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Measures To Preclude the Dilution the Pixar Brand

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Measures To Preclude the Dilution the Pixar Brand

Postby SendMeToPixar » Tue Dec 16, 2014 4:33 am

I wrote this for fun before the Frozen craze took over.

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Essential Creative Measures Necessary To Preclude the Dilution of the Pixar Brand Amidst An Increasingly Competitive Landscape

by Aurelien Rassas

September 17, 2013

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Table of Contents

I. Introduction: The Pixar Predicament

II. The Financial Prowess and Cultural Impact of Computer-Animated Films: A Brief Snapshot

III. The Intensifying Threat of the Competitive Market: Pixar VS. The Rest

IV. The Pixar Brand Defined

V. Matters of Life & Death: Proposed Measures For the Advancement and Preservation of the Brand

VI. Conclusion: The Bolder the Risk the Better

References

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I. INTRODUCTION: THE PIXAR PREDICAMENT

There is no denying how large or distinct of an impact computer-animated films have had—and continue to have—on the movie industry, from a monetary and cultural aspect. Yet, despite the apparent healthy profits computer animation studios continue to amass to this day, it is crucial to remember that the industry very much remains driven by the same underlying factor as any other: the fierce and incessant competition of its players.
There is no player more recognized, decorated, and closely examined by industry analysts than California-based Pixar Animation Studios (‘Pixar’), the very studio that quintessentially pioneered and spearheaded computer animation onto the mainstream stage as far back as 1995, with the release of the world-renowned family film Toy Story. Pixar—recipient of nearly thirty Academy Awards (“Oscars”), dozens of other industry accolades, and over $8 billion in revenue worldwide—is commonly revered by the public and business analysts alike as the industry champion for churning out critically-acclaimed ‘triple-A’ titles that have gone on to set the exemplary standards and benchmarks in quality storytelling and presentation (Indiewire, 2013). With such a notable reputation and legacy at stake, it is a worthwhile investigation to ensure this prized studio continues to produce work of the highest caliber that will continue to enthrall, entertain, and remain beloved by audiences for the cloudy years to come.

Faced with the growing threat of both new entrants and seasoned rivals in the market, Pixar must strategically contend to remain both artistically relevant and engaging, reinforcing that brand of theirs in the process that has—for nearly a decade—made it more special and memorable than the rest. Talented and fully capable competitors in the marketplace producing comparable works to Pixar’s, meanwhile, are making it increasingly more challenging for Pixar to differentiate itself and retain its uniqueness. This change in the landscape is lessening the impact and power that Pixar once leveraged in the computer animation business.
It is ambiguous—or at least not publicly disclosed—if Pixar’s leadership has fully assessed and acknowledged the potency of this real threat and developed an appropriate contingency plan to combat the associated dangers. In that respect, regardless of its current lineup of films that have already been green-lighted for production, Pixar—whose parent company and distributor, and owner of its licensed products are Walt Disney Pictures and The Walt Disney Company, respectively (collectively known as ‘Disney’)—must look to the future and learn to adopt a bolder and more mature breed of films into their portfolio that might just help set them apart from their competitors, but simultaneously paying mind to very much remain “Disneyesque”.
The essential “creative measures” proposed within strive to steer Pixar into innovating their competitive edge so as to maintain it, in such ways that they do not conflict but are rather still in alignment with their “Disney” brand. Before strategic suggestions can be made, however, it is paramount to first understand and analyze the landscape that Pixar competes in.

