April 19, 2014

The Pixar Perspective on Layoffs

If you didn’t buy 2013 as being a year of total change for Pixar Animation Studios before, it would be extraordinarily difficult to deny it after the latest bit of bad news out of Emeryville. And, as is now typical, it all revolves around The Good Dinosaur, which holds the title as the most unfortunately beleaguered future release from any major film studio, all things considered. Was it only a few months ago when the film was unveiled at the D23 Expo, including some of its top-billed voice cast? Since early August, things have changed rapidly for The Good Dinosaur. First, its director, Bob Peterson, was shifted off the project. (As of this writing, no replacement has been announced; there’s a group of creatives working on the film’s production, but it’s closer to a brain trust.) Then, the release date was shifted from May of 2014 to November of 2015, making 2014 the first year in nearly a decade without a new Pixar film. Now, the company has laid off roughly 5% of its work force, in conjunction with that 18-month delay.

The Pixar Perspective

The Good Dinosaur

By now, of course, this column has covered the negative aspects of Pixar’s recent creative decisions so many times, it may seem like a broken record. Although 2013 was also marked by a perfectly enjoyable and rousing new Pixar film, Monsters University, it will likely be remembered as a low point for the studio creatively, if not financially. (As it goes with pretty much every big animation studio in Hollywood, Pixar’s films are performing just fine at the box office. For all of the largely tepid response to Monsters University, at least from critics, it’s grossed over $740 million worldwide.) For good or ill, more people (including this writer) probably harped more than necessary on Planes, a Cars spin-off that isn’t even technically a Pixar film. And release-date shifts, directorial upheaval, and downsizing of one sort or another (it’s barely been two months since Pixar Canada was shut down completely) lead to a presumption that there is trouble in paradise.

Leaving aside the general acknowledgment that people getting laid off from any job, ever, is terrible news, what may be most vexing about this new chink in Pixar’s armor is that it only further amps up the pressure and expectation of their next films, specifically The Good Dinosaur. That film and Inside Out, Pete Docter’s next project and the other Pixar film slated to open in 2015, before Dinosaur, were both presented at the last D23 Expo, and the consensus was as follows: The Good Dinosaur looked potentially intriguing, sure, but Inside Out looked incredible. Though anticipation will arguably be quite high for both of these films, it’s fair to presume that when people go into The Good Dinosaur, they may enter it with reframed intensity; in essence, some of us may wonder what the fuss was all about. This is, no doubt, an unfair sense of mind with which to approach any film, but considering how much very public change has occurred to this movie (and who knows what will happen next year), The Good Dinosaur may well be weighted down by all of the undue pressure.

The Good Dinosaur Teaser Poster

If anything can be taken from this new story, it’s that…well, how much worse can it get for Pixar than layoffs? Long gone is the start-up company that, in the 1980s, was able to stave off layoffs suggested by then-owner George Lucas; at that point, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith essentially offered themselves up for the slaughter before anyone else, and then Lucasfilm backed off. Now, of course, through sheer coincidence, both Lucasfilm and Pixar are nestled under the Disney banner, a monolithic company that would presumably not be so willing to forego downsizing if John Lasseter or Pete Docter or Andrew Stanton sacrificed themselves in place of their underlings. (Not to say that any of those men wouldn’t do something so noble, to be clear. The gesture wouldn’t help much, it’s safe to speculate.) Now that these layoffs have happened, as when downsizing occurred at Pixar’s Vancouver studio, what’s more important to ask is this: what do these layoffs signify?

What’s been reported, from various outlets, is roughly the same thing: the people who were laid off (if, as the LA Times says, there’s roughly 1,200 people employed in Emeryville, then just under 5% would be close to 60 employees losing their jobs) were tied to The Good Dinosaur. That film’s delay predicated the reductions in work force, as it were. And yet, of course, that movie still is on Pixar’s release calendar, just two years in the future. A couple of the articles covering the layoffs point out that most of those people who lost their jobs worked in the technical and support departments; perhaps these are jobs that are going away now, but may recur when The Good Dinosaur comes closer to approaching its new release date. Or perhaps not. Keeping in mind that this is complete speculation, and that there is nothing this writer wants more than to be wrong about said speculation, there is maybe another option to consider here: that The Good Dinosaur is heading down the same path that newt traversed. In short, maybe this is the beginning of the end for The Good Dinosaur.

