The Pixar Luster Has Worn Off, Leaving A Tarnished Studio Behind
Is this finally it? Has the last nail been hammered into the coffin of Pixar’s credibility? Long held in high esteem for the quality of their films, their unique NorCal-influenced approach to filmmaking, and the resulting highly artistic masterpieces that embodied the vision of a truly artistic and collaborative effort won them friends and admirers the world over. It would appear however, that a string of sequels and the studio’s inclusion in the recent Silicon Valley scandal that ensnared many tech companies in the region, may finally put paid to Pixar’s esteemed reputation.
Everyone loves Pixar, or at least they did. They did things their way, and they did them extremely well. Making an animated film that wasn’t a musical was a brave step, but one that is now the standard. Ditto for the humour; nobody thought to slip in a few jokes explicitly for the adults in the audience, but they’re now mandatory in any kids film, animated or not.
The studio was also praised for their unique and innovative stories and characters. From the first Toy Story all the way through to Cars, there was a sting of films that not only performed superbly with critics and audiences alike, they set records and got incrementally better with each release. No studio before or since can make such a boast.
The secret to all this success has been twofold. Firstly, the studio encouraged a strong creative-friendly atmosphere that encouraged collaboration as well as critical feedback. Secondly, the studio had a five picture deal from Disney that guaranteed their films would have marketing and distribution muscle that would make any independent producer weep long into the night.
As important as the business side of things was though, it was the creative side that proved to be the primary driver of the studio’s success. One lunch meeting alone is attributed as the source of ideas that eventually evolved into such films as A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and Wall-E. An environment of constant evaluation and refinement enabled such diverse ideas to gradually take the form of hit films.
Add into the mix people such as Brad Bird with their own unique talents and Pixar was soon considered the cream of the crop in terms of animated features. The Disney renaissance at the dawn of the millennium wasn’t so much fading as left for dead at the side of the road, by critics and audiences alike. Yes siree, Pixar was the studio to beat and their devotion to 3-D CGI ensured that imitators in all shapes and sizes quickly appeared and took aim at their hold on the box office.
Fast forward a few years and where is Pixar now? Be honest with yourself, really honest. Does the studio have new projects on the horizon? Sure it does, but there has been so many sequels in as many years and although they’ve all done well financially, you can see the creative soul of the place being bled with each one.
Toy Story 3 was a natural conclusion to a trilogy, but Monsters University is, well, unnecessary to say the least; a clear cash grab. We’ll gloss over the Cars films because they’re so blatant in their mission to sell toys; both Mattel and Hasbro took note, as did Lego. A Finding Nemo sequel is forthcoming, no doubt Andrew Stanton’s punishment for what happened with John Carter. And at the bottom of it all, the studio now puts out a series of shorts based on their original hit film which, by the way, is 20 years old. Talk about milking the cash cow.
At least Disney was openly unapologetic about making sequels and TV series based on their films and flogging them to the public for all they were worth; you now what to expect there, even if a third Aladdin film on VHS wasn’t your cup of tea. Pixar? Not so much. Stepping in to save Toy Story 2 from home media hell was laudable, but your creative stature takes a knock when you justify sequels solely on the basis that ‘there’s more of the story to tell’ (ten years after the original) or you’ve ‘come up with a really great idea for X‘. All this wouldn’t seem so unpalatable except that the studio constantly hammers home the notion that they continue to embody their turn of the century heyday as if it were true. The Enron guys liked to talk up their stock as well, even as they were sliding into oblivion.
The recent wage fiasco is merely the icing on the cake. Is it deplorable? Absolutely. Any company ought to be downright ashamed of themselves for even being mentioned in such a lawsuit, let along being actively involved. Worse still, this was the studio that was the supposed vanguard of the artists and rightful successor to Walt’s creative crown.
Now it seems they were just as interested in warping the labour market as they were making films. Is that surprising? Not really, any studio wants to make money more than it wants to make art, that’s just the way business is. But by agreeing not to compete with other studios for employees, Pixar went further.
Is it a Cult of Mac-like scenario? Pixar employees are undoubtedly happy to be there or the gossip would have spread far and wide by now. However, employee motivation is a complex issue and while money is not the be-all and end-all of rewards, it does have a significant influence and strong appeal. One way to distort this influence in the eyes of employees is to offer things that appear to have monetary value but in reality cost less for the company than pay raises. An example? Free food comes to mind.
Another example is appeal to the greater good, in this case, the art. Do you think that Pixar ensures that all employees are aware of not only how great the art that they are making is but also how valued it is to everyone? Of course they do; any studio does, but suspicion starts to build when you have a strong of hits like Pixar and the current output doesn’t stack up nearly as well. Steve Jobs loved to talk up Apple products but also had a tendency to overlook their sometimes blatant flaws. As such, Mac fanboys are bestowed a particular reputation among computer geeks.
To paraphrase Mark Mayerson’s friend, James Caswell:
Ed Catmull’s book ‘Creaticity Inc.’ belongs in the fiction section
Therein lies the issue. Pixar acquired creative and commercial success and promptly let it go to their head. Sequels were suddenly justified because they were better than the original, or continued a story. Creative evolution stalled when it became clear that with Disney calling the shots from Burbank, films had to be as low-risk as possible. And employees became pawns when it became obvious that if they were allowed the freedom of choice, they would actually want to be paid what they were worth and jeopardise the studio’s stellar commercial success.
It’s amazing how far a free breakfast, the ability to customise your cube, and the promise of working in animation Valhalla will go.