II. THE FINANCIAL PROWESS AND CULTURAL IMPACT OF COMPUTER-ANIMATED FILMS: A BRIEF SNAPSHOT

Since their breakout inception into mainstream cinema in 1995 with the groundbreaking and revolutionary film Toy Story by Pixar, computer-animated films (alternatively referred to as ‘computer-generated imagery’ movies, or CGI movies) have flourished to become a lucrative business, bringing forth big profits for their respective studios and toy manufacturers, and defining pop-culture along the way. Computer-animated movies, generally known to appeal to the whole family, nearly always dominate theatres every week that they come out, debuting at the number one spot weekly. Wade Holden, an analyst with research firm SNL Kagan, remarks that, “animated films typically outperform other types of movies at the box office”, adding that “animation consistently ranked second behind action movies in each of the last five years” (L.A. Times, 2013). In many cases, several animated films in the last decade have gone on to gross more revenue than live-action films during both their theatrical and DVD runs. Pixar’s Finding Nemo, for instance, went onto sell over twenty-six million copies, catapulting it as the highest-selling DVD of all time in the United States, as of 2011 (BVA, 2011).
Some of the financial returns on the investment for computer-animated films, evidently, can potentially be quite vast by today’s standards. Some of these films, startlingly, are not necessarily always made by Pixar, but rather—their competitors. In the mere time span of only three months after its theatrical release, Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me 2—a spy story about a fish-out-the-water father accompanied by a host of odd-looking yellow creatures known as ‘minions’, who must thwart the villainous plans of a mysterious foe—generated a staggering $835 million worldwide, off a $76 million budget (Box Office Mojo,2013). It is projected to cross well over $1 billion by the end of 2013, a figure that is essentially Universal’s biggest for any film in their studio’s history (L.A. Times, 2013). Reveling in its movie’s gargantuan success, France-based studio Illumination Entertainment celebrates by planning to expand its company, ambitiously projecting to add 200 employees to its 400-member team in November 2013 (rfi, 2013).

The benefits of a movie’s financial and critical success can extend well beyond the proliferation of the studio itself and its respective distributor. Every highly influential movie perpetuates, in the wake of its success, a legacy that shapes or creates new tastes in society, consequently generating additional business via other omnipresent manifestations. Toys based off Pixar’s Cars franchise alone resulted in sales totaling more than $1 billion, as of 2013 (The Walt DisneyCompany, 2013). The mass purchases of a movie’s tie-in merchandise such as toys, games, books, apparel, school supplies, birthday kits, dinnerware, and posters serve as a testament of the general public’s appreciation and acceptance of that movie, further validating the movie’s successful integration and assimilation into popular culture. In that regard, it is implicitly proven that the spirit of a good movie has the ability to transcend into a life beyond the movie, providing consumers other joys and satisfactions that carry lasting sentimental value and meanings. Such is the rippling legacy of a truly impactful movie outside the movie theatres.

III. THE INTENSIFYING THREAT OF THE COMPETITIVE MARKET: PIXAR VS. THE REST

Realizing the popularity, demand, and financial opportunities attributed to such movies, computer animation studios have eagerly and hurriedly established their presence over the years, by way of continuously sending movie after movie into the pipeline. Pixar is no longer the lone player as it once was. Notable studios have cropped up since the promising age of computer animation heralded by Pixar began, including Dreamworks Animation (responsible for titles such as Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and How To Train Your Dragon, to name a few), Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age, Rio, Epic) and Sony Pictures Animation (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Smurfs, Hotel Transylvania).
However, the pressure for studios to release computer-animated films has perhaps inadvertently created a superfluous influx of movies in the marketplace. The year 2013 saw the wide theatrical release of eleven animated movies, which was up from six a decade ago, including six studio movies in the summer alone, making it one of the most congested periods ever for computer animated movies. As opposed to letting up, this number is poised to get bigger. Hollywood.com reports that an additional thirteen movies are slated for release in 2014. Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office division of Hollywood.com, dryly remarks, “It’s been a pretty mighty profit center. As long as families keep making kids, studios are going to keep making these movies” (L.A. Times, 2013).
Filmmaking entities hungrily going after such potential level of success as that of the one attained by the Despicable Me entries (and other hugely successful animated films) pose an important problem for new and old competitors alike. An overcrowded landscape with no signs of slowing down has particularly made it increasingly difficult for movie studios to distinguish themselves and vie for the attention of the movie-going public. Richard Verrier of The Los Angeles Times alarmingly comments, “there are signs that the abundance of animated movies may be nearing a saturation point as family audiences confront a growing number of choices over what they choose to spend their movie dollars on.” (2013). Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com admits that, “there’s no question studios are going to commit huge resources to animation, but I think there’s a learning curve about how audiences react to films and how often they are released.” (L.A. Times, 2013). Simply speaking, moviegoers nowadays are getting bombarded with too many selections, and hence are put in a situation where they have to decide which titles are worthy of their time and money. Wade Holden from SNL Kagan reaffirms this grim predicament, stating, “When there are more choices and families only have a certain amount of dollars, they’re going to throw their money behind one film or the other and that’s why we’re starting to see some of these big [computer-generated] films miss” (L.A. Times, 2013).

