What separates Pixar Animation Studios from the rest of mainstream animation companies, as this column has mentioned plenty of times before, is its willingness to take a risk. In many ways, they’ve been operating under a system of risk from the very beginning, before they were even an established name in the TV-commercial business. The first major risk they overcame was the very acceptance by the public of computer animation being utilized for a feature film; in the intervening time, the biggest risks they overcame were story-based, as they pinned their hopes on movies about robots who don’t speak a discernible human language, a rat who wants to cook, and more. But in recent years, the risks they’ve run up against are, in some respects, of their own doing. To wit: how risky is it for Pixar to invest more heavily in the future on sequels than on new original films? Does the studio stand to lose its respect among the public by reviving old characters instead of creating new ones?
It’s been difficult to avoid this question over the last few years, ever since Toy Story 3 opened in 2010. (This, in spite of the fact that Toy Story 3 is among the most well-received of Pixar’s films, and in some ways, as daring as Up or Ratatouille.) Since that time, Pixar has released three sequels and/or prequels, and just one original story, one that wasn’t as received as their past films. In the future, we have more sequels on the horizon, from Finding Dory to Cars 3 to The Incredibles 2. There was, not so long ago, a brief bit of hope where one of Pixar’s founders, Ed Catmull, said that the plan was to “have an original film every year, then every other year have a sequel to something.” Of course, it’s still very possible that this plan will end up being the case, as we don’t have any idea of the release-date strategies for either Cars 3 or The Incredibles 2. But we at least know of those films’ apparent existence, and only two original films—Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur—in the offing. (Hopefully, whenever Pixar offers more specifics on Lee Unkrich’s Dia de los Muertos-themed film, that will change.)
The concept of risk-taking is appropriate to discuss in light of a recent interview Catmull gave to The Telegraph in advance of his new book Creativity, Inc. (The interview linked in the past paragraph, with Buzzfeed, was published at the end of August 2013, for context.) According to the article’s writer, Chris Bell, the news of Cars 3 and The Incredibles 2 broke “halfway through the interview.” Catmull responded as follows: “We have tried to work out—with difficulty—the balance between original films and sequels…The problem is some of our riskier films just don’t make as much money. But if you only make films that will just be commercially successful, then you can also sink yourself as a studio. So in order to maintain the artistic integrity of the studio , we try to make sure that at least two-thirds of our films are original.” On one hand, this quote appears to endorse what Catmull said in the Buzzfeed interview, in that he clearly doesn’t want Pixar to be defined fully by its sequels; on the other, he’s clearly forced into a state where a third of Pixar’s films are sequels because they’re presumed to be financially more successful.
Of course, the operative phrase in that last sentence is “presumed to be,” because depending on what barometers of measurement we use, it’s not a guarantee that Pixar’s sequels are always going to be financially more successful. No doubt, Pixar’s films don’t just make money at the box office; we can only wonder how much money their films make on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as in the world of merchandising, just as we can only wonder exactly how much money these movies cost, from production to marketing budgets. Perhaps the issue is that Catmull’s statement that his company’s “riskier” films don’t make as much money as the ones that are less risky—and here, we can safely presume that the sequels are categorized as the latter—is based on a strangely small sample size. As much grief as people give Pixar for indulging in a sequel-shaped sweet tooth, to date, they’ve made four sequels and 10 original films. With the five in-production projects (excluding Unkrich’s as-yet-untitled film) we’re aware of, they’ll have 12 original films and seven sequels, almost exactly the 2:1 ratio Catmull is hoping for.
So while we can criticize Pixar for its future plans, Catmull’s statement has to be specific to the past, and the strange idea that their sequels make more money than the riskier projects. (Because Catmull doesn’t state outright which of Pixar’s films would best be categorized as risky, we can only assume, and assume we will.) This notion is strange not because Pixar’s sequels aren’t successful—as of this writing, Toy Story 3 is Pixar’s highest-grossing film domestically and worldwide, and the only one of their films to make over a billion dollars globally—but because all of their films are successful. To suggest that Pixar’s riskier projects don’t make as much money is to deny a clear fact: Pixar movies are always guaranteed to make a ton of money at the box office. If we compare Pixar to DreamWorks Animation, simply in financial terms, there’s no question: although the latter studio has made twice as many movies, the former’s are consistently successful. Consider this: of DreamWorks Animation’s 28 films to date, seven have grossed under $100 million domestically, including last summer’s Turbo. Conversely, Pixar’s lowest-grossing film, of their 14, is A Bug’s Life, which made just over $160 million domestically.
