In 2006, Walt Disney Company was all but forced to purchase Pixar, the animation company behind "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" for $7.6 billion. However, this weekend just proved that it might have been the smartest thing the company did since banking on Mickey Mouse.
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This weekend, "Zootopia" absolutely smashed, and it continues the strong of box office hits that have been going on for the last decade, including "Frozen," "Tangled," "Wreck-It Ralph," and "Big Hero 6."
These films were released under the Walt Disney Animation Studios banner, and they worked hard on the artistic aspects and the technological innovations of the films. Pixar is responsible for the improvement in quality, including input from the company’s leaders Ed Catmull and John Lasseter.
“What they have focused on in each of these films is having an original voice and an original story, all set in an original world,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief, who dubbed Walt Disney Animation Studios a “momentum machine.”
It wasn't always this way, however, as Pixar did have some pretty poor results with films like “Home on the Range,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Treasure Planet” and “Brother Bear” failed to stir the imagination, floundering at the box office.
“It was the bottom of the barrel,” remembers Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
Catmull and Lasseter had to remake Pixar's image from the ground up. They started working more on workshopping movies and getting to the core of what made movies that not only made people go to the theater, but also resonated with people of all ages. They recruited new talent and made a more collaborative office space.
“They’ve surrounded storytellers with other storytellers and that’s created an environment where collectively they can focus on delivering something great,” said Hollis. “They’ve empowered storytellers.”
Since that time, their movies have become absolute powerhouses that not only change the face of animation, but also change who could be a hero in movies.
Other companies are trying to compete, as Variety pointed out, with Fox’s Blue Sky and Universal’s Illumination have all fielded breakout hits such as “Ice Age” and “Despicable Me,” while Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony are investing heavily in their animation divisions. The margin for error has never been slimmer.
“It is a far, far more competitive landscape now than it was three, four, five, six years ago,” DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg said this week at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference.
He remembers a time when just "Disney" or "Pixar" being attached to a movie is enough to ensure a hit, but that isn't enough anymore.
“It was the brand that did the work for us,” said Katzenberg. “We can’t rely on that anymore.”
Pixar wants to focus on creating new content and not sequels, even though movies like Finding Dory are coming soon.
“Pixar used to be all about originality,” said Bock. “But they fell into sequel mode as most studios do and now it’s Disney Animation that is the one trying new things.”
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Though at some point the studio will definitely make a sequel to "Frozen," they will probably move away from it.