Now that the Disney-Pixar deal has happened, there’s more than a little idle speculation about Disney being quicker to put their stuff out digitally through iTunes, Steve becoming CEO of Disney, or even the two companies merging.
In short, no, no, and no.
First, for background, here are three things to check out, from perspectives outside of the AppleWeb’s Reality Distortion Field:
- Robert X. Cringely wonders how much this deal might be inspired by Jobs’ health concerns, or at least his need for liquidity. Most of his wealth is in Pixar stock, and he has so much of it that he can’t sell much of it (SEC rules and all). Interesting speculation, and not at all unreasonable to think that he might want to ensure Pixar is well cared for after he’s gone (of course, if that’s the real story, then the next move is to watch for signs of a successor being annointed at Apple).
- BusinessWeek’s cover story podcast New Mouseketeer has a lot of good analysis from BW reporters following Jobs and Disney. They track the Pixar and Disney stories, and Jobs management style, also noting the prominent role that ex-Disneyite John Lassiter will play in the new arrangement.
- Disney-tracker Jim Hill does not like the deal at all, and thinks Disney paid far too much for Pixar. In his opinion it was crazy for Disney to spend so much to effectively get permanent rights to characters it can already exploit under the current agreement (and Disney doesn’t exactly lack for great characters).
OK, having grokked all that, consider a few other data points. A board member has only so much sway, and really none in day-to-day operations. Steve has even said that the job of a board is simply to hire and fire the CEO. So it would be wise to ratchet down hopes that Steve will suddenly have Disney putting The Little Mermaid on iTunes, just because he is a Disney board member and Apple’s CEO. Indeed, that sort of self-dealing is extremely treacherous territory, and as publicly-traded companies, the two Steves would both be legally responsible for acting in the best interest of their respective shareholders. Not that he might not use suasion to push Disney to get more into digital, but his ability to affect change isn’t what some assume it is.
Steve as CEO of Disney? Maybe lightning will strike twice and we’ll see Pixar culturally take over Disney, the way NeXT took over Apple. Certainly from an entertainment viewpoint, it’s an appealing thought. What so many have failed to understand about the success of Pixar’s movies relative to recent Disney animation is that it’s really not a matter of technology, but of story. Pixar gets story (and more importantly, character), and the modern Disney doesn’t. For having such smart, well-constructed stories in the early 90’s (The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are masterpieces of efficiency and emotion), it’s stunning how far they’ve fallen. Their most character-driven piece of the last few years, Lilo & Stitch has been their only genuine success.
Their failures in this department are notorious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie start so well and fail so fast as Atlantis: The Lost Empire. This film has a killer first act that totally looks like a fun ride, and suddenly, about 45 minutes in, you realize that Act II is all suck, and Act III is, amazingly, worse. Maybe they should have ripped off Nadiamuch more than they did (wink). I won’t get too far into my failed screenwriter diatribe on this, but if you’re interested, check out the special edition. Listen to how often the directors say “the adventurers do this… the adventurers do that”… that’s right, it’s the “generic bunch of people on a quest movie”, and that always sucks. One other pathological point: the new scene in Beauty and the Beast’s 2002 re-release, where the enchanted objects sing about being human again. Guys, seriously, the late Howard Ashman took this song out for a reason: because the movie is about (and called) “Beauty and the Beast”, not “Funny Enchanted Objects”. Efficiency, effectiveness. Look into it.
Curiously, Steve chimed in on Disney’s failures a few years back, while feuding with Michael Eisner, though Eisner started it by calling Pixar’s CG human characters “pretty pathetic”. Jobs shot back by sarcastically saying that Eisner thought Pixar’s films didn’t stack up to Disney duds like Atlantis, The Emperor’s New Groove, or Treasure Planet. I thought at the time this was a little inappropriately harsh for Steve, because Disney at least deserved credit for trying to get away from the Happy Singing Animals cliche. And it’s not like public success is the only standard of value. Atlantis, meet the Power Mac G4 Cube. And if Treasure Planet (good movie, actually) had rotten box office, well, the Mac market share is still in the low single digits too.
Still, there’s one thing that makes me think that Steve has a Walt-like story sense that none of us have caught wind of. On previous DVD release of Toy Story, there was a segment called “Who’s the Coolest Toy”, in which various Pixarites offered opinions of dubious sincerity. John Lassiter said that was like asking who his favorite child was. But Jobs said that Woody was the coolest toy, because he’s the heart of both movies. And Jobs is absolutely right. The core of the stories of both films is Woody’s fear, of being replaced (Toy Story) or of being abandoned and outgrown (Toy Story 2… also, look at this movie again with the idea that being outgrown is effectively death for a toy, and what Woody seeks is an unholy form of immortality; it’s a really sneaky acceptance-of-death life-lesson metaphor they’ve hidden in there). These films absolutely require total audience identification and empathy with Woody. So yeah, Woody’s the heart of the film. Point, Jobs.
So, does this mean hordes of Pixarites will descend on Disney and teach them how to tell effective stories again? We can only hope, but then again, it could go the other way, with Disney suits flying up to Emeryville to “help” them with Toy Story 3, Toy Story 4 and Toy Story 5. Maybe a Mutual Nonaggression Pact is the best we can hope for, one that keeps Jobs up in Northern California, except for the occasional board meeting and trip to Disneyland.
By the way, they already made Toy Story 3; it’s called Monsters, Inc. (see you in the talkbacks, kids!)
Finally, what about a Disney-Apple merger. Ugh. Again, re-take the point about self-dealing and being careful not to overestimate what Jobs can accomplish as a board member. Secondly, mergers are generally understood to destroy shareholder value, though they tend to enrich executives. So that’s not something that, in and of itself, should make Disney or Apple shareholders happy. Third, Sony analogy. The Walkman was a kick-ass disruptive product. But Sony has been teh suck in the digital music era. Why? Because they’re now as much an entertainment company as a gadget company, and the entertainment side DRM’ed the products down to the point of uselessness. Walkman wouldn’t have taken off without home taping, and iPod wouldn’t have succeeded without CD ripping. “Hey, wanna buy some great tunes in ATRAC format?” “Umm… hell no.” Similarly, Philips owned music and record companies and that didn’t help the billion-dollar boondoggle that was the CD-i either. Despite the appeal of not having to depend on outsiders to feed the iPod, the idea of owning content is just too treacherous, a well-known and well-trod road to hell. A merged Disney and Apple is about as appealing as all the other proposed Apple mergers over the years (Sun, Nintendo, Sony, Palm, TiVo, etc.), that is to say: not.
At the end of the day, I’d like to see Apple put out more kick-ass products, and for Disney to start making hand-drawn 2D animation with good characters and stories again. I’m pretty sure I can at least expect one of those.