This threat is none more applicable and pertinent than to industry leader Pixar. The studio widely known for having consecutively released an unbreakable streak of surefire hits such as the Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo,The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up, should not be one to stammer on its shinning reputation and steady record, and for good measure. Pixar prides itself on these aforementioned intellectual properties that propagate its brand and long-standing success. Yet, the company’s stance on preserving and continuously innovating their brand in the face of the escalating adversity that is beginning to plague their playing field is ambiguous. Chief Creative Officer and early pioneer of Pixar Animation Studios, John Lasseter, defiantly exercises confidence, expressing, “The pool is big. The water’s warm. The more the merrier. Some come in and make a bad movie. I like healthy competition. I’d much rather be in a healthy industry than be the only player in a dead industry.” (L.A. Times, 2013). This publicly-made statement perhaps voices Pixar’s mentality that it [feels it] is the best, but does not quite allude to any notion that Pixar possesses an actual contingency plan designed to fend off rivals that have become just as competent as it.

On the technological front, much of Pixar’s competitors have caught up with the technology that was once Pixar’s to dominate. They are now also able to render strikingly detailed and beautiful visuals to their films such as textures, lighting, particle physics, and other special effects. Clearly, studios are showing no problem creating and bringing animated films to life from scratch; it is no longer the issue. The real competition boils down to what story must be told to make the best use of these tools.
In response to this heated competition now at its door, Pixar must very seriously pursue the only objective left through which they can gain the lead: pushing to solidify and forge its identity through the continuous development of its distinguished brand.

IV. THE PIXAR BRAND DEFINED

Every company works diligently to instill a distinct brand for its products that serves to give them clear distinction over those of its competitors. This business principle is by which companies build their name and reputation. Brands ultimately cause consumers to prefer one product to another. They essentially stand in as an intangible metric by which the public defines, views, and values a company.
The Pixar brand is the prime determinant of the studio’s long-lived success.
In addition to its mastery at implementing top-of-the-line animation and gorgeous visuals in every one of its movies, Pixar primarily thrives and excels at telling a mixture of creatively put-together stories played out by a diverse cast of likable characters. Typically, these stories channel family-appropriate messages and themes that are fitting of the Disney brand, which in turn, has always traditionally been family-friendly. For example, Finding Nemo and Brave both approach a “parents-know-best” angle, exploring the fragile relationship between parent and their child, while Wall-E advocates an environmental message. Cars preaches the goodness of humility, while A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille, and Monsters University all follow a classic “believe in yourself” underdog template that depicts disadvantaged heroes that must learn to master their confidence and find their inner valor to surmount much superior obstacles or opponents.
When it is not set on treading any one particular familial or social message, Pixar can deliver other high-octane entertainment features that teem with fun and originality. The studio has masterfully crafted light-hearted adventures, such as the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles, and Monsters Inc.—tall tales that take the story’s central characters on unbelievable and wild journeys never before seen in children’s films before. These movies have each garnered an aggregate critic review score of 95% or above based off hundreds of reviews, on the movie review website RottenTomatoes.com (2013).
Fearless and creative, the studio does not feel held back by barriers prohibiting it to think even more imaginatively and unconventionally. In its 2009 smash-hit Up, two unlikely characters from the completely opposite sides of the age spectrum are pitted together to brave the whirlwind dangers of an exotic setting, while in a flying house hung from balloons. The absurdity of such an original premise is the very fiber that makes Pixar’s brand of storytelling material so unique and distinct.
Yet, as colorful and enticing as their stories may be—both from a visual and artistic standpoint—Pixar seldom concocts stories that are too juvenile or overbearingly childish. Elements of Pixar’s films accentuate the feature with at-times violent undertones, so as to engage adult audiences. The sinister Syndro, a menacing good-turned-bad villain in The Incredibles, seeks to amass riches through the selling of weapons of mass destruction of his own creation. It is with the inclusion of these true-to-life concepts that Pixar films are able to balance their tone of seriousness in the realm of the realistic and credible.

