Friday, July 18, 2014

Pixar's Pivotal Moment?

In my experience, the hardest thing to cultivate in a studio and the easiest thing to destroy is enthusiasm.  When the staff feels that the studio is dedicated to turning out good films and is providing the crew with opportunities to do their best work, the employees give extra effort.  When management says one thing while doing another, cynicism quickly sets in and every move or statement by management is viewed with suspicion.

The recent revelations that Ed Catmull was a willing conspirator to hold down wages and limit employment opportunities destroys his credibility as a manager.  While his contributions to the development of computer animation technology are untouched by this, his leadership credentials now lie in ruins.  While his book Creativity, Inc. has been praised by reviewers, my friend James Caswell says that it should be shelved in the fiction section.

Pixar has been very effective in keeping their internal workings from the public.  There aren't Pixar employees contributing to message boards or commenting on blogs.  Even those people with reason to complain, like Jan Pinkava and Brenda Chapman, have been circumspect.  Perhaps that's because the field is so small they didn't wish to burn bridges or perhaps there were settlements paid with silence as a condition.

But within Pixar, what's the mood?  Can any statement or policy from Catmull be treated as genuine now when the staff knows that he has been picking their pockets and limiting their prospects?  Has his authority been neutered?  Will Robert Iger ease him out as a way of reassuring the staff, or worse, leave him where he is and act as if nothing is wrong?

And what about John Lasseter?  What did he know and when did he know it?  Are there emails that implicate him as well?  Did he ever disagree with the policy or did he just accept it?  Regardless, he has profited from it.  Pixar's profits have increased the dividends and the price of Disney stock, making Lasseter richer.  Pixar's employees have paid for a portion of his winery.

Will this hasten people to leave the company?  Will it cause animation artists and students to think twice before applying to Pixar or the other studios involved in the conspiracy?  Will this push some employees or former employees to go public with their grievances?

As we don't know what's going on in Pixar, this may be a tipping point or the staff may just ignore it and keep working.  However, in the 1930s when the world was celebrating Walt Disney, conditions in his studio were deteriorating, eventually resulting in the strike that changed the company forever.

We may have to wait years until some Pixar employees retire or leave the field before we get a sense of how this was received within the company, but eventually the truth will come out.  The media love to build people up and then tear them down.  I'm guessing that it's just a matter of time before Pixar is in their sights.  Certainly the company has given them ample reason to take aim.

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