Pixar's Hollywood Primer

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I'm Matt Holzman with the Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business this week.

As a KCRW listener, you might naturally extrapolate that all public radio?stations have a smart, cool mix of eclectic programs. But you'd be wrong. In fact, most public radio stations are pretty conservative. And they view KCRW and its success as an anomaly that can only be attributed to factors that cannot be emulated.

In many ways, Pixar Animation Studios is the KCRW of Hollywood. With the big numbers posted by their latest film, Pixar continues to bat a thousand. Wall-E, along with the two Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life, Monsters,Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars and Ratatouille have all had varying degrees of critical and financial success: that is to day from really successful to wildly successful.

You'd think that every person in the business would be dissecting Pixar with tweezers and a microscope to try to emulate – or at least learn – from their success. But that's generally not the case.

They say Pixar is animation so their success doesn't apply to us. Pixar is based in Northern California so their success doesn't apply to us. Pixar barely does a film a year, they're run by Steve Jobs, we don't have their creative talent etc, etc, etc, so, their success doesn't apply to us.

Some of that might be true. But there are very concrete lessons that can be learned from how Pixar makes movies and how the company came into being.

As such, David Price's great new book The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company should be required reading at every studio – and for anyone fascinated by how creativity is germinated and nurtured in our commercial culture.

The heart and soul of Pixar seems to be the joy of telling stories, and that was true even before they were a company that was in the business of story telling. Though the nerds that started Pixar were hard-core computer geeks, their aim was always to use technology as a way to make movies. And this was in the 70's, long before computers were great at making still pictures.

Even under the ownership of visionaries George Lucas and then Steve Jobs, Pixar was viewed as a hardware and software company, and the people there had to largely keep their movie making aspirations from their genius bosses.

When they hired animator John Lasetter in 1983, they had to give him the title of Interface Designer. Lasseter was in fact a guy who'd been fired from Disney but would become the creative soul of Pixar. In the early days he made his short films like Luxo, Jr. nominally to show off Pixar's computers, but what he was really doing was proving that computers could be tools to tell great stories.

Finally getting the greenlight to make Toy Story in 1991 was really the beginning of the beginning of Pixar's Hollywood success story. In fact, the two chapters in David Price's book on the making of the first Pixar feature lay out the model for the company's success: how commercial and creative needs can work hand in hand, how auteur vision and artistic collaboration are not mutually exclusive.

So what are the lessons to be learned from the Pixar story for everyone else in Hollywood? Well, storytelling and characters come first. Technology is a tool. Start with a great idea but don't be so in love with it that you can't make it better. Put someone you trust in charge and give them to room to work; they'll in turn trust the people that work for them and get the best out of them. Know your core competencies and bring in help when you need it. Don't pigeonhole. Execs can have really helpful notes and an animator might be a great character voice. Always be looking for new ideas and new talent; give credit where credit is due and be generous with what you know.

But the ultimate lesson from Pixar is an idea as old as Hollywood: be passionate about what you do and make the process must be as rewarding as the result. That's been Pixar's mantra, and you can see that it's worked for them on the screen, and in their bottom line. In many ways, Pixar Animation Studios is the KCRW of Hollywood.

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@kcrw.org.

For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman and that's the Business Brief.




Matt Holzman