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Humanitarianism, Hollywood Style

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook doesn’t pay too close attention to the Academy Awards—we’re still recovering from the Indian maiden, Sacheen Littlefeather, who accepted Marlon Brando’s Oscar for the Godfather in 1973 and tried to read his 15-page mani-festo on national television—but we do have a weakness for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which the motion picture academy bestows separately. Ceremonies such as the Oscars are basically expensive, well-dressed exercises in self-infatuation, and the Jean Hersholt Award is given for “outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes.” Recent recipients include the studio mogul Sherry Lansing, gabfest legend Oprah Winfrey, and the latest winner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who received his statuette last November.

Jeffrey Katzenberg

Jeffrey Katzenberg


Katzenberg, of course, is the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, the highly successful studio, and it is perhaps emblematic of the Hersholt Award that he was recognized for his contributions to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which helps indigent (mostly elderly) people in show business. Otherwise, his philanthropy is predictable, by Hollywood standards: several million dollars over the years to Democratic political candidates and super-PACs, and experience as a multimillion-dollar “bundler” for Barack Obama.

The real depth of Katzenberg’s humanitarianism was revealed a few days after Oscar night, when he announced that, owing to box-office losses from his recent brainstorm Rise of the Guardians, he would be firing 350 of DreamWorks’s 2,200 employees—nearly one-fifth of its workforce. 

Throwing workers out on the street for their boss’s mistakes was not easy for the Jean Hersholt laureate: This is “very, very difficult to do,” Katzenberg told the Hollywood Reporter, adding that mass dismissals of subordinates are “against our culture.” Well, maybe—but business is business. Katzenberg’s wealth has been estimated in the neighborhood of $800 million, and he probably could have written a personal check to keep his workers employed for the next few decades. But what attracted The Scrapbook’s attention was his explanation for the necessity of layoffs, spoken without evident irony in the language of any animated capitalist baron: 


Let’s look at everything and say, “What could we be doing better, smarter, more effectively to really position the company in the best possible way to move forward?” And that’s what we’ve done, and that’s what restructuring is all about.

No doubt, those 350 fired DreamWorks gerbils, especially those who had nothing to do with Katzenberg’s Rise of the Guardians, will be comforted to know that their unemployment now moves DreamWorks forward in “the best possible way.” But that was not quite the way Katzenberg looked at things when, in 1994, he was denied promotion to the presidency of the Walt Disney Company, and thereupon sued Disney. This was followed by an entertaining public squabble—Disney chairman Michael Eisner on Katzenberg: “I think I hate the little midget”—but Disney ultimately settled the lawsuit out of court with an estimated $250 million payment to Katzenberg. 

Unseemly it may be to sue the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award; but in the case of this year’s winner, The Scrapbook would cheer on the effort.

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