In September 1979, Disney animator Don Bluth led a mini-revolt of a sort at the studio. Fed up with what he called “too many committee decisions,” he led a walk off of a dozen animators from Disney’s in production The Fox And The Hound in order to start their own studio. It wasn’t the first that Disney studio executives were at odds with the animators creating their films, perhaps most famously during the 1941 animators’ strike. And it may not be the last time either, if the studio isn’t careful.
When Disney and CEO Bob Chapek announced last week that it was moving their latest Pixar Studios release, Turning Red, from its planned theatrical roll out to an online only premier on the Disney+ streaming service, it had to have hit employee morale at Pixar hard. This was the fourth film from the group that has been impacted by the COVID pandemic. Onward was released in March of 2020, just a week before theaters began to close in response to the growing COVID pandemic. It was quickly moved over to VOD and made its way to Disney+ by the middle of April. Soul and Luca were denied their chances in movie houses altogether, with Disney execs moving them straight to Disney+ rather than hold them for a theatrical release when COVID levels would allow for safer theater going. Meanwhile, two Walt Disney Animation productions, Raya And The Last Dragon and Encanto, did have their premiers in theaters.
Indeed there was some reporting describing Pixar staff as “extremely disappointed” and “frustrated.” And this is a condition that they have been in ever since the highly anticipated Soul was moved to a streaming only in December 2020 and then further exasperated with the move of Luca to streaming only this past summer. Variety reports that those at the studio understand that COVID and the pandemic have upset how things normally work over the last two years, but it still, in the words of at least one unidentified staffer, “Sucks.”
Of course, moving Turning Red is not the first time that repositioning a project to Disney+ has threatened potential problems for Chapek. The executive’s decision to debuted the Marvel Studios superhero film Black Widow on the service just two weeks after it premiered in theaters led to a very public dust up over potential earnings and residuals between the studio and star Scarlett Johansson. At least with Turning Red, there are most likely no profit participation deals with big talent to worry about paying off.
Recently departed Disney CEO Bob Iger was very much about building relationships with his creators and doing what is best for the project when at all possible. But his replacement Chapek is a by all accounts a more data driven executive, executing his decisions based on spreadsheets more than any actual experience he has in the entertainment field. Which is virtual none, considering that he is coming to the CEO’s office from overseeing Disney’s theme parks. (And in conversations with Disney theme parks fans I have had, Chapek has something of a reputation with them, and it is not very favorable.) And Chapek’s focus is on maximizing Disney+, presumably under pressure from the stockholders. And when Disney’s stock just having hit a 52-week low last month, he needs to be doing everything he can to try and keep the stockholders happy.
And moving Turning Red to Disney+ can indeed be seen as a smart move on paper and one which will please stockholders. Some industry analysts are arguing that moving the film to streaming is leveraging Pixar’s strength as a brand to drive subscribers to the service. And there is some truth to that. When it first debuted on Disney+, Soul topped the Nielsen weekly streaming rankings with 1.67 billion minutes of viewing time, or almost 16.7 million full runs of the 100-minute long film. Luca did similarly well, with 1.57 billion minutes of viewing time or 16.6 million full runs of the 95-minute movie. It is likely Chapek is hoping for a similar result with Turning Red.
But just because the move does make it good financial sense, doesn’t mean it makes good business sense.
As noted, moral at the Pixar Studio is reportedly low. The group’s last picture in theaters that wasn’t effected in some way by COVID was 2019’s Toy Story 4, and its last non-sequel, original movie released was 2017’s Coco. Onward, Soul, Luca and Encanto were a series of films that were a move back to basics in a way for Pixar, telling new original stories. But now, as they are being shuffled off to streaming, it looks like a vote of no confidence in the projects and the studio.
To keep monetizing existing intellectual property over the risk involved in generating new and original projects has been a trend that has been governing Hollywood for the last couple of decades now. It certainly feels like a very Bob Chapek way of doing things. But that really hasn’t been the way that Walt Disney has survived as a company for almost a hundred years now. And it certainly isn’t what Pixar built their brand on.
Last June at the company’s at their Aulani resort in Hawaii, Iger spoke to the assembled executives, offering some advice for them for the future after he will have left. He said, “In a world and business that is awash with data, it is tempting to use data to answer all of our questions, including creative questions. I urge all of you not to do that.” Not only was it a summation of his own managerial style at the company over the last decade and a half as CEO, but many interpreted it as a not-so-veiled warning to Chapek himself.
But did that warning fall on deaf ears? It is hard to tell.
In a memo sent out to staff just yesterday, Chapek at least partly sounded as if he was going to be working with, and perhaps even taking chances, on new creative material, when he speaks to “continu[ing] to set the creative bar higher and higher.”
And yet, in the third part of what he described as a three part strategy for the new year, Chapek seems also very committed to streaming, at the behest of both stockholders and consumers –
We are a big company with many constituents and stakeholders, all of whom have a place in our decision-making. But at the end of the day, our most important guide—our North Star—is the consumer. Right now, their behavior tells us and our industry that the way they want to experience entertainment is changing—and changing fast thanks to technology and the pandemic. We must evolve with our audience, not work against them. And so we will put them at the center of every decision we make.
That’s a fine line to straddle between the two positions, and it remains to be seen if Chapek can do it. If not, and conditions and morale deteriorate, he may find himself facing a similar labor issue that CEO’s at the company before him faced.