Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Mary Coleman, head of the story department at Pixar. Here is a quote about Hollywood’s fascination with the company:
It’s funny because I get calls from producers down in Hollywood asking for the secret recipe. And I always say it’s really hard work, and committing to slog through the bad times. Trusting that if we stick with it and support each other we’ll get there. There’s no short cut for getting it right. We’re willing to keep going back to the drawing board, put it up, look at it, throw it all away and start over. We’re willing to do that over and over and over again.
And here is Mary talking about why Pixar hired someone like her who had a background working with playwrights at San Francisco’s Magic Theater:
Because the Magic workshopped multiple drafts before going into production. We stuck with the playwright through the process, knowing that there would be rocky drafts but if you hang in there, you can get to something you’re all proud to be part of. Pixar commits to artists the same way, knowing that there are going to be drafts and screenings that fall flat, but instead of panicking and firing people we commit to the long-term development process.
Workshop is really the right word. In the theater we workshopped a new play for months. At Pixar it’s years, literally 5 years, to get the stories right.
Put those snippets together with the fact that Pixar has produced 13 movies, each of which has opened at #1 in box office returns, and that helps to explain this:
Warner Bros is making a serious stab to enter the blockbuster animation field, forming an animation think tank to make what it calls high-end animated motion pictures.
The group consists of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who directed Crazy, Stupid, Love for the studio, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who directed the animated hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and are directing The Lego Movie for the studio. Nicholas Stoller (The Muppets) and Jared Stern (Mr. Popper’s Penguins) also are part of the creative consortium.
Think tank. That sounds an awful lot like Pixar’s vaunted Brain Trust. Again from Mary Coleman:
But the most important work of that first year is finding the core of the story, what it is the director wants to communicate to the world.
That starts with very rough outlines. You pitch those to the Brain Trust—a group of the other Pixar directors. One of the most unique aspects of our studio is that you get feedback from their peers. And peers who are very committed to your success, as much as you are to theirs. You get this incredible input before there’s even a first draft. You can call on individuals or the whole Trust at any point to get the feedback you need.
Toy Story was released in 1995. So it’s only taken 18 years for a Hollywood studio to — apparently — come up with an approach that emulates Pixar, the most successful movie production entity ever.
More power to them, especially if the Warner Bros. ‘think tank’ is as serious about story as the folks at Pixar.
What do you think? Can Warner Bros. succeed producing one animated movie a year by following a path that seems inspired by Pixar?
For more on yesterday’s Warner Bros. announcement, read the THR article here.
Don’t forget: I’ll be teaching my 1-week online class Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling starting Monday, January 28. You can enroll here.