Watching business decisions get handed down from on high is always maddening, with the context for such choices being obscured from public view; all that can result is rampant speculation. So it is with the surprising announcement a few weeks ago from the Walt Disney Company that it was shutting down Pixar’s Canadian studio, located in Vancouver, British Columbia. The studio, which employed over 100 animators, had worked primarily in shorts related to preexisting properties, such as the Toy Story shorts Small Fry and Partysaurus Rex, as well as some of the Cars shorts released straight to DVD and Blu-ray. As of now, one of the reasons being bandied about for why the shutdown occurred is that a number of the tax loopholes that existed in the past in Canada have been tightened, giving Disney less profit on this extension of one of their most financially fruitful branches.
And here’s where the speculation must begin. It’s hard not to read that part of any such story and wonder, “Aren’t we talking about Disney, one of the most successful corporations in the world? They really couldn’t afford to keep paying these people?” The counterargument could be that while Disney is, indeed, a company flush with wealth, if one of its countless arms isn’t profitable, why not cut it off? But how could Pixar Canada be judged by profitability? Their filmography amounted to five Cars shorts and two Toy Story shorts. (That’s the current tally, not counting whatever the animators were working on before the shutdown.) As mentioned in this column in the past, Pixar’s willingness to continue producing shorts is admirable precisely because there’s no way to monetize that effort. How could Disney separate money spent by someone who went to see Cars 2 versus someone who went just to see Hawaiian Vacation, which was only available in theaters if you paid to see Cars 2? Certainly, Pixar could fall back on the multiple-volume home media releases of their shorts, but it’s doubtful that those Blu-rays and DVDs are raking in the big bucks.
It’s equally doubtful that Pixar is getting out of the business of making shorts. Consider that only 8 days after the announcement of Pixar Canada closing its doors, you could turn on your local ABC affiliate and watch the company’s first TV special, Toy Story of Terror. (And, if you missed it then, ABC Family and the Disney Channel have repeated it numerous times since then.) Granted, this special, written and directed by Pixar stalwart Angus MacLane, was created fully at the studio’s Emeryville location; that, too, is one of the reasons offered officially for why Pixar Canada is shutting down, that Pixar wants to refocus its efforts entirely in California. Does Pixar’s future, though, include hiring more people in Emeryville to work on Toy Story shorts and more misadventures in the life of Mater? Are they cutting down on such extensions entirely?
Here’s another option. (And, to be clear, it’s based in no facts or rumors, just a whim.) What if Pixar’s cutting back on Pixar Canada so that the company as a whole can have less on its own plate, while not exactly cutting back on the notion of outsourcing? (Giving projects to Pixar Canada’s animators wasn’t a strict definition of outsourcing, but remained in something of a gray area.) What if the idea is for Pixar to stop making extensions of its films, passing the buck to someone else? What if DisneyToon Studios, say, will be making these shorts? Again, there’s not even a whisper inspiring this speculation; that doesn’t allow for the theory to be completely baseless. You may want to deny that Pixar would outsource itself, its worlds and characters, in this way. What about Planes, or the sequels that were threatened—er, promised—by Disney at the recent D23 Expo? DisneyToon Studios is the cat with nine lives at the Walt Disney Company, constantly surviving in the face of certain doom. Only a few years ago, it appeared to be on the way out. When John Lasseter and Ed Catmull rose to power at Disney after Pixar was acquired for billions, it seemed like DisneyToon Studios—known for churning out unnecessary and frequently terrible direct-to-video sequels to the House of Mouse’s most beloved classics—would be done for good. The resulting compromise was that DisneyToon would stay open, but that they’d only make spin-offs and original films. (Spin-offs and sequels, of course, aren’t terribly far from each other. The big difference is that the spin-offs, with the notable exception of the Tinker Bell series, aren’t directly related to Disney’s animated feature canon.)
And now we have Planes, a spin-off that few people begged for, but far more saw. As of this writing, the movie has grossed over $205 million worldwide off a $50 million budget. (Fun fact: By the time this article goes up, Planes has grossed more domestically than The Lone Ranger, if only barely. Planes has, by the end of last weekend, made just over $28,000 more than the would-be Western.) Any hope you may have had that Planes 2: Fire and Rescue would avoid a theatrical release should have evaporated by now; even though it’s worth wondering how Planes cost $50 million, when any movie grosses over four times its budget, a sequel is a sure thing. From a financial standpoint, DisneyToon Studios is arguably among the most valuable commodities at Disney. We can scoff at its films, but the Tinker Bell franchise is likely one of the most reliably lucrative under Disney’s auspices. The risks Disney takes in kickstarting what might be a new franchise are not nearly as apparent with DisneyToon Studios. The Lone Ranger cost the Walt Disney Company $215 million, or $230 million, or more, depending on who you read. And that’s not counting the marketing budget. Planes is likely among the most expensive projects DisneyToon has created, but has already proven that it may be similarly reliable as Tinker Bell.
