Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Breaking Into Golden Circles

What's most interesting to me about this L.A. Times article about the marble citadel in Emeryville is how much it sounds like the structure I saw ... and the stories I heard ... at Disney three decades ago. First, consider these article snippets:

For all the success ... there's very little room atop Pixar's food chain ... Pixar director slots are few and far between ...

[Jan] Pinkava [original director of Ratatouille] speaks highly of Pixar. "It's a tremendous environment, a company based on everybody wanting to do great animation." But after "Ratatouille" he decided it was time to go. "I was never quite on the inside of Pixar -- I was on the edge of the inner circle. But I have no complaints, really. None."

Pinkava doesn't think Pixar has a glass ceiling: "I'm not sure it's a ceiling as much as it's a runway congestion problem."

For decades at Disney, it took the equivalent of an act of Congress to break into the Mouse House's version of the Golden Circle. Grizzled veterans told me: "Until they started retiring, nobody around here got to be a directing animator except the Nine Old Men.". The Disney story department had their long-time stalwarts and that was pretty much the ball game.

It's a truism with many successful organizations that old-timers defend their turf ferociously, and take few prisoners. (Niven Busch, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, told me how fellow writer Gene Fowler tried to sabotage him in story conferences with Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck.)

I've observed this kind of thing for so long in so many workplaces that I finally came up with my own internal rule:

The more valuable the perceived reward, the more strenuous the infighting.

So, if that's the case, how does anyone break in or get ahead?

1) Your work is too gloriously fabulous to be ignored.

2) You have an "in" with the Guy/Gal Who Counts.

3) The organization has had a series of failures and as a result the pecking order has been shaken up. So it's now (out of desperation) receptive to your new ideas.

4) The organization is wildly successful, growing by leaps and bounds, and needs fresh blood (and ideas.)

5) The old-timers are retiring (or moving on) and a bunch of new slots have opened up.

You can probably think of scenarios that I haven't mentioned here, but you catch my drift: When a workplace has a well-established caste system, it's often hard to break in.

15 comments:

DCHall said...

Steve - Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton will be directing live action films next. Lasseter is now in charge of the entire Disney Creative operation. Seems like a good time for Pixar to dip into their talent pool and see who can help carry the studio into the future right? They can't lose the young talent to other studios so that by the time the older brain trust needs to pass the torch on, the good ones are elsewhere...

Floyd Norman said...

Interesting thoughts.

After Walt Disney's passing, the studio was basically down to one director, Woolie Reitherman. By the seventies, the Disney brain trust was all but gone. The young turks like Burton and Lasseter left, and the animation department ran on fumes for a while.

It wasn't until the eighties that young guys like Musker and Clements got a shot. In the nineties, along came Trousdale and Wise, Allers and Minkoff.

Pixar has already lost Ash Brannon, Jan Pakava, Jimmy Hayward and Jill Culton to the competition. In my experience, studios don't realize they're in trouble until it's too late.

DCHall said...

Mr. Floyd - Do you think Pixar is making the same mistakes the Disney Studios made in the eighties?

I was actually hoping that Lasseter, being one of those who left Disney to pursue his career, would understand about growing your own talent. I've read in other articles and Pixar-artist blogs that Pixar encourages their employees to explore their dreams even if it doesn't have anything to do with their current projects. I suppose it is just hard to have all the talented people direct a movie each if your studio is releasing only one movie per year.

Anonymous said...

Is it gouche to point out that Lasseter didn't leave Disney "to purse his career"? He was fired.

I think a couple of the talented people Floyd mentioned didn't choose to leave Pixar, they were just made unwelcome.

Killroy McFate said...

But...but...Andrew Stanton says there are no politics at Pixar! I'm shocked! Shocked!

Floyd Norman said...

After a series of hit films in the nineties Disney thought they could do no wrong. They quickly fell on their ass, and have yet to recover.

If Pixar can avoid this hubris, they'll be okay.

Anonymous said...

Hubris?! Anyone who saw that self-loving ad with them all sittinga round a restaurant creating their films knows they're knee deep in their hubris.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, hate much?

I always thought that ad was a tribute to their colleague Joe Ranft who died in a car accident a year or so before. From what I've read, WALL-E was Joe's favorite idea from the lunch. The ad was able to mention Joe's name as well as give us as little about the movie as possible while it was still in development.

Floyd Norman said...

Don't be too hard on the guys. We've all made BS promotion pieces. I've done them myself.

No one inside the business takes that stuff seriously.

Bob & Rob "Professional American Writers" said...

As one who likes to delve deep into the DVD bonus features, I really like to see as much about the process as possible...promotional or behind the scenes stuff...it's all interesting to me. Fan of the History Channel as well! But, I can see how some may find it a tad over-indulgent. I agree with Floyd, they are what they are. Bob

Anonymous said...

In other news, not everyone in Hollywood gets to direct a live action feature. Cruel world, I know.

Justin said...

Pixar is still very much into developing younger talent. The problem is actually giving them the shot they deserve. There are only so many director spots and so many supervising animator spots. Jan Pinkava was given his opportunity but it didn't work out. Gary Rydstrom and Brenda Chapman are both first time directors. Either Pixar has to expand the number of movies they make per year (difficult to do), established veterans step aside and let other people take over or the young talent goes somewhere else. It's not like Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor each have 10 movies under their belts and are ready to retire, so they're not just going to step aside. The question is which is it better to lose, young untested talent like Jimmy Hayward and Jill Culton, or (still young) experienced directors with hit movies to their credit? I think Pixar is still good at giving new people a shot as slots open up.

Anonymous said...

I bet Brenda would be surprised that she's a first time director...

Anonymous said...

Pixar has an incredible amount of pressure building on them with every release.

Floyd Norman said...

That's why they get paid the big bucks.

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