To articulate their stories in a context that will please and connect with audiences, Pixar employs the use of talking toys, insects, animals, [not-so-scary] monsters, cars, robots, and quirky human caricatures to serve as the protagonists. These characters—regardless of their species or form—are fundamentally designed in such a way that they credibly express human sensibilities, a monumental step to bridging the viewer with the character. Once the personality of the character is established, the focus on designing the appearance of the character comes next. Pixar calls upon its talented artists to create the look and feel of these characters so that they will appeal to the human eye and bear marketable properties. The purposeful designing of marketable characters paves way for the creation of toys that can be manufactured in their image, that—very much like in the aforementioned Cars example—when sold in mass quantities, further validates the business value and potency of the Pixar brand.
Seamless and jaw-dropping computer animation set aside, the studio’s eloquent blending of humor, action, intrigue, and a drop of emotional resonance to shape an original story driven by a cast of appealing and convincing characters, is perhaps Pixar’s greatest triumph and, ultimately, its very own brand.

Sadly, the crowding market in the computer animation industry may run the risk of diluting Pixar’s brand. Subpar products delivered from rival entities bearing close visual likenesses or similarities in plots could potentially lower or warp the casual moviegoer’s perception of the Pixar brand. Richard Verrier of the L.A. Times echoes this sentiment, stating, “Hollywood may be saturating the market with too many animated movies, with characters and storylines that begin to look too familiar” (2013). For instance, when Disney’s very own animated studio–DisneyToon Studios—released the highly criticized Planes in 2013, many were left circumstantially deceived that the film was a Pixar production. Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle gave the film two and half stars out of four, noting that, “any will enter theaters thinking this is a Pixar film, with the raised expectations that accompany that mistake” (2013). Though the movie experienced marginal success, Planes, a movie with an aggregate critic review score of 26% (RottenTomatoes.com, 2013) about an underwhelming talking plane taking part in air races and outdoing the most seasoned participants, runs similar parallels and narrative beats too close to the Pixar movie Cars. Jen Chaney of The Washington Post is not thrilled about the rehashed pedestrian plot, voicing, “This film is 100 percent devoid of surprises. It's the story of an underestimated underdog that's like every other kid-friendly, life-coachy story about an underestimated underdog” (2013). Although Planes—being a Disney property—was intentionally set in the same world as that of Pixar’s Cars, it did not help to dissipate its uncanny connection to Pixar. A. A. Dowd of The A.V. Club, who gave the film a D+, observed, "Planes cuts corners at every turn, a strategy that leaves it feeling like the skeletal framework of an incomplete Pixar project” (2013).
With the influx of computer-animated movies on the horizon, the likelihood of other properties regurgitating similar characters and plots is only going to get worse for Pixar. The only rational direction left for the highly-esteemed animation studio in the industry to take, is to innovate its brand anew.

