Bill Taylor: Pixar's Blockbuster Secrets
Posted on Game Changer: July 8, 2008 10:40 AM
The arrival of summer means trips to the beach, fireworks and parades—and another boffo performance by the creative geniuses at Pixar. The studio's just-released summer movie, Wall-E, has generated rapturous reviews, record-setting ticket sales, and loads of cultural commentary.
More than anything, though, Wall-E has generated amazement from Hollywood observers at Pixar's capacity to generate hit after hit in the fickle world of big-budget filmmaking. Wall-E is the studio's ninth consecutive number-one movie since the release of Toy Story in 1995, an unparalleled record of creative and commercial success.
There are all kinds of theories about the secrets of Pixar's success. But I'm convinced that Pixar's films work so well with audiences because Pixar works so distinctively as a company. My colleague Polly LaBarre and I wrote about Pixar in our book, Mavericks at Work, and its latest box-office hit gives me a chance to reprise one of our "greatest-hit" messages from the book: You can't win big unless you change the game in your field.
Pixar doesn't just make films that perform better than standard fare. It also makes its films differently — and, in the process, defies many familiar, and dysfunctional, industry conventions. Pixar has become the envy of Hollywood because it never went Hollywood.
More than a few business pundits have drawn parallels between the flat, decentralized "corporation of the future" and the ad-hoc collection of actors, producers and technicians that come together around a film and disband once it is finished. In the Hollywood model, highly talented people agree to terms, do their jobs, and move on to the next project. The model allows for maximum flexibility, to be sure, but it inspires minimum loyalty and endless jockeying for advantage.
Turn that model on its head and you get the Pixar version: a tightknit company of long-term collaborators who stick together, learn from one another, and strive to improve with every production. Andrew Stanton, who directed Wall-E, was a key figure behind Finding Nemo, which won two Oscars, generated worldwide box-office of $840 million, and became the best-selling DVD of all time. But Stanton didn't follow the success of Nemo by offering himself to the highest bidder or demanding perks and special treatment. He went back to his job as an employee of the studio, to pitch in on other films and eventually begin work on his next major project.
And Stanton is merely one of many superbly talented writers and directors who have staked their reputations on their work at Pixar. Again, in contrast to convention, these professionals have traded one-time contracts for long-term affiliation and contribute across the studio, rather than to just their pet projects.
According to Randy Nelson, who joined the company in 1997 and is dean of Pixar University, this model reflects "Pixar's specific critique of the industry's standard practice." He explains it this way: "Contracts allow you to be irresponsible as a company. You don't need to worry about keeping people happy and fulfilled. What we have created here — an incredible workspace, opportunities to learn and grow, and, most of all, great co-workers — is better than any contract."
Pixar University is at the center of Pixar's workplace agenda. The operation has more than 110 courses: a complete filmmaking curriculum, classes on painting, drawing, sculpting and creative writing. "We offer the equivalent of an undergraduate education in fine arts and the art of filmmaking," Nelson said. Every employee — whether an animator, technician, production assistant, accountant, marketer, or security guard — is encouraged to devote up to four hours a week, every week, to his or her education.
Randy Nelson is adamant: these classes are not just a break from the office routine. "This is part of everyone's work," he said. "We're all filmmakers here. We all have access to the same curriculum. In class, people from every level sit right next to our directors and the president of the company."
During our research for Mavericks, Polly sat in on a class at Pixar University. The students represented an intriguing cross-section of employees: a post-production software engineer, a set dresser, a marketer, even a company chef, Luigi Passalacqua. "I speak the language of food," he said. "Now I'm learning to speak the language of film."
Thanks to Pixar University, employees learn to see the company's work (and their colleagues) in a new light. "The skills we develop are skills we need everywhere in the organization," Nelson said. "Why teach drawing to accountants? Because drawing class doesn't just teach people to draw. It teaches them to be more observant. There's no company on earth that wouldn't benefit from having people become more observant."
That helps to explain why the Pixar University crest bears the Latin inscription, Alienus Non Diutius. Translation: alone no longer. "It's the heart of our model," Randy Nelson says, "giving people opportunities to fail together and to recover from mistakes together."
That's not how most of Hollywood does it—which helps to explain why Pixar does so well. How are you changing the game in your field? What is your distinctive take on how your industry operates? Do you work as distinctively as you compete?
Generate compelling answers to these make-or-break questions, and you just might create some hits of your own.