Just before 11a.m. on the morning of March 9, a Friday, a small group of journalists made their way through the DreamWorks Animation studio in Glendale, moving from a small boardroom stocked with cold refreshments and and a screen playing “Kung Fu Panda,” to an outdoor courtyard where Israeli President Shimon Peres was scheduled to speak.
As the group filed past the cozy, living-room style executive suite lit warmly with natural light and bright, neon-colored fish tanks, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg stepped out of his office. “Wow, nice,” Katzenberg crowed, reacting to what clearly seemed to him to be ample media attendance. “It’s a little warm out there,” he teased. “Stay in the shade.”
Downstairs and outside in 80-degree heat, the group was led across the property, past winding grassy walkways, giant rectangular koi ponds and endless lounge areas, before proceeding through security, which was carefully coordinated by American secret service. Already assembled in the courtyard was a mass of DreamWorks employees, sipping Starbucks and tinkering with their iPhones. No one yet seemed to mind sweltering in the Glendale sun, which was to be their destiny for the next hour, while Peres received a private tour of the studio.
“It’s not everyday you get the president of a country,” said Aaron Cimity, 28, a production coordinator at the studio, explaining why he had absconded from his desk to hear Peres speak.
“How often do you hear a head of state in your own work environment?” added Michele Davis, a budget manager, who was seated with a group of her colleagues on the concrete rim of a large, circular fountain. Although her boss, Katzenberg, is known to host inspirational “DreamTalks” with an array of guest speakers that have included directors, dignitaries, and even astronauts, this was the first time for such a high-ranking international leader.
“Jeffrey’s pretty connected,” said Ethan Hagge, a storyboard artist in his mid-20s, who was camped out in the shade with two colleagues. “Obama’s head campaigning guy was here two weeks ago. That was pretty impressive.”
Also present for a private meet-and-greet with the Israeli president—though unseen until speech time—was an elite group of 13 Hollywood leaders, including Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand (the group’s only female), Billy Crystal, CBS President Les Moonves, Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer, Sony Pictures Studios chairman Michael Lynton, billionaire mogul Haim Saban, Israeli producer Arnon Milchan and others, along with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Los Angeles Consul General David Siegel and Simon Wiesenthal dean and founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier.
DreamWorks takes seriously its role as both industry leader and influencer, said Mark Dizon, who works in global human resources. “Diversity is important here at DreamWorks. This event is a nice crossroads point between entertainment and politics. Why not use our voice to spread the news?”
On a grassy knoll near the top of the fountain, Daniela Mazzacuto, a production manager, was reading Peres’ wikipedia entry aloud to her co-workers. “We didn’t know he was related to Lauren Bacall!” she gasped. “I didn’t realize he was born in Poland either.”
While the DreamWorks staff is visibly diverse—many appeared to be of Asian, Indian and African-American descent—few in the crowd were up to date on Israeli affairs.
“I Googled him,” admitted Anand Karnati, 30, who works in the information technology department. “I saw that he was involved in Israeli politics. Some say he’s a decision maker; he was a Prime Minister two times.”
“I know he’s not Netanyahu, but he’s still important,” said storyboard artist Vi-Dieu Nguyen, who is in his mid-20s.
Next to him, Ethan Hagge made light of the occasion. “I figure I got frisked so I might as well come down here,” he said, offering his take on the President’s visit. “I think he wants to see celebrities. I think, secretly, his favorite movie is ‘Shrek’ and he wants to see who made it.”
Standing near the stage, Terri Anderson, 52, said she anticipated an eloquent speech. “My friend texted me this morning that his voice is like satin,” she said of Peres.
“Here at Dreamworks, we imagine and we create heroes,” Katzenberg began, before introducing Peres to a crowd cresting in the hundreds. “Today we are blessed in that we’re actually receiving a visit from a real hero.” Katzenberg went on to describe Peres as “a soldier, a statesman, a politician, a peacemaker.”
Peres, clearly, is also a charmer. He wooed the crowd by thanking DreamWorks’ staff on behalf of the youth in Israel. “They love you,” he said. “You may think you have a vocation, but the children feel you have a mission; you bring them dreams and hope and an unknown world and a promise.”
During his 7-minute speech, Peres focused on the power of dreams.
“The American dream was really created here in Hollywood,” he said. “I don’t know what influenced the world more—the American Constitution or the American dream…so we are copying you. We want the Israeli dream.”
Peres went on to draw parallels between Hollywood and Israel, speaking of the cooperation between the two industries and comparing their origins. When California was founded, he said, many thought it too wild with wind and fire to inhabit. “You started as a mistake, and we started as a doubt. But look what you can do from a mistake, and look what you can do from a doubt.”
Afterwards, Peres attended a private, off-the-record luncheon with the Hollywood A-list, where he entertained questions about the Middle East for nearly two hours. According to Rabbi Marvin Hier, who was present and whose friendship with Katzenberg helped realize the event, the discussion was broad and detailed.
“I was very surprised how knowledgeable and intelligent the questions were,” Hier said. “The leaders of the entertainment industry that attended knew very well the current burning issues [facing Israel]. The president hardly had a chance to chew his piece of fish. The questions came one after another, after another. Jeffrey said, ‘Let the President eat!’ and he said ‘No, no, no, let’s keep this going…’”
Though Hier insisted there were a wide range of questions, Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios, said the discussion focused mainly on Iran and the U.S.-Israel relationship. “People showed up because they’re certainly interested in what’s going on in the world, and the potential crisis with Iran…and Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama—those were the topics people cared the most about.”
Despite the tough subjects, Meyer said the experience was revelatory.
“He is really one of the most extraordinary speakers I’ve ever heard; his recall and his wisdom I found extraordinary. I did not expect that, and I was overwhelmed.”
Haim Saban, an advocate and fundraiser for Israel at the highest level, has met with Peres on several occasions, though he said, “Listening to President Peres speak is always an inspiring experience.” Saban would not reveal further details about the conversation in order to honor the President’s wishes.
“I’m very proud of the president, the way he handled himself,” Hier said. “He did not apologize for Israel—he didn’t say Israel was without warts, no country is—but he was speaking to people who are participating in shaping the modern world, and he made a strong case for Israel.”
One thing Hier revealed was what Peres opined about Judaism. “He said that the single most important contribution of Judaism to the world was being unsatisfied. He said ‘Jews are never satisfied’; Jews without a land, without resources have come so far, because when you’re not satisfied, you dream on.”
Earlier, speaking to the crowd, Peres had paid homage to that very idea when talking about Hollywood’s Jewish origins. “I know among the founders of Hollywood there were many Jewish people,” he said. “Because they didn’t have a land, they had to have a dream.”
Then, drawing on the Jewish destiny, Katzenberg presented Peres with a literal rendering of the Jewish dream: an original piece of art from “The Prince of Egypt”—DreamWorks’ first animated feature—that depicts the scene just before the Israelites cross the sea into the promised land.
Three animators who have been with DreamWorks since its beginning, and who worked on “The Prince of Egypt” recalled in detail that precious scene.
“That was the top of the hill, before they cross the Red Sea, as they’re coming over the top,” Lorenzo Martinez, 56, explained. “It’s all sittin’ there in front of them, and they’re goin’, ‘How are we gonna get through this?’ That’s a great choice Jeffrey made. It’s a metaphor.”