Back in 2008, newt was announced as one of Pixar’s new projects, slated to open in 2011. It was to be the first Pixar feature directed by longtime sound designer Gary Rydstrom (who also directed the short Lifted back in 2007), but it was canceled in May of 2010. Later, Lasseter explained that the reason why newt got canceled wasn’t particularly because of any creative issues specific to the work Rydstrom was doing, but because the concept—about the two last members of a species needing to procreate and leave behind a legacy that isn’t just extinction—was considered too similar to a 2011 Blue Sky Studios release, Rio. Now, The Good Dinosaur was in development, it is assumed based on designs visible during some promotional videos for Up, as far back as 2009, but its details weren’t announced officially until 2011. It’s likely that newt existed as more than a gleam in Rydstrom’s eye (or Lasseter’s) before 2008, even if we never knew who would’ve starred in the film as we do with The Good Dinosaur. If anything, the problems that The Good Dinosaur appears to be plagued by are far more public than anything newt dealt with. (There’s, obviously, no quantifiable way to prove it, but the number of people who are aware of newt’s troubles and cancellation are probably far fewer than those who’ve kept up with The Good Dinosaur.)

The Good Dinosaur

And while it’s true that The Good Dinosaur is not the first film to reach a high-level stage of production only to suffer shifts in its release and helmer, Hollywood isn’t exactly brimming with examples. (A counter to that, admittedly, is the in-production Western Jane Got A Gun, starring Natalie Portman. That film’s original director, Lynne Ramsay, left the production only days after recasting one of the film’s major male roles. That character was originally played by Michael Fassbender; since then, Jude Law, Bradley Cooper, and finally, officially, Ewan McGregor were signed on to replace him. All this aside, Jane Got a Gun is an extreme case, to say the least.) For now, The Good Dinosaur is slated to open almost exactly two years from today. But it’s only been three months since actors like John Lithgow, Judy Greer, Lucas Neff, and Bill Hader were announced as being some of the lead performers; basically, it’s been a long time since Pixar had straight, direct, simple good news about the project. Since early August, everything has gone haywire. Maybe the most intriguing information yet is that, even as the layoffs were announced late last week, The Good Dinosaur still does not have a new director, just that aforementioned brain trust who are likely trying to reconfigure the story for good.

But what if they can’t? We, of course, don’t know what problems the film had to the point that it needed to be postponed, and we may never know the full details. As much, though, as we may want to imagine that people like Lee Unkrich (one of the people who was listed as being among the brain trust) have a perfect knack for story, some nuts may be too hard to crack. One even wonders if The Good Dinosaur might end up being shelved for similarly stated reasons as those with newt. Consider that some of the very basic ideas at this film’s heart are shared by a recent animated release, The Croods. Both movies take place in generally prehistoric times, even though Pixar’s film is more about the relationship between humans and dinosaurs in an imagined alternate universe. Still, some critics pointed out that the D23 footage was “eerily reminiscent” of The Croods, which would seem to be yet another nail in its coffin. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that Pixar made an animated film somewhat similar, at least conceptually if not visually, to a competitor’s, but we’re a long way from A Bug’s Life and Antz.

The Good Dinosaur

As has been the case throughout the last few months, all we can do is speculate about what this all means for the future of The Good Dinosaur, if not Pixar as a whole. Without a doubt, this column wholeheartedly supports Pixar taking its time with each of its projects; even though 2015 is now the year when we’re meant to finally get two films from the Emeryville studio, not just one, what matters most creatively is that those films are at their very best. As the elderly toy cleaner admonished Al in Toy Story 2, “You can’t rush art!” And you shouldn’t rush it, so if all these changes and shifts are simply meant to help Pixar make The Good Dinosaur the best it can be, great. As mentioned above, too, there’s nothing this writer wants more than to be wrong about speculating about the dark side to all these stories. Everyone will win if, in two years’ time, The Good Dinosaur opens to critical and commercial acclaim. For now, however, all we can look at are definitively bad stories. In 2015, we may barely remember that there were layoffs at Pixar because of its delay. But now, it’s hard not to wonder if something worse is brewing.

About Josh Spiegel

Josh isn't just a Disney buff, a film buff, or a TV buff. He's a pop-culture obsessive, through and through. His long journey began in Western New York and has taken him to the American Southwest, where he resides with his wife and six--count 'em, six--cats. Among his favorite overall films are Singin' In The Rain, There Will Be Blood, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Royal Tenenbaums. His favorite Disney movie (non-Pixar) is Beauty and the Beast, but his favorite Pixar movie is Ratatouille, and he thinks the latter is at least five times better than the former. Read more of Josh's work at Sound on Sight.

  • richperrotti

    If one considers the very nearly aborted start of this company surrounding Toy Story, where they reworked the story in about 10 days and got the green light again from Disney; if you consider that Lasseter nearly killed himself in getting Toy Story 2 turned around from “dreadful” to “spectacular” in 9 months, I have faith that the Good Dinosaur will be worth this wait. The rich soil of imagination is still fertile at Pixar. Let it grow.