Pixar Animation Studios isn’t just a leader in producing animated films, they’re a monster in the industry.
After the box office release of Monsters University, I came across this line on Variety.com:
“Monsters University preserved Disney’s perfect record of opening every single Pixar film (now at 14) in the No. 1 spot: The toon grossed an outstanding $136.5 million worldwide, including an estimated $82 million domestically, which marks the second largest opening for a Pixar film (behind “Toy Story 3″) and the fifth biggest June bow of all time.”
A perfect record in releasing 14 feature films over 19 years. I know what you’re thinking… HOW THE HECK DO THEY DO IT?!
Pixar’s humble beginnings reach (waaaayyyyy) back to the late 1970s where they were known as a computer graphics group connected to Lucasfilm. In the mid 1980s, they received funding from Apple Inc., gaining the legendary Steve Jobs as a majority shareholder, which further pushed the company’s focus on computerized animation and graphics. Producing short films, Pixar established itself as a trailblazer, innovating the industry by specializing in computer animation. This specialization essentially got the attention of The Walt Disney Company, which signed on to distribute three Pixar films: Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), and Toy Story 2 (1999). Disney eventually bought Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, making Steve Jobs the majority shareholder of Disney and generating one of the most successful and recognizable entertainment brands in animation.
Branding is important, but still… how does Pixar have a perfect streak?
My answer: Strategy, Branding, and Swag. I’m no insider to Disney-Pixar, so I can only speak to what I can analyze from the outside; but to these three features I have recognized Pixar’s competitive advantage that has established the company as a monster in the industry.
Three Pixar qualities that I can relate to “strategy” have been a part of the company since the very beginning: innovation, short stories, and release dates.
Innovation built Pixar: they were pioneers in computer animation, developing specialized programs specific to Pixar’s needs with the guidance and funding from Apple. They even openly sell their animation program from their website. As pioneers, they perfected the integration of improving technology into their work, taking the lead in quality of animation to make the whole picture an awe-inspiring sight.
Before teaming with Disney to produce Toy Story, Pixar was known to produce independent short films and commercials for products like Tropicana, Listerine, and Life Savers. The first short film, Luxo Jr. then inspired the iconic production company credit insert of the desk lamp jumping on Pixar’s logo. Building a library of these short films, Pixar marketed their capabilities, thus grabbing the attention of Disney for eventual acquisition. Till this day, Pixar continues to produce these speech-less short films, which are paired with their feature films in exhibition. These short films have even been nominated for Academy awards and are enjoyed enough to be included in a DVD compilation. On this point of enjoyment, Pixar’s short films are just as enjoyable as their feature films, which make the shorts memorable and special. We all have our favorites – the birds on the wire, the old man playing chess, the snowman in the snow globe, the paper plane love letter… the list goes on. Personally, I often look forward to the short films as part of the film and that is their strategy: making something short, memorable.
Release dates can make or break a film. Opening box office weekend is basically EVERYTHING for a studio because it dictates just how successful their film will be. As a marketer, you look at releases as strategy because the external environment controls your decision. I’m not talking about weather… although that is sometimes a factor… but rather, competitive film releases, substitute events like shows or sporting games, and seasons are the big ones with many other factors in between. Pixar has played it smart from the very beginning by releasing on November and May/June. Holiday releases always confuse me because I’m at home with the family, but somehow they get a lot of attention in theaters. Pixar’s first releases with Disney all released on Thanksgiving Day weekend when kids have a short break from school and families come together – that’s the market. On the flipside, skip to May/June and school is letting out, summer is movie season because families have free time – once again, the market. Specifically for Pixar’s most recent release, Monsters University used counter programming, whereas the box office hasn’t seen a wide release children’s film since Epic in late May, and competitive releases included World War Z and Man of Steel. What I’m getting at… they place their films strategically in a weekend with high results of moviegoers, and where competition is low in market share of genres and their respective audiences.
Quality is defined as a degree of excellence, superiority, and a high position among its peers. Through consistent storytelling, brand loyalty, and numerous awards, quality resonates through Pixar.
Everyone has a Pixar story that is near and dear to his or her heart. Do you have a favorite? Well you may as well claim every Pixar movie is your favorite because they all have the same storyline: with the help of friends or family, a character ventures out into the real world and learns to appreciate his friends and family. Getting into the details of that is an article in itself, but the take home is that the company has established its core around that theme. They give us the same thing, but different; and this consistency continues to tap the same strings that make us laugh, cry, and sit on the edge of our seats.
This consistency also has a big role in building band loyalty. Of all the studios, Disney has established itself as a brand that will draw a crowd simply from its name. It’s also diversified its product line by including Marvel and Pixar under its umbrella. You know what kind of movie you’re in for with the simple mention of any of these three studios. That being said, as the “Apple” of the entertainment industry, Disney has built an empire of loyal followers who love Disney products because of its quality.
Quality cannot be proven without honor; and what is more honorable in Hollywood than awards. Despite what teachers say about Wikipedia, I am a fan of the encyclopedia and cannot word the core of this section better than who ever authored this summary: “The studio has earned 27 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globe Awards, and 11 Grammy Awards, among many other awards and acknowledgments. Since the award’s inauguration in 2001, most of Pixar’s films have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, with seven winning: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3, and Brave. Up and Toy Story 3 are two of only three animated films to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.” Quality speaks for itself.
Swag has multiple definitions, and although the branding of Pixar has made plenty of clothing, toys, and knick-knacks to be considered “swag,” I want to talk about the company’s swagger. For those of you who are thinking “Swagger? David, I’m confused,” I’ll turn it to my second favorite reliable source after Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary. Entry 5 is what you’re thinking, entry 6 is the truth.
So what’s involved with Pixar’s swagger? I say it’s their company culture, the Disney partnership, and that humble confidence of the studio.
In its early days, Pixar had an interesting hiring technique. Located in Northern California, what the Hollywood socialites consider the other side of the Earth, Pixar was in a predicament of trying to hire industry professionals. But since they were located so far from the heart of the action, they had to think of another way to hire. They needed employees who would be able to leave their hometowns to move to NorCal, with fresh ideas, and an understanding of technology. Pixar’s solution: recent graduates. The company built their culture around young professionals and it speaks in their company culture: open/socially engaging offices, cereals galore in the break room, basketball and other sports activities in the lot, and an image to uphold whereas everyone has a kid in them. That youthfulness speaks into the work too, which reminds everyone there is a kid inside of them. Then a minor company culture push I also recognize is their proximity to the Silicon Valley: entrepreneur paradise. That entrepreneurial influence speaks loud and clear with Pixar’s push for innovation, technology, and creativity.
Next: the Disney paradigm. I was recently walking around Disneyland and spent a good 30 minutes walking through the toyshop outside of Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters ride. Toy Story is my favorite series of the crop and I found myself wanting to buy out the whole store, even as a 23-year old. Then I opened my email on my phone and saw a message from my financial aid and reality hit… but novelty is the big take home here. Toys, clothes, and more toys, mixed in with that brand loyalty and you have a consumer paradise for families and kids-at-heart. Then you have rides – the brand experience that makes a toon come to life. Could Pixar have done this without Disney? No one knows. But DreamWorks is trying to catch up by building a similar “Disney-like” empire in China and it will take years to catch up to the master of the game. Swag: walking with confidence.
But although they have the confidence, I’ve noticed a humble aura from the company. Maybe it’s the fact that they are so far away form the glitz and glam (that once was) of Hollywood. Maybe it’s the fact that we never hear bad publicity of Pixar in the news. But outside of their work, I think people like Pixar for who they are and how they’ve influenced our lives. Some of us grew up with Pixar, other are seeing their own youngins grow up with the company today. Either way, they are a company almost everyone likes.
Strategy. Qualtiy. Swag. The holy trinity of Pixar Perfection. With continuing production of new and familiar franchises, Pixar is positioned to continue it’s perfect streak. Even as technology changes our industry, Pixar will have a forward-looking strategy to always be at the top… after all, SoCal is under NorCal, isn’t it?