Monday, July 04, 2011

Growth, Maturity and Decline

I haven't seen Cars 2 (and won't), but the critical drubbing it took and Pixar's move into sequels has me wondering about the bigger picture.

Companies, like individuals, go through a life cycle. They grow, they mature and eventually they decline. The only difference between companies and individuals is that because companies can outlive individuals or change their personnel, they sometimes revive.

Growth is a phase where companies get larger but also expand their skills and discover their point of view. If we look at the Disney studio during Walt Disney's lifetime, we can see growth from 1923 to 1942. We can argue the exact dates or films, but the overall pattern is clear. During that time period, the skills and what exactly a Disney cartoon was supposed to be continued to evolve.

After Bambi, the studio was mature. A Disney cartoon was a particular, identifiable thing . When the studio deviated from that, in The Three Caballeros or Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, it was imitating Tex Avery and UPA respectively. It wasn't breaking new ground, it was trying to stay current with other studios that were in growth mode.

For me, Disney's decline takes place when Woolie Reitherman was the sole director of the films. The narrative energy was dissipated, budgets were cramped, and there were significant amounts of re-used footage.

None of these stages is without variation. There are better and worse films in every stage and there's always room for differences of opinion. In broad terms, though, I think these descriptions work for Disney.

You can apply the same categories to individuals. If we take Chaplin as an example, his growth is roughly 1914-1917, the years at Keystone, Essanay and Mutual (where he perfected his art in shorts). His maturity is 1918 to 1940, the years of his best known features: The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. His decline is 1947 to 1967, the years from Monsieur Verdoux to A Countess from Hong Kong. There are critics who find much valuable work in those later films and I agree with them, but there's no question that Chaplin's popularity was waning and that the films lack consistency.

Which brings us to Pixar. We now know what a Pixar film is like and what it isn't. That's a sign of a mature studio. The firing of various directors says that they were not capable of producing a Pixar film. We're also seeing less artistic growth. The preponderance of sequels proves that. What's going to be the ratio of sequels to original films? Two to one? Three to one?

The larger question is how long will Pixar's maturity last? Are the reviews of Cars 2 a sign that the studio is tipping into decline? If the film is a relative failure at the box office (acknowledging that the merchandising will more than make up for it), is that also an indication of decline? Did the studio actually reach maturity with Monsters, Inc. or Finding Nemo and it's maturity phase is now ending?

It may be too soon to get answers to these questions, but the pattern is inescapable. Disney revived and entered a new growth phase for a while in the years following The Great Mouse Detective. There's no reason that a declining Pixar couldn't revive as well, but it usually takes new management and a new creative team. There's no indication that's about to happen at Pixar, and it may be years before Pixar enters an indisputable decline. However, I sense that the studio is on the cusp and I'm curious to see if the next few films confirm my suspicions.


Saturnome said...

It's too soon to wonder about that in my opinion (Cars 2 could turn up to be a black sheep, and there is Brave coming up), though if there was a decline of some sort, I would put Toy Story 3 in the equation, despite it's success with audience and critics.

But anyway, Limelight is my favorite Chaplin.

Anonymous said...

Brave. That is all.

Anonymous said...

Toy story 4.That is all.

Unknown said...

I think it´s still too early to measure it too, probably Monsters, Inc. 2 will be a big critical and financial success. However the most interesting thing I´ve realized with your post is that Brave indeed is more a Sony Pictures kind of movie than a Pixar one.

Amir Avni said...


Pixar should start a new outlet like "Touchstone" was to Disney, this way they won't be restricted by the mentality associated with their brand name and be free to fully use their talent. Imagine a "Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher" feature by Bill Presing and Alex Woo!

Faff said...

The proliferation of sequels is often a sign that business rather than creativity rules the roost and there is a fairly proven law of diminishing returns with sequels (with exceptions). Do wonder if the focus is going to be on the Disney brand with the success of "tangled" possibly at the expense of Pixar. Guess we'll see.

Anonymous said...

With talk of a toy story 4, a monsters sequel and sooner or later a sequel to the Incredibles i think you can see a pattern. Even producing shorts with characters from past films i find dilutes their appeal.They have done it with Toy story and soon with Maximus (the horse) from Tangled.

I like to leave a theater making up my own opinions of what these characters future could be, not to be told it for another dollar or two

Andrew Murray said...

