Brian Robbins first spoke with former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg after he made “Norbit,” one of those Eddie Murphy comedies in which the comedian played several characters at once. Robbins directed the movie, one of ten he has made in his career, and DreamWorks, which Katzenberg co-founded, produced it.
“I remember getting a very nice phone call from him — a congrats on ‘Norbit,'” Robbins told TheWrap. “But we didn’t know each other.” Katzenberg was focused on DreamWorks Animation, which he had spun off as a separate company.
Fast forward six years and the two are now partners in crime. Robbins, known to a certain generation as a star of 1980s sitcom “Head of the Class,” just sold his YouTube network, AwesomenessTV to DreamWorks Animation for as much as $117 million.
The deal marked the first time a large media company bought a YouTube channel, and the price could portend a flood of money into the burgeoning world of online video.
TheWrap spoke with Katzenberg and Robbins independently, but put their answers together – as they will now work for the next few years.
It was YouTube’s Robert Kyncl who suggested you two get together. Why?
Robbins: I got a call from Robert who said ‘I want to introduce you to Jeffrey Katzenberg if that’s okay.’ I said sure, and he said ‘just know that once I do your life is going to change.’ He connected us by email and the next morning we were having breakfast and it was very fast moving from there.
Katzenberg: Robert talked about Brian and specifically how impressed he has been with the work that he was doing and that he thought it was, knowing my interest, somebody I would really connect with. He was the matchmaker here and his instincts were spot on and perfect.
Robbins: We spent a lot of time with each other — every day for the next 4 days having meetings, hanging out: he came to Awesomeness, I came to DreamWorks for a whole day with my team. It was pretty clear that we shared a vision for this space and what’s happening and where it’s going and what it could become.
How do Awesomeness and DreamWorks Animation complement one another?
Robbins: DreamWorks Animation is an incredible global family entertainment brand. That’s one. Two, Jeffrey is an amazing mogul who is a brilliant man and been successful over and over and over again. Working side by side with someone like that is enormously appealing. Three, and most importantly, we both do the same thing. We’re storytellers.
I would have been scared to get bought by Viacom or one of the media companies. This way I am dealing with Jeffrey one on one and look at him as someone who runs his business from a creative point of view. He’s not an ex-lawyer or ex-accountant running a studio. He’s a guy who has been in the business and been making movies forever.
People have asked ‘aren’t you scared?’ No, not at all. I’d be scared of all those other people who wanted to acquire me.
Katzenberg: The thing that attracted me so much to Brian is that he is in love with this medium. He is super engaged and excited about creating these bits, bites, and snacks, as he refers to them. He is really unique in that he has had incredible success in more traditional media and has nothing but opportunities in those spaces, but he chooses to be here. He’s not there out of default. Most people are there because the barriers to entry are lower. He’s there because he likes the form; he’s mastered the form.
Brian, were you always planning on selling your company?
Robbins: I was just trying to build something, but when you take on venture capital money obviously in this space everyone talks about valuations and exits. I always thought we’d be acquired, but did I ever think it would happen this fast? Absoutely not.
For months now I have had people come in trying to invest, trying to buy 20 percent, 15 percent and I have not entertained any of them. Jeffrey was different because he offered me a much bigger platform. [Awesomeness] was just one part of the plan for me and now with Jeffrey there’s just an opportunity to do some tremendous things.
What is that larger plan?
Katzenberg: Awesomeness is primarily geared toward teen girls, and we want to run a track parallel to that brand that is to boys, because you don’t mix those different tracks. I look at this as really a first step for Brian to build on what he has done incredibly successfully with the first platform that he has in place and very quickly follow with several different platforms that expand into different demographics and eventually start to use the DreamWorks brand for some of his expansion.
Would you consider buying another YouTube channel or is this a unique proposition?
Katzenberg: If other opportunities that are similarly appealing present themselves, we will take them. We’re open to anything that we think is a good opportunity.
Both of you have talked about extending the DreamWorks Animation brand onto YouTube. Will DreamWorks and Awesomeness play together?
Robbins: I don’t think they play together at all. Awesomeness continues to be Awesomeness. I don’t think Jeffrey wants to mess with that at all. I will build it into as big a company as we think and everyone thinks its’ going to be.
On the other hand, on the DreamWorks side, we definitely have some plans to take the DreamWorks brand and so some very innovative and interesting things.
Awesomeness has built a massive network of channels on the creative side, but how about the business side?
Katzenberg: They’re in what is commonly referred to as an investment cycle. They’re building revenue and investing it back into the company while they build up engagement with users. They’re not cash positive today, but they will become cash positive.
Robbins: We’re still a very not mature business, but we’re seeing that change quickly too. We’re seeing these brands really lining up to work with us in big ways ad spend real dollars. That needle is starting to move too and it’s moving so quickly. That’s what’s crazy – where we were six months ago versus now for brands.
So is Brian going to help DreamWorks with TV?
Robbins: I don’t know yet. Jeffrey has a lot of plans and we’ll see where it goes. It’s too early for me to comment.
Katzenberg: What Brian is going to do in terms of his involvement in the larger DreamWorks Animation business is of great value to us. The way that he is going to help us build out our digital footprint and television business.
What happens to your Varsity Pictures (his film and TV production company)?
Robbins: Oh well. [Sighs] My kids get to run it when they graduate from high school. They can reinvent it.
You’ve had a lot of success as a film and TV producer. So you’re just going to say screw it and just do YouTube?
Robbins: There’s no ‘just’ in the word YouTube to me. Any time you’ve got 1 billion people on a platform, there’s no just. If you use it properly you can really build a gigantic business. Last year we were talking this as cable 25 years ago. I’m telling you the ESPNs and CNNs and MTVs and Nickelodeons of tomorrow will come out of this ecosystem even faster than I thought.