The Troubling Pixar Paradox

Pixar’s leader Pete Docter and ‘Inside Out‘ producer Jonas Rivera. Photo: Fotonoticias/WireImage
Matthew Belloni
June 15, 2023

Last time I walked onto the Pixar campus up in Emeryville—past that giant Luxo, Jr. lamp and the Lego Woody and Buzz—it was to interview its co-founder, Ed Catmull. That was late summer of 2015, at arguably the high point of the company, and I could feel the bravado, even from the quiet, all-business Catmull. Pixar had just released Inside Out, maybe its most original and entertaining film, which grossed $850 million worldwide in theaters. It capped an incredible run of 15 innovative and profitable features, dating back to Toy Story, in 1995. (The Good Dinosaur, released later in 2015, would snap the Pixar streak, grossing only $334 million.)

At the same time, Catmull and his creative partner, John Lasseter, probably the most significant figure in American animation since Walt Disney, had also taken over the struggling Disney Animation Studios after Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion, in 2006. And that studio was humming, too, with hits like Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, and Zootopia and Moana nearly finished. Catmull had even run a victory lap of sorts, writing a management book, Creativity, Inc. (with Amy Wallace), that evangelized the unique, time-consuming, and, yes, really expensive processes that allowed Pixar to kick everyone’s ass in animation.

At this point, most people in Hollywood know the Pixar tenets: The “braintrust” that interrogated each film and filmmaker as if it were a PhD dissertation; the willingness to scrap perfectly okay projects, even if it meant pushing deadlines—refusing to “feed the Beast,” as Catmull calls it—to change scripts mid-production or even to replace directors like Brenda Chapman (Brave) or Bob Peterson (Good Dinosaur). It was all part of creating a “sustainable creative culture,” Catmull writes, “to protect Pixar from the forces that ruin so many businesses.” As Ed walked me through the hangar-like space that co-founder Steve Jobs had personally designed to all but force creativity and collaboration, and to keep out distractions—including from the silly overlords at Disney—there was no reason to second-guess his advice.