Any thoughts on where the next big trend setter will come from Mark? All your examples are based in the feature films going as way back as Chaplin. But do you think with the rise of the internet that perhaps the next Disney or Pixar might not be at the box office?

Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Andrew. If I knew the future, I'd be rich. My gut says that movies are too expensive these days and movie attendance is headed in the wrong direction, so it's unlikely we'll see a new star feature animation studio emerge. But I could be wrong.

Matt Bell said...

Anonymous #3 really hit the nail on the head with...

"I like to leave a theatre making up my own opinions of what these characters future could be, not to be told it for another dollar or two."

Sequels, Re-Makes and Re-Imaginings tend to be a very apathetic approach to film making, and even if they’re not, and are handled “well”(in story & not just visuals), they’re certainly not necessary.
Sequels in particular tend to become inbred & contrived, often re-referencing old aspects of the franchise while at the same time stepping on the audiences own dreams and ideas about those characters and that world.

With that said I think Toy Story 3 did handle that minefield well and made a very nice bookend to the franchise, but it really should be just left at that.

Most people have failed to walk away from their intellectual properties or franchises when the time was appropriate, especially if it was their big break or flag-ship creation, and every one of them I know has lived to regret it. Perhaps not financially, but artistically. (But I guess that’s the easier wound to take).

It still seems odd that the folks who you would think would have some of the greatest opportunities to produce new and authentic stories & works aren’t doing so at every waking opportunity. Either they’re holding out deliberately, trying to capitalise on former glory all while squandering their true assets: their time & talent. Or I guess the film biz must be as tough an industry for everybody in it, big or small.

Perhaps the industry simply needs to experiment with or drop the visual side of its visual production quality, even slightly. A story is a story, regardless of its method of production. People are floored each year by what some students are doing, and these are only 1 to 5 people productions at maximum (and mostly 2D none the less).

"Oh, stuff like that simply doesn’t translate into a full feature film."
Well then show us that. Prove us wrong in our assumption, becuse we really don't have anything else to go off of to support either case here.
Set a new benchmark for the longest and simplest production, rather than the quickest and most visually elaborate.

Tristan Pendergrass said...

I am also really sad at the amount of sequels coming out of Pixar, but I can only speculate about the cause. I overheard an interesting comparison between George Lucas and Lasseter recently. Lucas was given large free rein over the Star Wars prequels, and many (Red Letter Media in particular) make the argument that this was the reason that they were of such low quality- No one dared challenge the mythic-stature Lucas by pointing out the obvious flaws of the prequels' scripts and overall conception. Lasseter has achieved similarly mythlike stature recently, and I fear that it may be reaching the point where no one dares point out to the "master" that his original Cars wasn't all that hot and maybe another round wouldn't be such a good idea. As much as I love most Pixar films, could it be that the continued success of their features is making the brain trust down there at Pixar too immune to criticism?

Anonymous said...

I'd point to the films of Andrew Stanton also as indicators of a downfall. The "braintrust" at Pixar seems to have no one to tell them NO which I think is necessary at times. His two films (Nemo, and WallE) both suffered from being too long for their own good, were overly melodramatic and overall had me itching to get out of the seat. I think Brad Bird's Incredibles (and lesser Ratatouille) was near flawless story-wise and felt like very tight filmmaking to me. With him gone and Stanton one of the remaining men at the helm, I am not feeling optimistic about Pixar's future.

Floyd Norman said...

Funny how this happens with each generation. Terms like, "Nine Old Men" and "Brain Trust" always begins as a joke and over time is taken seriously.

The old guys at Disney were smart enough to leverage the "joke" by Walt and made it work in their favor. This was much to the discontent of the many others who were equally as talented.

Kinda sad to see the same thing happening at Pixar.

Steve Schnier said...

I find it interesting. After having had numerous successes - each one topping the last, Pixar made a movie that wasn't stellar - just very good.

The result: The animation community, the experts, the pundits - all call them dead. "It's over. They're a studio in decline." Good to know.

And of course, Disney did nothing good after "The Black Cauldron".

Chris Walsh said...

My 3 yr old son absolutely adores the Cars toys. He loves anything with wheels, any vehicle in general. So if a toy has EYES to bring it to life, and is a car? My kid is sold.

He was quite surprised to learn there was a movie also; he just loved the toys. So a few weeks ago, I bought the dvd of the first film (Cars is the one Pixar film I had skipped). We watched it.