Another number to consider is $252 million, which is the average domestic box-office gross of all of Pixar’s films, from Toy Story 3 to A Bug’s Life. There is very little risk here, and the same goes when you look at the studio’s worldwide box-office numbers; the average there is nearly $608 million. Although the budgets for Pixar’s films have grown steadily over two decades, these movies still rake in so much cash that they can’t be losing that much money, if not making plenty. Catmull’s comment on sequels also becomes slightly baffling for one reason: although none of their films can be called flops, the closest Pixar has is Cars 2, at least domestically. It’s their second-lowest-grossing film, at $191 million. (Again, that’s still a lot of money, to be clear.) Considering that Cars 2 was a sequel to a film that children, at least, embraced wholeheartedly, and was presented in 3D and in IMAX, the fact that it sold the fewest tickets of any Pixar movie is somewhat shocking. (Adjusting for inflation, Cars 2 is Pixar’s lowest-grossing film by nearly $50 million.) No doubt, as many will point out, the Cars films make so much extra money thanks to merchandising, so it’s not a big deal if Cars 2 was, essentially, Pixar’s worst performer at the domestic box office; predictably, it made far more money overseas.
But it’s not wrong to assume this much: not that many people are clamoring for a third Cars movie, at least if we base interest on how well the second film did. While it’s true that Cars Land at Disney California Adventure has been a huge boon to the Disneyland Resort, there’s a vast difference between visiting a new addition to a widely beloved theme park resort and seeing a movie. But leaving aside the world of Cars, it’s worth noting that Catmull’s basic point is misleading, if not outright incorrect: if none of Pixar’s films, arguably, are flops, then they’re all at least moderately successful. Perhaps Catmull’s definition of risk is different from ours, but even among Pixar’s original films, there are only so many avenues to explore. Maybe he sees Ratatouille as having been one of the company’s riskier films; true enough, but internationally, Ratatouille made just $10 million less than Brad Bird’s other directorial effort for Pixar, The Incredibles. Maybe he’s thinking of Up, which is Pixar’s third-highest-grossing film domestically and their fourth-highest-grossing film worldwide. One of the films cited in the Telegraph article as an early example of directorial upheaval at Pixar, as with the upcoming The Good Dinosaur, is Finding Nemo, which is Pixar’s highest-grossing original film, domestically and worldwide. It’s difficult to figure out how Catmull quantifies risk, if only because we’ve yet to see a case of Pixar deciding to take a risk and it not paying off, literally and figuratively.
We can’t possibly know every single detail of Pixar’s finances, or of their creative process; for those of us junkies, then, all we can do is pick apart the available public information and figure out why they make certain decisions. From a financial standpoint, or at least a presumed one, it makes perfect sense for Pixar to make more of the same, to bring back beloved characters or properties for another go-round. If people flocked to Finding Nemo, it stands to reason that a sequel will do equally massive business, if not do even bigger. But if Pixar’s head honchos feel like it’s safer to rely on sequels (or if a guy like Robert Iger is pushing them to feel this way), it comes at the cost of ignoring how the studio became established as the best possible venue for mainstream animation. Even DreamWorks hasn’t relied on widespread sequels; currently, they have seven sequels, four of which are tied to the Shrek franchise.
Pixar doesn’t need to rely on creating sequels in the future to remain solvent. (Again, we can only presume about their current financial state, but considering how widespread their characters and films are in the Disney theme parks, stores, and more, it’s safe to assume that Pixar’s making at least some money.) They’ve made 14 films to date, and none of them have been failures at the box office. It’s hard to imagine, frankly, that Pixar will ever release a movie that won’t gross at least $100 million domestically. If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s nearly impossible that such a thing will happen in the future. Thus, it’s somewhat ironic for Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull to suggest that a plethora of previously risky projects is what’s inspiring more sequels these days; if there is such a thing is a safe bet, something absent of risk, in Hollywood these days, it’s Pixar. Their storytelling risks don’t translate financially. This company is a sure bet; it’d be nice if its top executives would stop acting otherwise.