Estranged bedfellows 


Disney CEO Michael Eisner should be thrilled. Walt Disney Pictures' big release for the holidays -- Pixar Animation Studio's "Monsters, Inc." -- has not fallen prey to "Harry Potter." Six weeks into its initial domestic release, "Monsters" still finished No. 5 at the box office last weekend.

To date, "Monsters" has taken in more than $212 million. That beats the domestic box office for Disney's last three animated films combined -- "The Emperor's New Groove" ($87 million), "Recess: School's Out" ($36 million) and "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" ($83 million).

Even so, Burbank is bummed. Mickey is worried that Pixar won't always be the company's creative partner. That someday soon this computer-generated- imagery, or CGI, operation could become Dis-ney's direct competitor.

You see, Pixar isn't a division of the Walt Disney Co. It's a separate corporation under contract to deliver a fixed number of feature-length films to the Mouse for release. Under this agreement, Pixar still has three more pictures to go: "Finding Nemo" (summer 2003), "The Invincibles" (holiday season 2004) and "Route 66" (late 2005 or early 2006). After that ... well, then things start to get interesting.

Pixar Chairman (and Apple Computer CEO) Steve Jobs has been upfront about his ambitions, stating that he wants to ramp up production in order to release one new feature a year as well as move into the lucrative field of television animation. Jobs has been quoted as saying he hopes to turn his corporation, based in Emeryville, Calif., into the Walt Disney Studios for the new millennium.

The only problem, as Eisner sees it, is that Walt Disney Studios already had planned to be the Walt Disney Studios of the new millennium.

Disney can at least take some comfort in knowing that the creative types who do the heavy lifting for Jobs aren't all that fond of him. It has almost become the norm for folks at Pixar to ignore Jobs' creative input. Take, for example, the score that songwriter Randy Newman wrote for the studio's first feature for Disney, 1996's "Toy Story." Jobs hated Newman's songs and tried to talk the production team out of using them. The animators held firm -- and Toy Story wound up with a best-selling (and Academy Award-nominated) score.

His animators may ignore Jobs, but Wall Street doesn't. Indeed, analysts took notice earlier this year when Jobs began complaining that Pixar was unhappy with Disney; that Disney was deliberately holding up work on "Toy Story III," and that he and his animators looked forward to the day when they were free of their bondage to the Mouse.

Why leak such grumbling? Given the $267 million that Dreamworks SKG's "Shrek" has earned, Jobs knows that CGI filmmaking is attracting admirers. Perhaps someone out there might be willing to pick up the tab for Pixar's production costs once Jobs' animation operation breaks free of Mickey's grip.

Mind you, that's still four or five years down the line -- a long time in the real world, but barely a blink of an eye compared to the slower-than-slow production pace of your standard animated feature.

Attempting an end-run around Jobs, Mickey approached Pixar's chief creative guru (and former Disney animator) John Lasseter with the opportunity of a lifetime. Disney offered to push aside the company's current animation studio chief, Thomas Schu-macher, and set up Lasseter as the new king of Toontown. That meant he'd be responsible for riding herd on all the films Walt Disney Feature Animation had in production, all the pictures Pixar still was pumping out for the Mouse, all the direct-to-video projects the company had in the pipeline, and all Disney television animation. In other words, the works.

But the real beauty of the plan was that it would have robbed Pixar of its driving force and presumably hobbled its ability to stand alone. That, in turn, might have compelled Jobs to stick with the Mouse rather than do his own thing.

Unfortunately for Disney, Mickey's Machiavellian scheme didn't pay off when Lasseter turned down the offer. Moreover, when Jobs learned of Disney's behind-his-back dealings, he swooped in and signed Lasseter to an exclusive, 10-year contract.

Will Jobs eventually follow through and make Pixar an independent outfit? Or will he play it safe and make the Mouse pay through the nose for the privilege of releasing Pixar's pictures after 2006?

No one can say. What is certain, though, is that Disney hopes its own upcoming animated release, "Lilo & Stitch" (a project produced primarily in Orlando), will get people excited about traditional animation again. And that CGI won't be its undoing.


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