V. MATTERS OF LIFE & DEATH: PROPOSED MEASURES FOR THE ADVANCEMENT AND PRESERVATION OF THE BRAND

In order for Pixar to truly differentiate itself from its competitors and stay ahead of the game, it will have to consider developing films with innovative premises sharply differing in tone than much of the predictable features that presently populate theatres. These movies must continue to surprise and intrigue audiences. For the most part, it seems Pixar is on the right track. In 2015, it will release a very ambitious and complex movie titled Inside Out, a movie whose narrative will take the viewer inside the mind of a pre-teen girl whose emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and joy are personified as actual characters, and—according to Anthony Breznican of Entertainment Weekly—must “spar, collaborate, and miscommunicate with one another in an attempt to keep her functioning, and find new friends” (2013). Simply going by the barebones description alone, the premise of this new film unmistakably bursts of originality and clever storytelling competencies. Drew Taylor of Indiewire.com was able to witness early footage of the film in question, making a comforting and promising observation, “the most jaw-dropping moment was a crudely animated sequence that showed the young girl talking to her parents, where the camera would zoom into the parent's respective minds to see how they work too. It was really funny and touching and strange and pointed what could be the next true Pixar masterpiece; what we saw was strange and super special” (2013).
Although Inside Out—aimed to be a comedy—shows great innovation and ingenuity, Pixar must be mindful that its competitors are also slated to release light-hearted comedic fare that may very well fiercely compete in tone with their movie. In fact, its main competitor and long-time rival Dreamworks Animations plans to release that same year The Penguins of Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda 3. Meanwhile, Illumination Entertainment and Sony Pictures Animation will have released Minions and Hotel Transylvania 2, respectively (Wikipedia, 2013). While the plots of these movies no doubt differ (in accordance with an “apples-to-oranges” argument), the generally cheery and upbeat tone of these movies causally lump all these movies into the category of “children’s films”. Consequently, Pixar must consider taking another measure that will considerably help pull them away and make them stand out from the crowd, for the years that follow. It must seek to prepare a handful of titles to their lineup that should convey a drastic shift in tone by exploring more mature issues.

Pixar’s foray into more mature content and themes would not be the first; it is certainly a source for critical acclaim and potential success. Its award-winning movie Up, a story about an elderly man needing to move on from the passing away of his wife, was perhaps the most bold and daring computer-animated film of all time. What truly made Up an outstanding powerhouse film, was that it dared to go where no other computer animated film had dared to go before: visit grim subjects that are both unfamiliar and dark to young audiences, including infertility, death, and loneliness, albeit delicately so. The remarkable accomplishment by Pixar, in this particular case, was in its ability to underhandedly cater to “grown-ups”, yet still appease and entertain children. Movie critic Will Leitch appropriately delights, “The glory of Pixar’s films as that they touched on universal themes, all the way through, that just happened to also tickle kids” (The Will Leitch Experience,2009). Fellow movie critic Ali from TheShiznit goes on to best summarize the tonal evolution of the film in question:

“Up is a movie that's more human and more relatable than anything Pixar have ever done before. The movie's overriding themes are adult in nature. It's about enjoying life, experiencing a loss of purpose and ultimately accepting death. It's unspoken, but [the protagonist] Carl is basically moving to South America to die. Heavy stuff. Not a topic you're likely to see broached in [Dreamwork Animation’s] Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom Of Doom...It feels like it's more than just a mere animation. It has more heart and soul in its tiniest pixel than most competitors' movies can boast in their entirety” (2009).

With its close brushes with somber, mature, and sensible topics atypical of the medium, Up definitively embodies the essence of a movie that has boldly revolutionized and metamorphosed the children’s film genre completely. It inarguably tackled concepts that an adult viewer could ponder with considerable interest and captivation. Movie Critic Nick Rogers of The Film Yap elaborates:

“In some ways, adventure is about escaping death’s closure, but it’s also about clinging to life’s openness—letting one escapade’s end evolve into something new. Not only a tremendously affecting story about indomitable love, “Up” reminded us it’s never too late to embrace the possibilities we felt when we were small” (2010).

Oddly enough, no computer animated film since Up’s release has come out that bothers to trifle with such themes, which has therefore created even more of an opportune moment for Pixar to re-enter the scene with another surprise drama-filled hit. If Pixar can continue to bring such emotionally dense films along the lines of Up—a movie that has earned an aggregate movie critic score of 98% (RottenTomatoes, 2013)—faster to the finish line than any other studio, it may just continue to secure its place as the most diverse studio in the industry.

