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With Pixar, Steve Jobs changed the film industry forever

Until the Apple founder came along and rescued LucasFilms' fledgling computer graphics division, animation in Hollywood was a dying art. Now, people expect great computer-animated films.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

In this archival photograph, Pixar CEO Steve Jobs is seen with the studio's other lead executives, Ed Catmull (left) and John Lasseter (right). Pixar

There's never been a movie studio with an unbroken streak of hit movies like Pixar. From the original "Toy Story" to "Finding Nemo" to "Cars," "Ratatouille," and "Toy Story 3," the animation wizards at Pixar have won over the industry, forcing Hollywood to change how it makes films, and it's made billions in the process.

And it never would have happened without Steve Jobs.

Pixar began as a division of George Lucas' LucasFilm, working on the development of imaging technology and its own imaging computer. But inside, some were more interested in making animated films than expensive machines, and LucasFilm soon lost interest in the project.

According to "The Pixar Touch," by David Price, LucasFilm in late 1985 was on the verge of selling the unwanted division to a partnership of Philips Electronics and General Motors subsidiary Electronic Data Systems. Only a boardroom spat started by EDS founder and GM board member Ross Perot over a $5.2 billion buyout of Hughes Aircraft--and the subsequent souring of GM on anything Perot and EDS were involved in--scuttled the deal.

And along came Jobs to save the day. Brandishing a $5 million check, the Apple founder--by then kicked out of his own company--bought Pixar on January 30, 1986, setting in motion a string of events that would generate some of the best-loved films of the late 20th century and result in Disney's 2006 acquisition of Pixar for $7.4 billion. Jobs' initial $5 million purchase price, plus the additional $5 million in capital he invested in his new baby made him Disney's largest shareholder and instantly one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Won over
To Price, Jobs was an "accidental visionary" in the film industry. Speaking to CNET by phone Thursday, the author said that though Jobs had at first bought Pixar mainly because he was enthralled by the outfit's computer technology, he was soon won over by the passion of John Lasseter, an animator who had flamed out in an initial stint at Disney in the 1980s, but who found a home at Pixar. Lasseter, Price said, "wanted to build an animation studio, and it's a great tribute to [Jobs'] genius that he was flexible enough to put aside his original idea of being a computer company owner with Pixar [and to] turn it into the incredible artistic powerhouse it is."

This is Steve Jobs' mailbox in the Pixar mailroom, as seen in May 2010. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

By now it's common knowledge that over time, Jobs held the CEO titles at both Apple and Pixar. But where he was the everyday leader at 1 Infinite Loop, he let his lieutenants--Lasseter and Ed Catmull--run things at Pixar.

Still, it may well be that Jobs' general approach to completing projects, his insistence on waiting until something was good enough to be released, was what gave Lasseter and Catmull the confidence to put in the time and energy to make so many of Pixar's films as good as they are.

"Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend, and the guiding light of the Pixar family," said Lasseter and Catmull in a public statement upon news of Jobs' passing. "He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer-animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply 'make it great.' He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity, and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar's DNA."

Creating a new industry
In the 1990s, Pixar was "not the only [studio] working on [computer animation] for movies," said David Cohen, an editor at Variety. But "they were the ones that succeeded and showed everybody how to do it, both technologically and creatively, and the extent [to which] that changed the entertainment landscape is hard to overstate."

After all, Cohen explained, until "Toy Story" hit theaters in 1995, Disney had been pretty much the only maker of animated films in the United States. And based on the success of "Toy Story" and subsequent Pixar films, a whole animation industry was born in Hollywood. Today, Cohen pointed out, there's a Best Animated Feature Academy Award, meaning that there is at least one such film released a month on average. "That's a completely different world than before Pixar," Cohen said. "Would that have happened without Pixar? Well, somebody had to come along and show it could be successful."

