January 24, 2006
Well, that's it. Weeks of speculation and rumour come to an end, as Pixar and Disney kiss and make up in a big way.
Part of me is saddened by the whole thing. I've always liked the idea that Pixar did so well as an autonomous entity (at least, as autonomous as an animation producer can be—see Mark Mayerson's commentary on the animation industry in the latest issue), beholden to none; I don't think The Incredibles would have been made the way it was anywhere but at Pixar.
But, credit where credit is due: the movie also wouldn't have had the play it did if it weren't for Disney's distribution. The two companies are really suited to each other, which is why the 1991 Disney-Pixar deal and its later renewal were generally hailed as positive news. It was a simple equation: Pixar made great animation and told good stories; Disney had a fantastic distribution system.
With this new deal, the equation has many more variables. Pixar and Disney are no longer at arm's length, and there are some boundaries that may be getting blurrier. The question is, how will Disney and Pixar affect each other?
First off, the new org chart looks promising, with the key executive/creative players—Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter—making logical, parallel transitions. Jobs is now Disney's 14th board member, and the largest individual shareholder; not quite in charge, but as close as you can get. Pixar prez Catmull is now president of both Pixar and Disney animation studios. Lasseter is chief creative officer (love that title) of the animation studios, and principal creative advisor at Walt Disney Imagineering, which seems to fit with his hands-on executive/creative role at Pixar.
And let me say right now that I'm a huge fan of Steve Jobs, who deserves the title of The Comeback Kid like no other (and provides unparalleled encouragement to any parent whose kid spends too much time in the garage with his pals). I'm glad to see him wielding such power on the Disney board. He has a proven knack for doing things unconventionally yet successfully, and for creating products that lead to iconic pop-culture status and/or inspire feverish loyalty. In terms of sensing the future and exploiting it, he's probably the closest thing to Walt Disney himself that the board has ever seen. If anyone can give Disney the kick in the pants it needs, it's him.
But the crux of any merger or acquisition is how the new company deals with having two departments that do the same thing. This situation can be handled in one of three ways: closing one department (massive layoffs, with some reassignments); merging the two (some layoffs, one much bigger department); or having two parallel departments. All of these options can lead to culture clashes and resentment between departments without some truly masterful diplomacy.
In an ideal world, we'd see some combination of the second and third options: a vast animation talent pool that gets divided up into mostly autonomous sections depending on the projects currently in production—much like the Disney and Warner studios of old. Maybe we will see that in the future, but right now they're talking about two separate studios, separated by the physical distance between Glendale and Emeryville.
What does this new arrangement mean for the studios' output? Disney had committed themselves to producing only CG films, despite its long heritage (and considerable talent base) in traditional animation. With both studios under the same corporate roof, it seems redundant to have them both producing material in the same medium, using similar techniques for similar stories—especially when Pixar seems so much better at it. But after going through the trauma of converting to a CG-only studio, where can Disney animation go from here? Again, in an ideal world, Catmull and Lasseter would axe future projects like The Wild and Rapunzel Unbraided and start buying light tables again; but like any organism, the studio can only take so many shocks to its system in succession.
There are a lot of questions that will remain unanswered for the next few years, and all we can do is hold our collective breath. I have a lot of faith in Jobs, Catmull and Lasseter, who have shown admirable skill in balancing corporate and creative needs. But there are still so many ways this could go.