Pixar defies gravity
I vividly remember two things about having breakfast with Pixar guru John Lasseter earlier this year. One was that my back was out, so unable to sit comfortably, I had to take notes either standing up or lying down on the carpet of his hotel suite. The second was that when I asked him how Pixar had managed to rack up such an astounding streak of hit films, he said simply, "Quality is the best business plan of all."
It's such a simple formula, yet one that has managed to elude every other studio in town. As you may noticed, the business plan at other studios is: Find a sequel or a TV remake or a video game that can be transformed into an action film--and then drain it of any freshness or verve that might possibly alienate the most timid, risk-averse moviegoer. Pixar is all about originality. Of the studio's nine releases, only one--"Toy Story 2"--has been a sequel. Pixar's new film, "Wall-E," is not only strikingly original, but dare I say it, artistically daring--and yet here it is, in the middle of a sequel-laden summer, earning rave reviews and making $62.5 million in its opening weekend, the third best Pixar opening ever.
The critics have been rapturous. (See here and here and here.) In fact, for all the talk that critics are out of touch with mainstream moviegoers, critics and audiences are in agreement on one key thing: Nobody makes better movies than Pixar. The company has six films in Metacritic's Top 100 movies of all, with "Ratatouille" at No. 7 (higher than "Schindler's List"), "Wall-E" at No. 21 (a notch above "Raging Bull") and "Toy Story" at No. 31, right up there with Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men." The amazing thing isn't just that Pixar has so many films in the critical pantheon, but that its films have made tons more money than almost every other picture on the list. Pixar is a total anomaly in modern-day Hollywood: It makes art movies that have mass appeal. Its films are often populated with dark, pessimistic themes, but they still somehow feel spiritually engaging and uplifting.
This stratospheric level of quality has turned Pixar into movieland's most reliable family brand. The company's movies seem exotic and unfamiliar at first glance--every year I see box-office reporters scratching their heads before a new Pixar release, wondering if this time the company has gone too far. Surely parents wouldn't possibly subject their kids to a sci-fi film with nearly half an hour of zero dialog or an ode to a rat that wants to be a chef in Paris. But the movies always end up triumphing over industry cynicism and timidity because Pixar's artistry has earned our trust.
When I talk to rival studio executives, they scoff. Come on, they say--Warners has to have three movies in the summer and two at Christmas. Of course, they're not all going to be good. Pixar only has to make one movie a year. Fair enough. Maybe making one movie a year is easier. But that does really explain why Pixar's one movie is better than all of Fox's 20 movies? Or 18 of Sony's or Paramount's films? But I think the other studios are embarrassed because Pixar's amazing track record stands as a rebuke to a system that is dominated by mindless test marketing and arid group think. There's no way a film as original as "Wall-E" could emerge from today's risk-averse studios, who refuse to greenlight a project that is "execution dependent"--studio lingo for a movie that people actually have to like to be successful.
What is the secret to Pixar's success. Here's what Lasseter has to say:
First off, Lasseter says success doesn't just breed success--it breeds autonomy, which in turn nurtures creativity. "At Pixar, we've surrounded ourselves with each other, so when we've had success, we've been left alone," he says. "One of the key things we do is--we get comments, but from other filmmakers. Our creative brain trust is our own minds. So we know that we're getting a reaction that comes out of total support, not ego. We have a rule: No note is mandatory, which allows you to be more open to criticism. We only use the notes that help us step back and look at the film through fresh eyes."
Pixar is also unique because of its origins. Today's studios are four generations removed from their original immigrant entrepreneurs. They're more like banks than movie companies, made up of employees all surrounded by constant reminders that they work for a mega-conglomerate always worried about making back its investment. Though owned by Disney, Pixar is still, creatively, the construct of Steve Jobs, a first-generation technological entrepreneur and visionary.
"We're a studio of pioneers who, if you look at it technically, were the ones who invented much of computer animation" says Lasseter. "Everything we've done no one had done before--it was all new. So that creates a group of people who strive to break new ground. It's addicting. When someone comes in and says, 'This is something no one has ever done before,' we all get excited. We have a company culture that celebrates being pioneers."
He adds: "Because we're a culture of inventors, nothing is standard operating procedure for us. We constantly reevaluate and reexamine everything we do. We go back and study what works and what didn't work and we get excited about what didn't work because, for us, that's a challenging new problem to solve."
Pixar has one other arrow in its quiver that other studios lack--an R&D department. Many of Pixar's best films were inspired by or originated as short films. (Go here to see the shorts that Pixar's features are built from.) "It's our key place to experiment," says Lasseter. "In the world of features, the budgets are so high that people get nervous about experimenting. In a short, you can see what works and what doesn't and hammer it out. It has allowed our filmmakers to gain experience, both as animators and as storytellers, but without the pressure of a $150-million feature looming over their head."
"Wall-E's" Andrew Stanton started as an animator on Pixar shorts before graduating to directing. As a number of critics have noted, "Wall-E" pays homage to a host of films before it--it's Stanton's valentine to the sci-films that mesmerized him growing up in the 1970s. If we're lucky, some future filmmaker will make a movie that's a love letter to the Pixar films of today, since their invention and artistry reminds us of what made us excited about movies in the first place.
John Lasseter photo by Gus Ruelas / Associated Press