During their decade-plus partnership, relations between Pixar Animation Studios
Chief Executive Officer Steven P. Jobs and Walt Disney
Co.'s former chief, Michael Eisner, were as topsy-turvy as a roller-coaster ride at Disneyland. But even as animosity between the two men came close to destroying one of the most lucrative relationships in the film industry, a key Pixar executive -- John Lasseter -- held an emotional connection to Disney.
In the $7.4 billion agreement by Disney to acquire Pixar announced yesterday, Mr. Lasseter -- Pixar's top creative executive -- played an important role and now stands to assume an even more influential position: chief creative officer of Disney's animation studios and principal creative adviser of Walt Disney Imagineering, where he will work on designing new theme-park attractions.
While Mr. Jobs, with just over 50% of Pixar's stock, ultimately made the decision to sell the company, Mr. Lasseter's blessing of the deal was crucial to making it happen, according to people familiar with the matter.
How this will play with the Disney people is anybody's guess at this early stage. This much is certain: A former Disney employee himself -- both as a young artist and as a theme-park employee -- Mr. Lasseter never lost his love for all things Disney, or his desire to reunite with the company that played such a large role in his life.
"This deal would not happen if John didn't want it to happen," says former Disney studio chief Peter Schneider, part of the team that negotiated Disney's original deal with Pixar to distribute and co-finance its films.
Mr. Jobs said the support of Mr. Lasseter and Pixar's president and co-founder, Edwin Catmull, was key to making the deal work. "This wasn't my decision alone -- this was really Ed and John and me," Mr. Jobs said in an interview. "If any of the three of us hadn't wanted to do this, we wouldn't have done it." Disney Deal
Mr. Lasseter, 49 years old, is widely recognized as one of Pixar's most valuable assets, credited with helping to turn the company into a powerhouse in computer-animated films through his emphasis on compelling storytelling rather than bland technical wizardry. A traditional animator by training, Mr. Lasseter directed and helped write the script for 1995's "Toy Story," the first Pixar feature film, and its next movie, "Cars."
Mr. Lasseter is also deeply involved in overseeing the production of films by Pixar's stable of in-house directors. Going forward, he faces a tougher assignment: keeping Pixar on its long box-office winning streak while helping Disney return to its past glory in the medium it helped to pioneer. He will likely face insecurities all around, both from Disney animators who may feel usurped by the transaction, and from Pixar employees who fear their small-company style will disappear.
Mr. Lasseter's advantage lies in the fact that he has remained a familiar face at Disney even while Pixar was on the rise. His affinity for the company began during his childhood in Whittier, Calif., a half-hour from the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, where he worked as a youngster operating the Jungle Cruise.
"It's really Disney blood throughout my veins," Mr. Lasseter said in an interview yesterday.
Inspired by the cartoons he loved as a child, Mr. Lasseter, just out of high school, enrolled in a new character-animation program at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, along with classmates that included the director Tim Burton. He went to work for Disney in the early 1980s, helping to animate movies like "Mickey's Christmas Carol."
A turning point for Mr. Lasseter came during early screenings of the dailies from the Disney science-fiction movie "Tron," released in 1982. He was dazzled by the groundbreaking computer-animated special effects in the movie, and he helped to persuade Disney to do a short test film that combined hand-drawn animation with computer generated backgrounds.
While he was thrilled by the artistic possibilities that computer animation seemed to open up, Mr. Lasseter was put off by Disney's belief that computers could primarily be used to save money during the creation of animated films.
"There just wasn't an interest in pushing the technology of animation," Mr. Lasseter says.
That attitude and what he saw as the declining quality of Disney's animated films prompted him to leave the company in 1983 for a job at Lucasfilm Ltd., the Northern California movie-production company run by George Lucas. There Mr. Lasseter did groundbreaking work with other members of the computer-animation team at Lucasfilm, including Mr. Catmull.
Mr. Catmull will become president of the new Pixar and Disney animation studios as a result of the deal.
After Mr. Jobs acquired the Lucasfilm computer-animation group in 1986 for $10 million, renaming the new company Pixar, Mr. Lasseter helped to establish a relationship with Disney in 1991, from which came some of the most memorable and successful films of the past decade, including "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles."
Mr. Lasseter pitched "Toy Story" to Disney, and the two companies ended up making the movie together, according to people familiar with the situation.
Along the way, Mr. Lasseter has reaped the rewards of Pixar's success. He is, by far, Pixar's highest salaried employee, earning $2.9 million in salary during 2004, more than five times as much as Mr. Catmull earned, according to Pixar regulatory filings. Mr. Lasseter held Pixar shares, as of last July, valued at $26 million. He lives with his wife and children far from the bustle of Hollywood in the Sonoma County wine country north of San Francisco, where he owns a winery.
While at Pixar, Mr. Lasseter has stayed close to Disney, helping to design rides for theme parks based on Pixar characters such as Buzz Lightyear. At the 50th anniversary of Disneyland last year, Mr. Lasseter turned up at a small dinner for Disney executives, mingling alongside Mr. Eisner and Disney's current CEO Robert Iger, even as the relationship between Messrs. Eisner and Jobs remained deeply acrimonious. Mr. Lasseter often said to staff at Disney that he wished such tensions between the two men could be resolved.
Some people who know Mr. Lasseter, though, speculate that any support he has given for the Disney acquisition is likely driven more by a desire to help shape future films and other uses of Pixar's characters than by a love for Disney.
Under the two companies' distribution deal, which expires with the release of "Cars" this June, sequel rights to Pixar movies are owned by Disney, which had already begun development on its own script for "Toy Story 3" before Disney agreed to acquire Pixar, a prospect that horrified Pixar executives.
"That is the kind of thing that would break John's heart," says Pam Kerwin, a former Pixar vice president who left the company in 1999. "They're his children."
"There's no question that a big part of keeping the negotiations going, even when it was difficult, was because Disney had control of our characters that we had created," Mr. Lasseter said.
In his new role at Disney, Mr. Lasseter says he doesn't intend to force Disney's animation to copy everything Pixar does. "We're not going to come into Disney feature animation and insist everything becomes like Pixar." He adds: "The goal is simply to be there to help those artists make the best movies possible."