Innovator transformed Pixar into world-class film studio

By Romain Raynaldy, AFP

LOS ANGELES–Steve Jobs is best known for turning the ailing Apple into a global icon, but for many his transformation of a small digital graphics firm into animated movie giant Pixar showed equal vision. Jobs bought Pixar from “Star Wars” creator George Lucas in 1986 after being forced out of Apple Computer, and at first spent millions of dollars of his own money to keep the graphics firm going. Pixar has since become one of the most influential and profitable studios in the history of cinema, producing world-beating movies including the “Toy Story” franchise, “Finding Nemo” and “Up” among others. When he bought it for US$10 million, Pixar was more of a computer company than a creative studio. “Originally, Jobs’s idea was not so much making an animated film as much as he wanted to develop graphics programs for computers,” said Tom Sito, a veteran of Disney (“Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid”) and Dreamworks (“Shrek”). “In the beginning Pixar was a hardware store,” he added. “But Steve was won over to the idea of making animated films by the successful short films that Pixar and John Lasseter were making,” like “Luxo Jr.” and “Tin Toy.” The minor masterpieces by Lasseter — who went on to become the creative director of Pixar and Disney — were promising, but it took vision and courage to imagine that computer animation could make serious money. Jobs lacked neither. “He was very good in guiding the company. Because it was all a bunch of scientists and artists who knew nothing about business,” said Sito, professor of film at the University of Southern California (USC). “They were reading books to find a way to have a place in this very high-stakes billion dollar industry. And Jobs gave them the strategy for running the company,” he added. But it required more than good intentions to run Pixar, which was in chronic debt. “Even though they had successful shorts, and they were doing commercials and they were looking at other ways to expand, still at the end of the month, Steve would have to open his checkbook,” said Sito. “He spent US$50 million of his own money in keeping Pixar going,” he added.

But the real game-changer came in 1991, when Jobs struck a deal with Disney to produce the first “Toy Story” movie, the first film produced entirely by computers. The movie was a box office smash and assured Pixar’s financial health. But Jobs, with his faultless intuition and marketing genius, also made sure it marked the transformation of Pixar into a global brand.