So why wouldn’t Pixar hand off some of its work to DisneyToon Studios? There may not be a terrible amount of creative logic in that decision, but no more or less than the choice to gut Pixar Canada. Now that the Toy Story of Terror special rated highly on ABC, it’s logical to presume that more TV specials will be on the way. (Frankly, it’s logical to presume that follow-up specials are already in the works, waiting to be officially unveiled, leaving aside any prior rumors.) We know that Pixar is expanding its production slate, as well, even if the effects of that expansion won’t begin to bear fruit for a couple of years. The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, and Inside Out will be opening in the span of 13 months (presuming that their current release dates hold, a potentially shaky prospect), and they’re not going to be completed without the aid of hundreds, if not thousands of individuals. Maybe Pixar is going through a surge of new hires, bringing on tons of new animators specifically so they can be dispatched to either these new projects, or to begin tackling spin-off shorts like more of Mater’s Tall Tales. Of course, it’s also possible that the aforementioned shorts will be going away, but again, the general success of Toy Story of Terror and the Cars franchise, if not Cars 2, doesn’t bode for either extension stopping any time soon.
Setting aside speculation, the shuttering of Pixar Canada isn’t good news, if only because it allows the Canadian animation scene to dwindle, and because roughly 100 people are out of a job. This, all because, ostensibly, Canadian tax breaks aren’t helping Disney out anymore. Few people will likely bemoan the lack of more Cars shorts, at least those who don’t stand to profit from them. The Toy Story shorts have always been a dicey prospect, as was the TV special. The trilogy was such an excellent series, so much so that any shorts may serve to slightly dim the franchise. So far, at least, the trio of Toy Story shorts over the last few years have been fine additions, even as slight throwaways. And the 22-minute special was, if not a spectacular piece of animation, a winning, knowing, and funny excuse to give Jessie the spotlight for once. Whether or not it was roundly cheered, Toy Story of Terror does not represent, most likely, a definitive end to the franchise. But if it is, somehow, even fewer people will be distressed. Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone, and although revisiting Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear seems fun in theory, eventually, it will be OK to move on from these characters.
Disney, however, is not a company that’s prone to moving on, so it’s hard to imagine that we’ll never revisit Radiator Springs or the anthropomorphic toys who now live with the friendly and excitable Bonnie. Avoiding speculation when there is an almost complete absence of facts is challenging. So it’s difficult to look at the end of Pixar Canada and not begin to wonder. To close out the speculation, what’s the optimal decision? If we could choose the best possible scenario (outside of reopening Pixar Canada so those who were laid off could return to work), it would be to stop making shorts based on preexisting films and characters, and focus on creating the new. Leave aside whether we need such shorts (we don’t), and think solely of the latter point. What Pixar has done so well in the past is offer something new, even if it’s a twist on a familiar story or character arc. Some of their best films and characters may have roots in previous stories, but WALL-E and Marlin and even the elderly Geri, playing chess against himself, all feel wholly unique. The concern in always making Cars and Toy Story shorts is that characters like Mater and Woody (moreso the latter) will feel less special the longer we spend time with them.
Hopefully, in redoubling their focus and efforts in Emeryville, Pixar will continue working on the new. For now, their next film is the highly anticipated Inside Out, an exciting prospect not just because it’s the new film from Pete Docter, but because, from all accounts, it is as daring as anything Pixar has ever done. We’re just over 19 months away from that movie’s release, and it’s not wrong to presume that expectations will be at an all-time high. Wouldn’t it be slightly demoralizing, then, to walk into theaters in the summer of 2015 and be greeted with another short detailing the exploits of Woody, Buzz, and all the rest? Yes, these are the first characters Pixar let us embrace wholeheartedly, but after 20 years, it’s OK to move on. They’ve moved on from having a satellite studio in Canada; there’s no reason that Pixar can’t also move on from some of its characters, allowing new ones to take precedent and priority.