Driving Pixar
Because Jobs had a creative team at Pixar led by Lasseter and Catmull, there was no need for him to try to drive that process. Over the years, Jobs was known to spend about a day a week at Pixar's Emeryville, Calif., headquarters, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. But he most likely wasn't sitting in animation meetings, or working on scripts. "Steve's major impact was on the strategic direction of the company," Price said. "He had the crucial insight that Pixar could one day be the equal of the Walt Disney Company in animation. He made this vision a reality by overseeing the IPO of Pixar stock in 1995, a week after 'Toy Story' was released. He foresaw that if they had that capital, it would give them the independence to create a body of work and to become a brand that would become as powerful in entertainment as Disney. He was very explicit about this."

And obviously, he was able to pull off that vision. Over the years, Pixar's 12 feature films have generated about $7.2 billion worldwide, according to The-Numbers.com. And Jobs succeeded in selling the studio to Disney, a move that was celebrated within the ranks at Disney's animation house. Lasseter's and Catmull's arrival at Disney was "greeted with cheers," Price recalled. "People within Disney animation knew that the studio had fallen on terribly hard times, and that its films were not doing well. And they knew that they needed something and they rightly saw John Lasseter and Ed Catmull as their best hopes in bringing Disney animation back to life."

The entire Pixar team, with Jobs, Lasseter, and Catmull in front, photographed at studio headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., for its 20th anniversary. Pixar

Yet even without the library of films and influence on the wider computer animation industry, Pixar's impact on Hollywood may still have been profound. That's due, said Cohen, to RenderMan, the computer rendering software that the company developed in 1987. Today, that software is not only used in-house at Pixar, but also at studios throughout Hollywood and the global film industry and the software alone "would have made Pixar a significant company to the movie business," Cohen said.

Still, what will always be Pixar's calling card is its long history of turning out top-quality films that make hundreds of millions of dollars--notwithstanding the mediocre reviews for 2011's "Cars 2." And the studio's ability to succeed again and again and again, when almost everyone in Hollywood falters most of the time, is likely due to the ethos that Jobs instilled there--and at Apple--that Pixar would take whatever time was necessary to get each film right.

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"His experience with Pixar was representative of the same kind of acumen and vision that he showed at Apple," said Doug Seibold, president and publisher of Agate, which will soon release "I, Steve: Steve Jobs in his Own Words." "One of the things that comes up over and over again in 'I, Steve' is his belief that in order to really satisfy what people wanted, you had to look beyond what people were doing right now, and even beyond what people were telling you they wanted, in order to see the next thing."

That may manifest, Cohen explained, in Pixar's challenge to traditional Hollywood business rhythms. "The movie industry has to fill a [release] pipeline, and Steve Jobs and Pixar have not been willing to put something out just to fill a pipeline...and meet a release date," Cohen said. "They've always been willing to [wait until a film] was great. I think that's a huge challenge to Hollywood, because Hollywood doesn't run that way. James Cameron works that way [and] there's a handful of powerful auteurs that work that way, but for the most part, it's [usually] good enough, get it out the door, get it into theaters. There's a lot of settling, and [Jobs] didn't settle."

Yet, despite Pixar's tremendous success, that model may not have the lasting influence some might expect. That devotion to quality--without worrying so much about the bottom line, or tight schedules--is not compatible with most corporate structures, which is how Hollywood tends to operate. "It is very difficult for corporate environments...to adapt to the Pixar model," Cohen said, "because it's artist driven. The artists have control."

As such, Cohen lamented, "I wish I could say that all of Hollywood had looked at Steve Jobs, [at] his absolute conviction in his own vision, his passion for what he did...and determined [it would do the same]. I don't think that's remotely true."

Still, Jobs' reach in the world of film is vast, and will likely continue to grow, long after his death. His commitment to the development at Apple of devices like the iPad, as well as cloud services like iTunes and the increasing availability of streaming movies, will almost certainly be felt in consumers' living rooms and inside studios for years. "I think the influence that Steve Jobs had on Hollywood has not even been fully realized," Cohen argued. "I think we won't fully appreciate it for 10 or 15 years....He was a master of disruptive technologies. His innovations were feared as much as admired [in Hollywood], and for good reasons."