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Pixar: A Senseless Anomaly

May 29, 2009

I posted on Twitter the other day that with the release today of Pixar’s tenth film, Up, and with this film receiving nearly unanimous praise from critics who you know are just looking to tear them apart if they stumble even a little, we’ve seen a return of the articles in Entertainment Weekly and on various entertainment sites — how do they do it?

Well goddammit, it’s the same answer it was the last nine times. They’re a team of artists who trust and respect each other, and put the story above their egos. Nothing has changed. 

Now, I love Pixar, so I want to be clear that the modifier “senseless” in the title of this post isn’t being applied to “Pixar.” It’s being applied to “anomaly.” 

Ten films. Ten critical successes and nine financial ones (too soon to say on Up, obviously, but I bet by this time next week they’ll be 10-for-10 on that count, too). Four Oscar wins for Best Animated Film, and I honestly think it would probably be more but the Academy voters wanted to give the little guys a chance too. All based on John Lasseter’s ardent belief that “Quality is the best business plan.” 

Lasseter isn’t the first to express this view. In fact, the founder of Pixar’s parent company, Walt Disney, is attributed with the following quote: 

I knew if this business was ever to get anywhere, if this business was ever to grow, it could never do it by having to answer to someone unsympathetic to its possibilities, by having to answer to someone with only one thought or interest, namely profits. For my idea of how to make profits has differed greatly from those who generally control businesses such as ours. I have blind faith in the policy that quality, tempered with good judgment and showmanship, will win against all odds.

There’s actually a lot of Disney quotes out there where he basically says he wouldn’t deal with money at all if he didn’t have to, and the only thing he cares about it for is being able to tell his stories. A lot of his quotes have a tinge of sad irony now, considering that most of the things he ardently opposed being and doing and becoming are exactly what the corporation “Disney” has come to represent. 

This is one of the reasons I feared the Disney-Pixar acquisition. All they were going to do was quash the life and vibrancy out of Pixar, cynically turn their name into another way of branding hastily-produced shoddy merchandise. I was surprised and ecstatic when precisely the opposite happened: Disney bought Pixar and said “We’re broken. Please fix it.” Instead of subordinating Pixar as the 3D wing of Disney Animation, they essentially put Pixar in charge of the Animation department, with nearly full autonomy. 

Why was I so shocked by this? Why is this anomalous? Why is Pixar itself anomalous in its success? It seems to me that Pixar, with ten big hits under their belt, has proven that the only winning formula is “just fucking make a good movie.” Don’t try to second-guess the market, don’t be a lightning chaser crowding around where it hit last time. Tell a good story and the audience will follow. 

But I know why the studios aren’t doing that. It’s because the people in charge have no idea how to tell a story. They’re businessmen and marketers; they look at a movie as a product to be sold rather than an experience to be shared. And they know that if they treat films like works of art, their total incompetence will be exposed and they will lose their jobs.

Look, I’m not completely artsy-farsty. I know that you need some business savvy and marketing to have success — no one will see your movie if they don’t know it exists, after all. But the marketing should be tailored to the film, and not the other way around. 

The frustrating thing is that I really don’t know what to do personally about this, other than try not to become jaded and aim to take matters into my own hands a decade or two from now. But what do you think? Is there any way to turn Hollywood around that doesn’t involve firing all the executives?

From → filmmaking

7 Comments
  1. Ray permalink

    The first step to solving any issue is calling it for what it is.

    Making more people aware of this has a greater effect than it first seems. Besides, that I dunno. =P

  2. Well I only see nailing them where it hurts … their wallets, which means the box office. Simply don’t buy into the BS they feed us an they will change their game.

  3. People seem to want others to tell them what to do. (Just look at Republicans and Democrats. Just look at CNN and Fox News watchers. Just look at what the schools do to our kids. Just look at President Obama. Just look at religions.) The irony is that these very same people often claim they are thinking independently.

    Marketing, PR and propaganda all aim to tell people what to do. They have told people that popularity means more than substance. How else is one supposed to sell crap?

    By my (uneducated) observation, social networking is chipping away at that. It poses a threat, and people are already examining (and exploiting) ways to control it.

    My suggestion is to take Ray’s idea into social networking to make Antoine’s idea happen before the propaganda machine takes it over completely. Then, we may see a glimpse of progress from the momentary competition everyone will wage against each other until the PR folks regain control (which they will).

    However, time is quickly running out. There are dangerous currents running among the powers that be that may put an end to all open information, opinion and choice… because we are letting them do that to us. We may end up just having to bend over and take whatever they want to give us if we don’t connect to each other now. These growing divisions in the world are only serving those who seek to control others for their own sakes, and we are letting them divide us.

    In summary: Most solutions come from connecting to others and cooperating with others. I feel this is no different.

    • PS. I’m excited to see Up. We got it in 3D-Digital here in this tiny, little, middle-of-nowhere, Southern town… stadium seating no less. (Just more evidence of how Oxford is out-of-phase with the rest of the state… thankfully.) Better get the gang together. I had totally forgotten about it in the return-from-vacation rush. (I think I’m using hyphens a-little-too-often.)

  4. I felt compelled to note that a new MMO by Bioware, Star Wars: The Old Republic, is supposed to focus on telling a story. Bioware has done well to tell stories in a game environment (IMHO), but will that work in an MMO environment? I hope it does.

  5. I once asked a co-worker a similar question. Though I phrased it as such, “What can you do to change the system that’s run by incompetent people?”

    His answer was this:
    “You can’t talk reason into people who don’t believe in what you believe. You must show them that your way is better.”

    You just gotta ‘DO’ what you believe in. And isn’t that what we strive for when we go off and produce our own projects and movies? We aren’t happy with watching the system, so we do it ourselves. Like the guy dancing by himself, we may or may not attract like-minded people.
    It sure is a blessing when it happens (especially for Pixar, who’s ‘gathered’ crowd was a bunch of movers and shakers).

    I love the quote, btw. I strive to infuse all of my company’s mediocre projects with quality. I work late hours sometimes just because I want it to look better. This is the price for wanting to see it done better.

    You must be the change you want to see in the world.

    Take care
    -Daniel

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