Sometimes significant events in history can be triggered by random intersections, the results of which literally change the direction of the world in which we live. The entertainment/media industry is not immune to this phenomenon. The story of Pixar Animation Studios is one case in which the firings of three individuals at crucial moments compelled a junction which would result in one of the most successful, innovative and, if I may borrow from my dry business 101 lexicon, “bitchin'” companies the world has ever known.
In a hyper-simplified form the story goes something like this: in 1985, Steve Jobs was fired from his position at the firm he co- founded, Apple Computers. Meanwhile at around the same time down at Disney Studios, an enthusiastic whiz with computer graphics, John Lasseter, was handed his walking papers. And a few years earlier, George Lucas, metaphorically speaking, was fired from his marriage. Thus was Jobs looking for a new project, Lasseter a new outlet, and Lucas some cash to assuage the costs of divorce. When the dust settled, Jobs would purchase the Graphics Group which was one-third of the Lucasfilm computer division for $5 million plus a capital investment of another $5 million. One of the acquired firm’s newer employees was Lasseter. C.E.O. Jobs’ company, headed by Dr. Edwin Catmull as President, would be renamed Pixar.
As is the case with many new businesses, Pixar was not an instant success. Sales of its core product, Pixar Image Computer, were limited. Fortunately Disney Studios was a client, seeing the device as a vehicle by which it could transition from the laborious 2-D pen and ink animation to CGI. It would prove to be a vital relationship for the young firm. Still, Pixar was losing Jobs over a million dollars a year due to the budgetary demands of its cutting-edge technology. He was even considering taking a loss on his investment and selling or terminating the venture. “If I knew in 1986 how much it was going to cost to keep Pixar going, I doubt if I would’ve bought the company,” Jobs later told Fortune magazine.
Hoping to drive Pixar sales, Lasseter and Catmull labored day and night to create an animated short that was completely CGI in time to be premiered at the SIGGRAPH ( Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) annual computer technology conference. They managed to pull it off and before the two minute and eighteen second Luxo Jr. featuring the now famous desk lamp mascot finished playing it was hailed with applause.
It would not be until the successful release of Toy Story (as part of a $26 million three picture deal with Disney) that Pixar would be on sound footing. It arrived in time for the 1995 holiday season and went on to gross over $350 million worldwide. Pixar’s IPO which would capitalize its transition from a CGI firm to full-fledged studio followed at the end of the same year priced at $22/share. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Pixar has thrilled a generation of wide-eyed children and grateful parents. (I know if it’s a Pixar film, I need not grab the remote with my thumb at the ready on the “last channel” or “mute” buttons.) Few companies have so captured the wave of a new paradigm in their industry and surfed it to such dazzling heights. Pixar has produced eleven feature films with Toy Story 3 as the latest masterpiece. (Cars 2 is slated for summer 2011). There, quite simply, are not enough superlatives to describe its achievements. To date, the studio has earned twenty-four Academy Awards, three Grammys, six Golden Globes among its many accolades — and it has made $5.5 billion worldwide. It is one of, if not the, most critically acclaimed film studios of all time.
Pixar is one of the great American stories. It combines innovation, chutzpah, vision, unconventional thinking, stunning technology, and a great narrative of those who seized the moment in time and made it their own. The best of the best, it is a monument to the possibilities that only a capitalist society that rewards innovation and encourages risk-taking can foster. When creative people willing to take chances and alter the conventions of their time are given free reign to attain their full vision–or go down trying–the possibilities are boundless.
Today we have seen the rise of an unsettling political culture where ever more misguided eyes cast their unquestioning gaze towards a growing centralized state for guidance in their lives. So many Americans have placed so much trust and raw power in the hands of a governmental apparatus that has shown itself to be a haven for the truly cynical and, worse, the most mediocre among us from Congress and the White House on down.
Companies like Pixar should serve as a reminder that free enterprise, warts and all, has been the driving force behind so many innovations and products that have made these days the historically best of days for those who have not given up faith in the power of the idea. Pixar’s story serves as an elegant illustration that it will be from the free-wheeling individuals, the courageous entrepreneurs — not some hopelessly inept and bloated bureaucratic leviathan — that the great advances of this nascent century will still come.