffrey Katzenberg, focuses on other areas

July 15, 2013

The Quiet Force Behind DreamWorks



Chief executive of DreamWorks Animation Jeffrey Katzenberg, left, and Dreamworks chief creative officer Bill Damaschke.

GLENDALE, Calif. — Inside a modest upstairs office at DreamWorks Animation here — the one next to a framed poster reading “You’ve Got the Goods, Step Out and Show ‘Em!” — sits one of the film industry’s most important executives. His name is Bill Damaschke. Never heard of him? Neither has most of Hollywood. Mr. Damaschke, 49, is chief creative officer at DreamWorks Animation, which means that he runs the factory floor, working with directors, writers and artists to deliver hits like “Kung Fu Panda,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and the “Madagascar” movies. On Wednesday, the studio’s latest computer-animated film, “Turbo,” about a speedy garden snail, arrives in theaters. “I trust Bill’s taste more than anybody else’s, including my own,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation’s chief executive.Mr. Katzenberg has always been the studio’s public face. It was partly design, a way for a small publicly traded company to get noticed on Wall Street, and partly because Mr. Katzenberg is who he is: relentless. But while Mr. Katzenberg is still involved in major artistic decisions, he has been moving further away from the day-to-day running of his company’s movie pipeline, which is expanding. DreamWorks Animation in 2014 will begin releasing three movies a year, up from two.

While Mr. Katzenberg is working on a new TV endeavor, an entertainment complex in Shanghai and indoor theme parks in Russia, Mr. Damaschke (pronounced DAH-mash-kee) is increasingly calling the creative shots. “As someone who really doesn’t like attention, I feel almost uncomfortable saying this, but that is true,” Mr. Damaschke said last month. “We put things in front of Jeffrey less frequently.”

Mr. Damaschke, who started at the studio 18 years ago as a production assistant and rose to chief creative officer in 2011, would be entitled to an insufferable ego. He was blessed with dashing good looks and churns out blockbusters; over the last five years, DreamWorks Animation’s nine films have taken in roughly $5 billion worldwide after accounting for inflation, compared with about $3.6 billion for Pixar’s five releases. Instead, the dapper Mr. Damaschke is quiet and polite, perhaps reflecting his Midwestern upbringing.

Then again, unassuming is all the rage in Hollywood: Kevin Feige, who expertly runs Marvel Studios, is also nearly invisible. If you “strut your stuff,” as another poster outside Mr. Damaschke’s office instructs, you become vulnerable when movies misfire, as they inevitably do.

Despite positive reviews, DreamWorks Animation’s dark “Rise of the Guardians,” released in November and directed by Peter Ramsey, cost more than $250 million to make and market but took in $303.7 million, roughly half of which went to theater owners. The company wrote down $87 million tied to the film.

“Guardians” is not Mr. Damaschke’s first disappointment. The money-losing Broadway adaptation of “Shrek” was also his baby. But the movie’s failure was particularly crushing.

“Some of the things that we thought were cool may have given pause to the most important person buying tickets, and that’s mom,” he said. Noting that the movie was a big seller on DVD, he added, “I’m still healing from the ‘Guardians’ experience, to be brutally honest with you.”

“Turbo” is another creative gamble. Aside from the obvious — it stars a snail — the movie was directed by David Soren, a first-time feature filmmaker. Early reviews have been mixed. The Hollywood Reporter deemed it “narratively challenged” and zeroed in on a theme that could turn off mom: “If you’re too small or weak or otherwise incapable of greatness, you have a shot to win if you’re juiced.”

But Variety called it an “endearing underdog story” that finds the animation studio “taking a welcome risk and betting on a far-fetched story idea.”

“Turbo” in many ways represents a storytelling and artistic shift that Mr. Damaschke has quietly been implementing at the company. In its early days, DreamWorks Animation movies clung tightly to the successful “Shrek” formula: irreverent humor, pop culture inside jokes, lots of action, celebrity voices. “Turbo,” which riffs on the “Fast & Furious” movies, certainly has some of that D.N.A.

But the film also has atypical quiet moments and tries to break ground by including lots of Hispanic cartoon characters. Its animation style also differs from “The Croods,” the studio’s hit caveman movie from March, or next year’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” which is based on segments from the 1960s-era TV series featuring Rocky and Bullwinkle.“We are trying to really lean into the different sensibilities of our filmmakers,” Mr. Damaschke said.

There are several reasons behind the shift. While DreamWorks Animation’s original formula kept delivering hits, ticket buyers started to show fatigue. Neither the sassy “Monsters vs. Aliens” in 2009 nor the cheeky “Megamind” in 2010 were strong enough at the box office to quickly spawn hoped-for sequels. Mr. Damaschke began urging his filmmakers to think more about heartfelt moments.

“Bill’s notes almost always attend to the emotional point of the story,” said Chris Sanders, who co-directed “The Croods” with Kirk DeMicco. “He will stop us dead in our tracks and say, ‘But how does that character feel about this?’ Jeffrey, who we honestly don’t see that much, despite what everyone thinks, attends more to the audacity of the film.”

DreamWorks Animation’s shift was also designed to woo more top writers, directors and artists to the company. The writer-director Noah Baumbach helped write the screenplay for last year’s “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” Rob Minkoff, who codirected “The Lion King,” is at the helm of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.”

Brenda Chapman, who won an Oscar in February for Pixar’s “Brave,” in recent weeks has returned to DreamWorks Animation.

“I left in part because I felt like I was being asked to do the same story over and over,” said Ms. Chapman, who codirected “The Prince of Egypt” for the studio in 1998, but later moved to Pixar. “I look at the movies DreamWorks is doing now, and I see the exact opposite happening.”

She was pushed out of Pixar after clashing with that studio’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter. Although she could have joined another studio, she said she chose to return to Glendale in part because of Mr. Damaschke, who started at DreamWorks Animation in 1995 as a production assistant on “The Prince of Egypt.”

“As Jeffrey has gained experience and age, and DreamWorks has grown, he has stepped back and allowed other people to run creative,” Ms. Chapman said. “At Pixar, it’s all John’s show.” She added of DreamWorks Animation, “you can butt heads here and not be punished for it, unlike at another place I could name.”

A spokesman for Disney, which owns Pixar, had no comment. (The always simmering tension between the two studios has recently increased, with Disney grousing that “Turbo” bears similarities to its “Cars” franchise; DreamWorks Animation executives have said that is nonsense.)

The oldest of seven children, Mr. Damaschke, who lives with his partner in a historic home on Mulholland Drive, grew up in Chicago and graduated from the School of Theater Arts at Illinois Wesleyan University. He pursued musical theater — including a stint in “Godspell” in New York — but ended up in Los Angeles as a production assistant on Disney’s “Pocahontas” in 1994. The next year he moved to DreamWorks Animation, where he rose up the ranks..

“This studio may be Jeffrey’s sandbox,” said Mr. Soren, the “Turbo” director, “but Bill knows every kid who has ever played in it and where every shovel is buried. Bill may be the biggest reason artists keep coming back to play here.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: