To Pixar and Beyond: Animating the business end of filmmaking

You’d expect a book on the history of Pixar to include lots of drawings, models, and frame blowups. But you’ll find only words in Lawrence Levy’s To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History.

But then, To Pixar and Beyond is not about animation, design, or storytelling. It’s not even about technology. It’s about money, and its arguably evil twin–the stock market. And yet, if you’re interested in animation, technology, or the movie industry, it’s worth reading.

Levy, a lawyer and a businessman, became the animation company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) early in 1995. Steve Jobs, exiled from Apple and the sole owner of Pixar, picked Levy for the job of making the company profitable. The book doesn’t discuss how Pixar creates movies, but Levy clearly respects what he describes as “a level of creative and technical wizardry that I could never have imagined.”

1995 was an important year for Pixar, then a 16-year-old company breaking down barriers but losing money. They were busy finishing their first feature, Toy Story, due for release Thanksgiving week. But their contract with Disney, which financed the film, made future profits almost impossible. Levy’s job was to learn Hollywood’s financial structure, re-negotiate Disney’s contract, and set up an initial public offering (IPO).

Most of the book covers that important year. While Toy Story director John Lasseter and his team struggle to get the movie ready, Levy prepares the IPO. Neither task was easy. Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated picture; no one knew if audiences would accept a new type of movie.

Jobs pushed Levy to make the IPO happen as soon as possible. The book paints a surprisingly positive portrait of Jobs, with whom Levy developed a close friendship. Levy acknowledges the sociopathic Jobs that other employees knew; it just wasn’t his experience. On his first day at the studio, an employee told him that “Pixar lives in fear of Steve.”

Steve Jobs, from Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Levy may be a lawyer, but he doesn’t write like one. His clear, easy-to-read prose help explain a lot about how money works. He describes IPOs, stock options, contract details, and the market in general in ways that make it clear to people who can barely balance a checkbook. He has an entertaining gift for metaphor, telling us that a Disney executive “was handing me a lifeline, and apologizing because it wasn’t in my favorite color.”

Toy Story made its Thanksgiving deadline, and the IPO happened the same week. That was fortuitous. The movie was an immediate hit of huge proportions, and everyone wanted a piece of Pixar. It was that IPO, and not Apple, that made Steve Jobs a billionaire.

Toy Story

The simultaneous premiere and IPO also gives the book a spectacular happy ending–only two thirds of the way through. Then we follow Levy as he helps Pixar mature. He arranges a new contract with Disney, gives Lasseter and the rest of the creative team artistic freedom, and eventually sells Pixar in a way that makes everybody happy.

Yes, it’s definitely Levy’s version of the story.

Levy goes off the deep end in the last three chapters, telling us about his discovery of Eastern spiritual practices. I have nothing against his religion, but it seemed out of place in this book.

I write about technology and cinema, and To Pixar and Beyond didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about either of these subjects. But it taught me a considerable amount about the finances that make technology and cinema possible. I enjoyed the book. And yet…as I read about IPOs and contract negotiations, I kept wanting to sneak into another room and watch Lasseter finish the final touches to Toy Story.

The Interview at the New Parkway (Spoiler: The theater didn’t blow up)

I haven’t written anything yet about The Interview and its assorted release problems. Why should I? Everyone else has already written about it. Besides, I was on vacation.

Now I’m back. Sunday night, my wife and I saw Kim Jong Un’s least favorite movie at the New Parkway. Perhaps it was a case of lowered expectations, but I enjoyed the movie–for the most part.

Of course I didn’t go because I thought it was the best film currently in theaters. I went to support free speech and free cinema. I went because if someone tries to stop a film from running in theaters, there’s a moral obligation to support that movie.

Because of the threats, The Interview became one of the rare big Hollywood features to open simultaneously in theaters and on pay-per-view streaming. This day-and-date release, as it’s called, just may be the future of the movie business, but for the present is only common with low-budget or foreign films not likely to make much money in the US. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Magnolia released Pioneer day-and-date. Since it’s subtitled, contains no superheroes, and–at least in my opinion–is a mediocre picture, its commercial prospects weren’t promising.

But we chose to spend the extra money to see The Interview theatrically. After all, the hackers didn’t threaten to blow up homes where the movie was showing. Besides, comedies are always better with the crowd.

I’ve been to the New Parkway several times, but this was my first experience in Theater 1. The layout was very different from Theater 2, which I described in 2013. It’s smaller, and the room doesn’t dwarf the screen. Instead of living room furniture, it has tables and chairs, and feels like a coffeehouse.

And what about The Interview?


It starts out hilariously, as James Franco’s brainless, party animal of a TV host interviews Eminem. This is the last person you want as your partner on a CIA mission to assassinate North Korea’s dictator. The unfortunate man who has him as a partner is his far more intelligent producer, played by Seth Rogen (who also co-directed). Despite the wonderful setup, and a number of great bits along the way (Randall Park plays the evil Kim wonderfully as another party animal), the movie sags. In the last act, it becomes an action film, with great splashes of blood, multiple severed fingers, and good guy bullets proving far more fatal than bad guy bullets. It still manages some good jokes along with the way, but they’re overshadowed by the mayhem. I would have preferred a clever ending to the big action extravaganza we get.

I give it a B.

Oh, and by the way, despite the previous threats, no one bombed the theater.

The Problem With Hollywood Today

I don’t like talking about "The Good Old Days." Things change, and in the cinematic art–so heavily dependent on technology and money–they change a lot. In some ways, things are always improving. In others, they’re inevitably getting worse.

But consider these films:

  • The Crowd
  • Citizen Kane
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Nashville
  • Taxi Driver
  • Annie Hall
  • Raging Bull
  • Brazil
  • Do the Right Thing
  • Goodfellas
  • Groundhog Day
  • Schindler’s List
  • Fight Club
  • LA Confidential

What do these have in common–aside from being really good? All of them were in some way or another cutting edge. In either content or technique (or both), each one pushed the boundaries of what was expected in an American commercial feature. None of them was based on a previous movie, a TV show, a major best-selling novel, or even a superhero comic book series. None had real franchise potential (although 2001 eventually generated a sequel).

And yet, every one of these films was financed and released by a major Hollywood studio. They were produced, at least in some degree, inside the system. And most of them made a profit for their investors.

That would be unthinkable today. The major studios simply aren’t interested in anything other than pre-sold, effects-heavy, extremely predictable, big-budget blockbusters. Today, films like the ones on my list  have to be financed and released outside of Hollywood. And the pool of money for doing that shrinks every year.

We’ve reached a point where Spike Lee–yes, Spike Lee–is trying to finance of film via KickStarter.

The studio heads who greenlit the films listed above were not patrons of the arts. They were businessmen. Their first priority was the bottom line. And yet they understood that financing truly creative work would, in the long run, help that bottom line. They also understood the value of making movies with reasonable budgets.

Today’s moguls don’t seem to understand that. And there lies the loss of art in Hollywood.

My Day at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spend Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I saw and what I thought about it:

New Movies Lab: Industry Panel

I started the day not with a movie, but with a panel discussion on how independent filmmakers can promote their films and get people to see them.  Much of it concentrated on digital presentation and promotion, the later involving social media.

Some highlights:

On promoting your film:

Filmmaker, Webby found, and panel moderator, Tiffany Shlain:  You have to spend 50% of your time and energy getting your film out. It’s mind-blowing how many filmmakers don’t think of this…When I do my budget, it’s half to make the film, and half to market it.

Producer Steven Menkin: There are literally dozens of tools for filmmakers where you can distribute your own films. Marketing should be part of every budget.

Milyoni founder and VP David Raycroft:  It’s never been easier to get going with art. You have Kickstarter for financing, and social media for marketing. When you start creating, you’re creating a community as well as [a work of] art. With more people being able to create, awareness is the hardest part. With The Invisible War, we attracted enough of an audience through community [social networks) to get it noticed.

[The panelists used the word community so often that they began to apologize for it and joke about it.]

On theatrical presentation vs. home viewing:

Pacific Film Resources Principal (and former Landmark executive) Jan Klingelhofer: I have an affinity for historic theaters. I’m determined that the form of watching content that matters to people is the community experience [of going to theaters]. I’d hate to have them [young people] see some of the beautiful art designed for a movie screen on their phone.

Shlain: A lot of theaters wouldn’t play it if it’s already on Netflix. They don’t like Day and Date [when the theatrical and other releases happen simultaneously]….I get distracted watching movies on Netflix. As a filmmaker, that’s not how you want people to see your movie. But you have to give up control, knowing that people will experience your film in different ways and being okay with that.

Menkin: Some filmmakers would rather have their films in theaters than make money. The challenge is: How do I get my film into a theater and how to I get people to show up? Many [independent] films that get theatrical releases now have a Q&A with the actors or directors..the concept of community.


Shlain: So many filmmakers just give them up. All you have is the rights to your films. Find someone who can help you [keep them].


This was my first experience with a Rob Nillson film, and frankly, it will probably be my last. I’d give it a D.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a young, attractive, European couple staying in a lovely house in the woods (shot in Marin county). Their hosts are an aging but still fit athlete and his grown son. This is the sort of place where the bathtub and shower are both out of doors.image

So you have four characters: a woman, her lover, and two other men hitting on her. And she’s hitting back with heavy flirtation. And it’s all tied up with references to Greek mythology–specifically the story of Electra and Orestes.

The lack of story didn’t bother me, but the lack of motivation did. People did what they did–which was often pretty weird–for no apparent reason other than to have something to do in front of the camera.  Aside from the lovely setting and attractive-looking actors, I can think of no reason for anyone not related to the filmmakers to see this movie.

The film was followed by Q&A with Nillson, the cast, and key members of the crew. Some choice comments:

Nillson: We started with a room and the people who entered the room. The people then suggested things [to do].

The Editor: Editing is where a lot of magic gets unlocked. A big part of the Greek mythology part was added on [in post production]. You just have to kind of dance in the editing room.

The Cinematographer: Rob told me we were gonna go up to Marin. If we ever get a film out of this, that would be nice.

Ricky on Leacock

With collaborators such as Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers, and documentaries such as "Primary" and "Queen of Apollo," Richard Leacock helped invent cinema vérité. Now, one of Leacock’s protégées, Jane Weiner has created a documentary about him. I’m giving it a B+.

In theory, cinema vérité (truthful cinema) captures reality. The filmmaker follows the subject as unobtrusively as possible. The final film generally contains no narration, simply showing what was and allowing the audience to make their own conclusions.

Weiner presents Leacock’s work in roughly chronological order, giving us a full imageoverview of a very long career. She uses film clips, interviews with Leacock and some of his collaborators (but mostly of Leacock), and some–yes–cinema vérité-style footage. Weiner first started recording Leacock’s life and interviewing him in 1972, using a super8 camera of Leacock’s own design. She returned to that project in recent years, providing us with views of the filmmaker as a middle-aged and an old man. The result is entertaining and informative.

But her respect for her mentor gets in the way of her objectivity. The film never addresses the basic criticism–even the basic lie–behind cinema vérité. In making choices of what to film and how to edit it, the fimmaker inevitably creates a subjective work that isn’t necessarily truthful. Some vérité filmmakers have been known to stage scenes, although I don’t know if Leacock has done this.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in the history of documentaries should see this one.

After the screening, Weiner came up for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • I was asked to teach at Syracuse in 2003. The students all thought that Michael Moore invented documentaries.
  • [When asked if Leacock saw the film before he died in 2011] He did see a work in progress in 2010 at Telluride.
  • We can’t release [this film commercially] until we’ve paid for the rights. And there’s something like 87 clips in this film.

You get one more chance to see Ricky on Leacock. It plays tonight, at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre, at 9:15.