Obama visits DreamWorks, calls Hollywood a ‘bright spot’ of economy

President Obama shares a laugh with, from left, Bill Damaschke, Tim Johnson and Steve Martin during a break from work on DreamWorks' upcoming alien-invasion film, “Home.”
President Obama shares a laugh with, from left, Bill Damaschke, Tim Johnson and Steve Martin during a break from work on DreamWorks’ upcoming alien-invasion film, “Home.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

President Barack Obama put the klieg light on Hollywood on Tuesday, calling the motion picture and television industry an engine of growth and a beacon in a recovering economy.

“Entertainment is one of the bright spots of our economy,” Obama told a crowd of nearly 2,000 DreamWorks Animation employees and guests in a sunny courtyard at the company’s Glendale headquarters. “The gap between what we can do and other countries can do is enormous. That’s worth cheering about.”

Obama was hosted by DreamWorks Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of Obama’s biggest contributors and fundraisers.


Obama described Katzenberg as a supporter and a legendary figure in the entertainment industry.

ON LOCATION: Where the cameras roll

“I don’t need to puff him up too much,” Obama said. “He has a healthy sense of self, but he is a great friend and somebody whose counsel and advice I value, and I’m incredibly grateful to be here at this wonderful institution that he helped to build.”

Obama also stressed Hollywood’s role in spreading American values and shaping world culture.

“Entertainment is part of our American diplomacy,” Obama said. “It’s part of what makes us exceptional, part of what makes us such a world power. You can go anywhere on the planet and you’ll see a kid wearing a ‘Madagascar’ T-shirt. You can say, ‘May the force be with you,’ and they know what you’re talking about.”

While people in other countries may not know the Gettysburg Address, he added, “they’ve had a front-row seat to our march toward progress” through watching movies and television shows like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Will & Grace.”


PHOTOS: Billion-dollar movie club

But with that power comes “a big responsibility,” Obama cautioned. “When it comes to issues like gun violence, we’ve got to make sure that we’re not glorifying it, because the stories you tell shape our children’s outlook and their lives.”

Obama praised DreamWorks and a cluster of entertainment companies as “one of America’s economic engines” responsible for creating hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs.

The motion picture, sound recording and broadcasting industries have added 9,500 jobs since the end of the recession, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite a round of layoffs earlier this year, employment at DreamWorks has risen by 50% since January 2008.

PHOTOS: Celebrities by The Times

The company has generated billions in box-office revenue from its hit “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar” movies, expanding its business in China and other overseas markets. DreamWorks recently formed a partnership to produce animated TV shows for the Netflix streaming service.

Guided by Katzenberg, Obama got a lesson in how animators use motion capture to bring animated characters to life and chatted with actors Steve Martin and Jim Parsons, who were recording lines for the studio’s upcoming alien-invasion film, “Home.”

Obama shook hands with Parsons but not Martin, who declined, explaining that he had a cold. Instead, the actor and the president did a little elbow bump.

“Are you going to sound a little nasal in your reading today?” the president asked Martin.

Obama also inquired about Martin’s banjo playing. The comedian is an accomplished musician who has put out several albums.

“This guy performed at the White House and was unbelievable,” Obama said. “I was a little shocked at how good he was.”

Martin called the White House performance the biggest thrill of his life.

“That’s how I felt about it,” Obama said. “I told Michelle: ‘Biggest thrill of my life. Inauguration, nothing. Steve playing banjo, that was big.’”

After the tour, Obama said he asked Katzenberg if he could work for the company and quipped that he felt a natural connection to the studio because his “ears were one of the inspirations for Shrek.”

On the set: movies and TV

While at DreamWorks, the president also met privately with a group of top Hollywood executives, including CBS Corp. Chief Executive Les Moonves; Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara; Peter Rice, chairman of Fox Networks Group; Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal.

“The president discussed the impact that broader economic conditions have on the industry,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “He also touched on piracy and intellectual property rights, which are chief concerns of participating film industry leaders.”

Obama’s visit and upbeat message about the entertainment industry come at a time of widespread anxiety among the middle-class crew members in Southern California who work behind the scenes on films and TV shows.

Many have seen job opportunities and incomes dwindle as work has migrated to other states and countries that offer film productions tax breaks and incentives better than those available in California.

PHOTOS: Celebrity production companies

“Some indicators suggest that activity in the entertainment industry is up, but that has not translated into jobs here in California,” said Robert Kleinhenz, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “In fact, the number of industry-related jobs locally and in California has shown little improvement since the recession, even as industry employment nationally has increased modestly over the past couple of years.”

More than 50 visual effects workers held a rally outside the studio to call attention to the plight of California’s visual effects industry, which has been hard-hit by layoffs, foreign subsidies and the outsourcing of jobs.

PHOTOS: Greatest box office flops

DreamWorks itself, which employs 2,200 people, laid off about 350 employees earlier this year after a decision to shelve production of the movie “Me and My Shadow,” but that layoff was not tied to outsourcing.

“This is not an attack on DreamWorks Animation or Obama, but we do not have jobs coming to us. They are all going to other countries,” said Tom Capizzi, a longtime visual effects employee who in February lost his job at Rhythm & Hues. “It’s having a huge impact on the workers of Los Angeles.”

Obama was in L.A. on the last leg of a three-day West Coast tour to raise money for Democratic House and Senate candidates. His itinerary included two fundraisers Monday night, one at the home of athlete and entrepreneur Magic Johnson and another at the home of Hollywood mogul Haim Saban, who is chairman of Spanish-language channel Univision Communications Inc. On Tuesday morning, the president attended a Democratic fundraiser at the Hancock Park home of Marta Kauffman, co-creator of the television show “Friends.”