Docter and Lasseter were part of the Pixar Braintrust, a group of aging white men that held creative control of Pixar’s productions. The original members – Lasseter, Docter, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Finding Dori), Joe Ranft (who died while directing Cars), and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3 and Coco) – started working together on Toy Story and were empowered by their rapid financial success. Over time this group came to define the unmistakable Pixar house style.
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When John Lasseter took a leave of absence in November 2017 after female co-workers accused him of misconduct against women, Pixar employees were stunned and confused. How does a film production company cope with having their creative patriarch gone?
Lasseter admitted to his “missteps” – “grabbing, kissing and making comments about physical attributes of women” as Pixar insiders told The Hollywood Reporter – before officially leaving the following summer. The culture of sexism fostered by Lasseter and others at Pixar was at the same time revealed by a lengthy tell-all piece by Cassandra Smolcic, former graphic designer at the company: “Male and female employees alike told me that the company’s Creative Chief Officer, John Lasseter, could be touchy-feely with members of the opposite sex; that he had a tendency to make sexually charged comments to and about women; that interactions with him were often uncomfortable or even mortifying for female Pixarians.”
But his departure wasn’t clean. Pixar and Disney employees close to Lasseter had been covering for his behavior by keeping him out of the public eye for as long as possible. There’s even a suggestion that the firing was “a political move, no link with #MeToo” because “it’s the perfect excuse to fire a great leader.” Whatever the case may be, booting Lasseter was the right thing to do. Although questions remain: why did it take so long and why haven’t those who protected Lasseter been scrutinized?
Lasseter was such a commanding presence at Pixar that its mascot, Luxo Jr., the desk lamp that squishes the “i” during the animated Pixar logo, was Lasseter’s personal desk lamp and protagonist of his proof-of-concept Pixar short film Luxo Jr. He was the first creative employee Pixar hired while it was still a subdivision of Lucasfilm in the eighties. After Pixar’s films started dominating the animation market in the late nineties and early aughts, Disney bought Pixar in 2006, which promoted Lasseter to chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney Animation. Lasseter used his experience to improve Disney Animation with commercially successful, box office hits like Frozen and Zootopia. When he left, he was leaving two animation industry leaders, both of which carried deep imprints of his creative leadership.
Then Disney CEO Bob Iger replaced Lasseter with Pete Docter, a Pixar employee since 1990 – their tenth employee and third animator. He helped write the first two Toy Story films and then directed Monsters, Inc., the first Pixar film Lasseter didn’t direct. He then wrote and directed Up and Inside Out and was working on Soul when Iger promoted him.
Docter and Lasseter were part of the Pixar Braintrust, a group of aging white men that held creative control of Pixar’s productions. The original members – Lasseter, Docter, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Finding Dori), Joe Ranft (who died while directing Cars), and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3 and Coco) – started working together on Toy Story and were empowered by their rapid financial success. Over time this group came to define the unmistakable Pixar house style. Many creative artists have entered and exited the Braintrust over time, but of the original five, only Docter and Stanton remain. Another important departure was Ed Catmull’s in 2019. Catmull, one of Pixar’s co-founders, served slightly above Lasseter as president of Pixar and Disney Animation.
When Docter was promoted the year before Catmull retired, he was charged with running a company that was not only losing its upper management and original Braintrust members, but also reckoning with the shifting cultural era defined by #MeToo, the Hollywood gender gap, and Black Lives Matter, as well as having to serve the interests of a corporate parent that started its own ambitious streaming service to compete directly with Netflix.
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What’s happened to Pixar since?
To help explain their current era, it’s useful to separate the company into three eras: Lasseter, Disney, and Docter. The names are completely arbitrary – Lasseter was around during the Disney era while Disney and Docter have been around for all three. What they signify is the dominant force at that time, which will become clearer soon. Disney became involved with Pixar early through financial backing and distribution, but Lasseter still had the most influence as CCO and Braintrust leader. After Disney bought Pixar from Steve Jobs in 2006, Lasseter was stretched thin with his new responsibilities at Disney Animation, which resulted in a noticeable difference in the films Pixar developed.
In the Lasseter era, Pixar released six films and had four in development when acquired by Disney. Because Pixar films take years to make, there’s a distinction between the films developed in one era and released in another. For instance, the four films in development during the acquisition share many of the same qualities as Pixar’s first six films: original ideas that rely on anthropomorphized objects and animals. Of these ten films, Toy Story 2 was the only sequel.
