August 7, 2022

Common Sense: A Collision of Creativity and Cash

Since then, under the leadership of Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive, and John Lasseter of Pixar, Disney/Pixar has unveiled a series of critical and commercial hits that were, if anything, even more brilliant and daring than Pixar’s early successes.

I watched “Ratatouille” on a plane, and found it so unexpectedly charming and deeply moving that I had to ask the flight attendant for a tissue. In choosing as their subjects a French rat who aspires to culinary greatness (“Ratatouille”), two speechless robots (“Wall-E”) and a 72-year-old widower (“Up”), it was as if Pixar’s creative minds had deliberately chosen characters and themes that were as unlikely as possible to lend themselves to theme park attractions and merchandise spinoffs.

The ultimate test of Pixar’s creative integrity under Disney ownership may have been last year’s “Toy Story 3,” a sequel whose predecessors had already started a multibillion-dollar merchandising bonanza. Remarkably for a second sequel, the critical reaction was rapturous: “Toy Story 3 isn’t merely the best movie of the summer but an immediate candidate for best of the year.” (The St. Petersburg Times); “Toy Story 3 continues Pixar’s near-perfect streak.” (The Oregonian); “As sweet, as touching, as humane a movie as you are likely to see this summer.” (A. O. Scott in The New York Times.) “Toy Story 3” was nominated for Best Picture and reaped over $110 million during its opening weekend. The film became the fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time, making over $1.1 billion at the box office.

Even more remarkably, “Toy Story 3” was Pixar’s 11th consecutive creative and commercial hit, a streak that has earned it a place in animation and Hollywood history. Even the legendary Walt had a run of just seven animated hits starting with 1950’s “Cinderella” (and four after the 1937 “Snow White”). The holy grail of the film business has always been to be able to make only hits while avoiding flops, and the quest has spawned periodic manifestos and strategies that seemed to work — until they failed.

But Pixar appeared to have cracked the code, not just for box-office but also for creative success.

What was the secret? The exact nature of artistic success may always be elusive, but Mr. Lasseter of Pixar has thought deeply on the subject. “How have we been successful? What is the creativity of Pixar about?” he asked in a speech in February 2010 at Sonoma Academy, before answering his own questions. “It is about risk-taking and it is about open communication at all times from top to bottom. And it’s also about management, the leaders of the company doing kind of the opposite of what every other company does.” He added: “Most studios around the world, it’s like they want to do the safe thing, right? They want to kind of guarantee success out there where there’s a product, a movie, or something like that and they want to do what they know will be a success. And that’s why Hollywood makes how many movies a year, and how many are actually good? Right?”

But in February this year, Jay Rasulo, Disney’s chief financial officer, delivered a speech called “The Value of Franchises” that seemed to potentially put Disney and Pixar on a collision course. “ ‘Toy Story,’ ” Mr. Rasulo noted, “was clearly a franchise, and we started to exploit it across multiple geographies in multiple businesses.” He said he expected “Toy Story” to drive $10 billion in retail sales alone. As a result, Disney’s movie slate going forward “will be much more focused on franchises” — like the much-anticipated Pixar sequel “Cars 2.”

At Disney, Pixar and the studio entertainment division as a whole account for a relatively small percentage of Disney’s profits. (Media Networks, which includes the phenomenally profitable ESPN and cable TV ventures, is by far the most important.) Still, in fiscal 2010, studio entertainment earnings jumped to just under $700 million, thanks in large part to “Toy Story 3.” Nor does this include the billions in merchandise and other revenue extolled by Mr. Rasulo. Apart from the bottom line, Disney’s studio operations are disproportionally visible among the company’s divisions, with the success or failure of its movies avidly followed by the press and Wall Street analysts.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=073d577773f6c2a8e36faafbcc1c0a03

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