Magazine article Management Today

Pixar: To Infinity and Beyond

Magazine article Management Today

Pixar: To Infinity and Beyond

Article excerpt

The highly successful animation studio has fallen out big-time with its partner Disney. But would the House of Mouse dare to go it alone and bring back Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 3 without the creative genius of Emeryville? Mark Lasswell reports.

Before Pixar Animation Studios set up shop in Emeryville, California, the industrial town on San Francisco Bay had only one other claim to distinction: in 1922, Emeryville's dog-racing track unveiled the world's first mechanical rabbit. For the past decade, Pixar - as adept at 3D fakery as any toy bunny - has been the mechanical rabbit of the animation business.

At regular intervals a bell goes off, the company jumps into the marketplace with its latest animated feature and effortlessly speeds ahead of a ravening pack of competitors intent on biting its head off.

Pixar wins handily, the clock is re-set and a fresh bunch of Hollywood mutts assembles at the starting line, believing that this time they're finally going to catch the rabbit.

Meanwhile, a punter named Steve Jobs practically lives at the betting window, cashing in armloads of winning tickets. It was the Apple founder who spent pounds 5.5 million in 1986 to buy an interesting little computer graphics research division at George Lucas's Lucasfilm Ltd, and Jobs presided over its emergence in the 1990s, beginning with Toy Story and followed by an uninterrupted series of massively successful feature films, establishing the gold standard for computer-generated movie animation. By 2004, the market value of Jobs' firm - he owns 55% of the stock - was pounds 2 billion.

A significant new phase in Pixar's history was marked this year as the company gave a widely publicised shove to Disney after negotiations for a new distribution arrangement with the House of Mouse broke down in January.

The rift was as significant for its symbolism as its financial fallout. When Disney and Pixar teamed up in 1991, the alliance was a coup for the Jobs crew: they'd never made a feature film before, and here was the world-straddling master of family entertainment agreeing to bring out Pixar's fledgling efforts - at a time when Disney's resurgent animation division had Aladdin and The Lion King in the pipeline.

Thirteen years later, Disney animation is in flop-riddled disarray, and former upstart Pixar, empowered by a five-for-five run of blockbusters, is calling the shots. It's the sort of tale of the old giving way, inevitably, to the new with which Hollywood animators might be familiar. Call it the Circle of Business Life. Having shared the cost of production and profits with Disney for the past decade, Pixar is now likely to strike a new deal elsewhere that entails paying a flat fee for distribution, with the company shouldering production costs but also pocketing most of the profits.

With the increased financial risk, Pixar might be expected to slide into the sort of over-cautious, accountant-driven and bureaucratised mediocrity that besets many Hollywood studios. Yet it has shown a remarkable ability to remain focused on what it does best - turning out inventive and entertaining movies such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, while avoiding the pitfalls that come with success and expansion (in Pixar's case, from 44 employees in 1986 to 700 today).

The first sign that Pixar isn't your average multi-billion-dollar entertainment company comes when you ring the main phone number. Rather than the sort of benumbed corporatespeak that most businesses in the US present to the public, the voice of Pixar sounds like the winkingly too-enthusiastic guy that Americans hear when they call to order movie tickets in advance.

'Thank you for calling Pixar Animation Studios in fashionable Emeryville, California,' burbles the message. 'If your VCR at home is still blinking 12 o'clock, press zero at any time during this message and an operator will assist you. …

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