When President Obama highlights the lift the entertainment industry has provided to the sluggish economy on Tuesday, he will single out one production studio, DreamWorks Animation, with a personal visit.
Likely to be left unsaid during his remarks at the company’s lush Glendale, Calif., campus will be the boost that chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg has given to Obama’s campaign coffers.
Katzenberg ranks among the president’s most valuable political donors and fundraisers, jumping in early to raise money for his first White House bid and pulling in more than $500,000 in donations in both 2008 and 2012. Katzenberg also provided the crucial seed money for the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action in 2011, eventually pumping $3 million into the group.
The decision by the White House to put the presidential spotlight on his company underscores how well many top campaign donors have fared in Obama’s administration, despite the president’s early pledge to temper the influence of wealthy interests on the political system.
Since 2008, Obama has appointed at least three dozen big check writers and fundraisers to coveted ambassadorships in spots such as the United Kingdom, France and Italy. Earlier this year, Obama gave the commerce secretary nod to Chicago hotel heiress Penny Pritzker, who served as national finance chairwoman of his first White House bid and raised more than $500,000 for his reelection.
Obama’s stop at DreamWorks Animation is “payback for somebody who was a very early supporter of his, and somebody with very deep pockets,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for transparency in government. “What it says is that money is alive and well as a way of buying access in Washington.”
White House officials said Katzenberg’s financial support has nothing to do with the visit to his studio, where Obama will make his only public appearance during two days in Los Angeles. They said the purpose of the stop is to highlight the growth of the motion picture, sound recording and broadcasting industries, which added 4,100 jobs in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Contributing to the president’s campaign or being a political supporter of the president doesn’t guarantee you a presidential visit, but it shouldn’t exclude you from one either,” said spokesman Joshua Earnest, who added:
“Mr. Katzenberg’s support for the president’s policies has no bearing on our decision to visit there. Rather, it’s an opportunity to highlight the success of one business and the success that they’re having in creating jobs in Southern California.”
DreamWorks Animation is a publicly traded company spun off from a studio that Katzenberg founded with moguls Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, also generous backers of Obama.
Katzenberg adviser Andy Spahn said in an e-mail that DreamWorks Animation is “an ideal place for the president to address the nation’s economy and the impact of the entertainment industry,” citing its Fortune magazine ranking as one of the 50 best U.S. companies to work for in the past five years.
But the animation studio also went through some difficult layoffs earlier in the year, shedding about 350 people from its workforce of 2,300 after the studio decided to delay the release of two feature films.
“It was a considerable layoff,” said Steve Hulett, business representative for the Animation Guild, which represents technical directors, storyboard artists and others who were among those who lost their jobs. “There were people who had had 10, 15 years of employment who were cut loose. It was pretty grim.”
DreamWorks Animation has brought on new employees since then as the company has expanded other divisions — including a television production unit that has a deal with Netflix — and now employs about 2,200.
“Over time, it has been a big job creator, and it’s been a fairly stable work environment until the beginning of the year,” Hulett said, adding of Obama’s visit: “I think this is a little return of good will to Mr. Katzenberg.”
In May 2012, one star-studded event organized by Katzenberg — and held in actor George Clooney’s back yard — pulled in $15 million, fueled largely by an online contest for a spot at the Wolfgang Puck-catered dinner.
Through his efforts, Katzenberg has emerged as the premier Democratic political fundraiser in Los Angeles, the modern iteration of legendary studio chief and power-broker Lew Wasserman. Katzenberg has also had a seat at the table when it comes to high-profile matters affecting the entertainment industry.
During a meeting in Los Angeles in February 2012 with then-Vice President Xi Jinping of China, Vice President Biden sealed a deal that lifted that country’s quota on foreign films. Katzenberg, who met with Xi during his trip, was among the studio chiefs whom Biden consulted during the negotiations, according to news reports.
“That had nothing to do with me,” Katzenberg told the Jewish Journal this summer. “I happened to be standing in a corridor when he was making this deal, and [Biden] asked me, you know, what was my opinion.”
During that same trip, Katzenberg announced DreamWorks Animation’s plan to build a studio in Shanghai in partnership with Chinese media companies. The size of the studio could one day surpass its Glendale headquarters, Katzenberg told the Los Angeles Times.
Company officials said the studio will be designed to produce content for Chinese audiences that can be distributed globally — films and TV shows that the studio would not have otherwise made in the United States.
Rucker reported from California.