Pixar: A Senseless Anomaly
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?