I subscribe to The Economist, yes that one, the same "adult magazine" that Homer Simpson subscribes to. In last week’s issue, the regular column Schumpter discussed Pixar and the different way that Ed Catmull and John Lasseter had set the company up so as to ensure it would live on after they had left. I highly encourage you to read the article first, I’ll wait :).
Back? Great. The article is pretty straightforward in its analysis and the point it makes is an important one. Both Catmull and Lasseter have been the guiding force behind the studio for a long time and to an extent so has Steve Jobs, although that is not surprising seeing as he owned it for a long time.
There are many similarities between Apple and Pixar beside Mr. Jobs. Both companies are extremely product focused. Both believe that if they put enough effort in the will be rewarded with consumer acceptance. This is true to some extent but I can’t help but feel that right now, both companies are running on flywheel inertia: Pixar with its slate of upcoming sequels and Apple with the slight upgrade to the IPhone software. Dreamworks has proven that they too can make solid, entertaining films and other mobile phone companies have upped the ante recently with the latest group of Android powered phones.
What worries me though is how well the setup at Pixar will last. The article mentions the collaborative environment in Emeryville and how a lot of effort is put into fostering projects from the ground up rather than the top down. I’m sure Pixar is in Emeryville for a reason, being a tad less than arms reach from Burbank. However, physical separation does not mean a lot if the people calling the shots are not from there. Sure right now Lasseter is, but once he retires, where will his replacement come from? I doubt it is from Pixar.
All this effort to set up a different system may be for nought if Pixar continues with sequels. I am not sure whether the plan is to increase the size of the studio or keep it as it is, putting out one film a year or so. Dreamworks have upped their rate to three films a year, which may be more sustainable for what Jeffrey Katzenburg wants.
I have similar worries about Google. Sure right now, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are keeping an eye on the privacy aspects of the business (albeit somewhat unevenly) but once they are gone, what will happen then once the people running the show no longer have a personal interest in the company or its users?
We’ll see how things play out. I don’t want to do too much crystal ball gazing. Both John Lasseter and Ed Catmull deserve a lot of credit for building Pixar into a strong studio with a solid brand of work ethic that has ensured that every single film they have put out has been a success, not just in box office numbers, but on the story and visual side of things too.