Commentary: Pixar builds winning streak
Studio has turned out nine winners in a rowOne critically applauded, audience-friendly hit movie might be the result of serendipity -- all the elements just somehow falling perfectly into place. Two or three more might represent an extraordinary streak of luck.
But Pixar Animation Studios has turned out nine winners in a row, the latest being "WALL-E," which opened during the weekend to $63.1 million and a collective chorus of critical hosannas.
So how does Pixar do it? And what can the rest of the film industry learn from its example?
The conventional wisdom has long been that the Pixar wizards -- led by chief creative officer John Lasseter and president Ed Catmull -- simply put more care into crafting their stories than anyone else, and there's certainly truth to that. But a lot of other studios also spend years trying to get their scripts right, even if more often than not that means bringing on extra writers and second-guessing the whole process in an attempt to cover each and every bet.
What's different about Pixar is the confidence with which it tells its story.
A number of factors have contributed to that confidence.
Stability: Andrew Stanton, the writer and director on "WALL-E," is nearly a 20-year Pixar veteran. He worked on the story for a short film, "Pencil Test," that played at SIGGRAPH in 1988. Since then, he has worked on the screenplays for the "Toy Story" movies, "A Bug's Life" and "Monsters, Inc."; co-directed "Bug's Life" and helmed "Finding Nemo"; and lent his voice to characters in "Toy Story," "Nemo" and "Cars."
The original teaser trailer for "WALL-E" highlights the longtime, collective nature of Pixar's inspirations by recounting a 1994 lunch at which Lasseter, Stanton, Pete Docter and the late Joe Ranft sketched out ideas that would blossom into movies as various as "Bug's Life" and "WALL-E."
Smarts: In some corners of the blogosphere last week there were cries of outrage when Stanton was quoting by the New York Times as saying: "I never think about the audience. If someone gives me a marketing report, I throw it away." How in the world can you make movies if you don't care what the audience thinks, they demanded to know.
But read it again. What Stanton is saying is that Pixar movies aren't designed by test-marketing premises to see whether they will fly and then reverse-engineering a movie to fit the poll results.
In fact, watching a movie like "WALL-E" -- which draws inspiration from sources as eccentrically disparate as the much-derided movie version of "Hello, Dolly" to Colombian artist Fernando Botero -- you get the sense that Stanton and company are working first to amuse themselves, secure in the knowledge that what they find entertaining will entertain others. While they might have no use for test-marketing, they actually trust that their audiences will be as smart as they are.
Techno-savvy: Pixar has, of course, blazed the way in proving that computer graphics can be put to artful uses. But their movies are never about showing off technology just to grab an audience's attention.
In the new book "The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company," David A. Price recounts how the artists throughout Pixar's history have set the agenda that led to the technical breakthroughs. Pixar originally was created to sell hardware and software -- Lasseter and his crew were allowed to make their first short films as demonstrations of the company's products. But in fact, they were just biding their time. Once "Toy Story" proved that full-length, CG-generated movies could be wildly profitable, Pixar morphed into a full-fledged entertainment company, and its technical expertise has served its creative vision ever since.
All in all, they are lessons that the rest of the industry would be well advised to heed -- not that the singular Pixar story is ever going to be easy to replicate.