If in the mindset of making more mature and intellectually provoking films, Pixar should consider helming more projects that explore the topics of mortality and the preciousness of life. In dealing with the subject of death for a future movie, it would inevitably be of curious and intense interest for Pixar to kill off a beloved protagonist ruling out any chances of revival, so that the audience may—for the first time—truly feel and experience the pang of true loss. Up to this point, no major protagonist in any Pixar movie truly passes away. The young fish Nemo, who is initially thought to be dead at the closure of the picture, reawakens. The seemingly deactivated robot Wall-E gets reprogrammed and turns back on. After transforming into a bear, Merida’s mother in Brave magically turns back into a human perfectly unharmed. The unprecedented and sudden demise of a character that the audience has grown attached to would undoubtedly invoke a strong emotional reaction, which certainly aids or works as a catalyst to the makings of a unique and unforgettable movie.

To draw in a wide-ranging audience of both genders and all ages once more, Pixar could also benefit from crafting a wholly original vehicle with an underlying serious love story. The plot in question could center on a character couple ensnared in a heightened, adult, and intimate sense of romance, yet never bordering nor approaching the sexually explicit. The romance in Pixar film thus far has either strangely been absent or understandably downplayed. Cowgirl Jessie’s spark for spaceman Buzz Lightyear is but a wink to the audience. Wall-E’s romance for a fellow robot named Eve is circumstantial. Racecar Lightning McQueen’s for sports car Sally Carrera is more of a young crush. Similarly, aspiring chef Alfredo Linguini’s attraction to female cook Collette follows suit. An adult story centering on two lead characters with the focal point being their deep and layered relationship, could lead the way for fresher and more dynamic interpretations of love that only Pixar can creatively portray.

Lastly, Pixar must take crucial precautions that will surely keep itself apart from the masses, if adhered to. It must primarily stray away from producing films that are derivative of other pre-existing works, because failure to do so could bring financial and reputational consequences. Pixar’s 2012 entry Brave, a story about a young princess seeking to reverse a spell that has turned her mother into a bear, unmistakably treaded too close to plot points of Disney’s 2003 movie Brother Bear. The third-lowest reviewed Pixar film that went on to make comparatively lower revenue than most Pixar films, received harsh criticism due to its blatant likeness to the movie that had come out a decade prior. “It wasn't enough that Disney already made a direct-to-video sequel to Brother Bear, but now the company that changed the future of animation has gone hopelessly into the past to deliver a story with even less consequence”, comments Erik Childress of eFilmCritic.com (2012).

It would also be wise for the studio to move away from concepts that are fast rapidly becoming a cliché and a nuisance in the industry, including talking animals and talking vehicles. With the exception of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur slated to be released in 2014 in which a talking dinosaur lives harmoniously with a young boy (Wikipedia, 2013), Pixar seems to be on point. Ali from TheShiznit encouragingly confirms, “Typically the domain of sassy talking animals and cutesy characters, it's a playground which Pixar seem to have grown bored with”(2009).

VI. CONCLUSION:THE BOLDER THE RISK THE BETTER

Over the next two to three years, the computer animation industry is shaping up to become increasingly crowded. A seemingly unstoppable stream of mostly juvenile and airy features is projected to spill onto the market, from virtually every computer animation studio. Pixar, widely recognized as the industry’s poster child for top-quality original computer-animated entertainment, must set out to be the better example. Pixar must be courageous to continue making films in the vein of themes and topics that have traditionally been unthinkable and unfit of the medium, such as Up. A mature and adult approach to enhance the emotional gravitas of their films may create deeper, richer experiences that go on to be critically lauded by audiences longing for a change.
In unwaveringly adhering to its core principles of being the industry’s pioneer in story innovation by taking creative risks and unconventional directions, Pixar Animation Studios may yet stand a viable chance to reassert and fortify its position as the industry’s undisputed commercially successful and critically-acclaimed leader. It is considerably ideal, for the prosperity of the company and its image, that the creative measures proposed herein are adopted by Pixar’s leadership.
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