Of the 13 films developed in the Disney era, seven were sequels. The reason for this shift to sequels was plainly stated by Iger in 2008: when a film performs well in theaters, they calculate whether “that success is leverageable across all of our businesses and in multiple territories and then to what extent we really believe [that] by investing in that franchise, it can continue to create value over a long period of time.” Speaking less than two years after the acquisition, Iger mentioned Cars would be receiving the franchise treatment instead of Ratatouille, which had just received five Oscar nominations and made $150 million more at the box office than Cars, simply because Disney is “selling more merchandise now than in the year that [Cars] was released.” They immediately started planning a Cars sequel, theme park ride, and online virtual world to accompany the merchandising demand.
This strategy of franchising and merchandising is literally as old as Mickey Mouse. Back in 1932, Herman “Kay” Kamen approached the Disney brothers and asked to license their cartoon characters. The scheme worked so well that the revenue was able to fund Disney’s first feature films, the ones that set records and changed the animation film industry forever. It wasn’t different at Iger’s Disney. The reason for continual Toy Story sequels, spinoffs, and series is so that each new group of children will love Pixar’s first story world. That love is expressed through buying plush Woody dolls and tickets to Disney theme parks. The box office revenue of these films, though massive, makes up little of Disney’s overall revenue.
While Disney focused on steering Pixar toward franchises instead of original films, Disney Animation, dormant since its nineties dominance, was revived by the infusions of Pixar’s leadership. Catmull explains in his business memoir Creativity, Inc. (Transworld Publishers Limited) that “Pixar would wither and die” if they only made sequels, which he calls “creative bankruptcy.” A deal was made around the time of the acquisition – “one original film each year and a sequel every other year, or three films every two years” – but up until Lasseter’s departure that formula was inversed: seven sequels and four originals were released. Catmull recognized that Disney’s films were designed to “feed the Beast,” meaning “any large group that needs to be fed an uninterrupted diet of new material and resources in order to function.” After all, how could they sell Toy Story dolls and build Toy Story rides if customers weren’t consuming new Tory Story films and series?
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In the burgeoning Docter era, the original “three films every two years” deal has held true with Luca, Turning Red, and Lightyear. When Docter took over, two major changes took place: the creative advisory teams will be 50 to 50, males to females, and young, diverse creatives are allowed to develop projects outside of the Braintrust’s control. Pixar’s first film to be directed by a woman (Brave’s director, Brenda Chapman, was fired during production) was this year’s Turning Red.
This shift wasn’t entirely an organic consequence of Lasseter’s departure and Pixar’s reckoning with an underrepresentation of female artists and characters. Another name for the Docter era could be (and maybe should be called) the Disney+ era. A year after Docter’s promotion, Disney+ was launched without many new films and shows. There was The Mandalorian and … nothing much else. Apart from 2015, 2017, and 2020, Pixar releases films yearly because of the amount of time and money spent on each production. This meant that pre-Disney+ Pixar wouldn’t be able to “feed the Beast” of Disney’s new form of distribution, which requires constant output to avoid subscriber churn. Considering Disney’s ambition to compete directly with Netflix, Disney needed a dramatic increase in production, which runs opposite to Iger’s – replaced as CEO by Bob Chapek in 2020 – strategy of high-quality branded content. (Better to release five to ten Pixar, Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm films per year than two dozen, mid-budget experiments.) This strategy proved effective in the late teens and led to near-monopoly of Disney IPs at the 2019 box office.
Pixar got its order to produce more content, which Docter embraced because it allows them to experiment with new styles and a diverse generation of young artists, similar to how the Braintrust felt in the nineties. Luca experimented with a 2D aesthetic similar to Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, which also extended into the design of Turning Red. Luca’s director, Enrico Casarosa, claims that his quirky filmmaking style was fostered by Docter, who is “certainly a little quirky himself” – that in general, Docter and other Pixar creative leaders are pushing for projects using the artists’ “own voice that doesn’t have to be part of a Pixar house style.”
The downside of this new direction was the decision to release Soul, Luca, and Turning Red directly on Disney+ with neither a theatrical release nor a premium pay window because of the excuse that theaters were unable to exhibit them. This may have been true for Onward, which enjoyed two weeks of a theatrical release before Spring 2020 lockdowns, and maybe also for Soul, released in December 2020, but not with Luca (June 2021) and Turning Red (March 2022). When the live-action Mulan remake was placed on Disney+ several months before Soul, it enjoyed an exclusive Premier Access PPV release that cost $30. The three Pixar films got the free-release treatment, which upset both fans and Pixar employees; Docter felt a “kick in the gut” when Iger told him that Soul, which was optimized for theatrical release, would be sent directly to Disney+.
Aside from failing to acknowledge the importance of Pixar’s films and employees for Disney’s resurgence as the animation film industry leader, Disney is retaining its Disney-era strategy in the guise of allowing more young artists, females, and animation styles to flourish. With Disney increasing its push toward growing Disney+, they’ll be requiring Pixar to feed the Beast in just another form.