Cars (the first one) is horrible. It is incredibly TOO long for its meager story. I died a thousand deaths trying to sit through it. I fell asleep briefly (not unusual for the father of a 3 yr old boy). I groaned, I moaned. I drank steadily. The movie is nearly unwatchable, for an adult. But my son will sit through it. I repeat- MY 3 YEAR OLD SON WILL SIT THROUGH IT.

It buys me time (while he watches this feature length film) to do some laundry, write some emails, and so on.

Cars (the first one, and the second, I am sure) are NOT made for adults to enjoy. The enjoyment of these films for adults come from the fact that it makes a small child happy, and quite frankly, it occupies a kid for a little while. THAT makes a parent VERY happy. That's the cold hard truth of why the Cars films "work".

I am planning to take him to see Cars 2 tomorrow, in the theatre. I expect to die as hard as I did watching the first one, except it will cost me quite a bit more, I can't drink a beer, and I won't be able to nap as easily. But I'm doing it for my KID.

The Car series of films is terrible for adults. It is made for kids, and it is made to sell products. My son knows exactly how many characters he does not yet own, and he plans to get them all. I've dumped hundreds of dollars into this series- and it makes my son happy.

Pixar knows exactly what it is doing. It is making more money than you and I can imagine, and it is giving parents of small children time to BREATH.

I just thought this discussion needed the voice of a Dad to temper things a little bit.


Chris Walsh said...

It also needs the letter "e" on the end of the word "breath".


Rodney Baker said...

I haven't yet seen Cars 2 so can't comment on the content or criticisms. Although I too prefer originals over sequels this negative view of sequels saddens me. It's the audience who wants to return to the familiar and Disney/PIXAR is simply delivering.

The bottom line is also a major factor. If the assets already exist... If the characters are developed... If the audience is know already... then the sequel makes good business sense.

Sequels are simply the serials of the modern age. As opposed to the old serials these take years to make. It seems reasonable to me that others would prefer them to work on something else but critics consistently fail to consider the audience's desire for more of the same. Apparently audiences appreciate PIXAR arranging visits with old friends.

Matt Bell said...

Rodney, no doubt that there is that side of the coin, but if you are going to develop a series or serial movies or a continued storyline then set out to do so from the start. The development process for a series is very different from the executives or stockholders going:

“Oh wow, our movie MrX was a huge financial success at the box office this month, so let’s make a MrX 2 and 3.”

The first MrX isn’t even off the circuit yet and already eight whole years (or more) of production time and man hours are going to be take up by other MrX projects, just on that one financial whim with little regard for anything else.

"Apparently audiences appreciate PIXAR arranging visits with old friends."

It might be nice or nostalgic to see old faces again, but I can honestly tell you that people (both audience & artists) certainly aren’t clamouring for more sequels, spin-offs, re-makes or re-imaginings, we’re just being fed them. And we are going to "eat" them if that’s all there is to work on or all they’re ever serving at the buffet table.

Those who actually create and make things will always have far more power and say over what is than those who don’t. In reality the audience can never make that decision. They can't dictate what is to be made, they're passive and only choose what they consume (from what they’re presented with).

Sequels, re-makes & re-imaginings aren’t always bad, but like I've said, they certainly aren’t necessary. And in the context of a medium that’s meant to be about creating things, they are the apathetic choice.

Anonymous said...

Matt Bell - No one is forcing the masses to see this glut of sequels. They do have a choice in what to see. More so now than in any other time in history. Don't like what out at the theatre? Fine, well watch a DVD/BD you have at home, stream a movie from the internet, rent something you haven't seen before, surf the internet, play a video game, etc, etc.

People do have a choice and they are choosing to see the sequels. I don't like it. You may not like it either, but in big numbers people are choosing to pay to see more of the same.

Matt Bell said...

Anon #5
The issue is never with the audience.
The issue is with the creator and what he or she chooses to do.

You are right, there is a hell of a lot of entertainment & film available elsewhere besides what is currently screening in cinemas. Many people do choose these other avenues and content over what is now showing or coming soon. But you forget that there are many many people in this world and that going to the cinema is a fun, easy and enjoyable social activity and popular pastime.

Even some of the worst movies imaginable somehow manage to get bums on seats because they're screened widely enough, are marketed well, have brand recognition and all the rest of it. Multiple sessions of The Hangover Part 2 were completely sold out at my local theatre not that long ago. That’s why movies are such big business.

I simply want more film as good film (new & old), rather than just film as good business.

This is what my
ANTI sequel & prequel
PRO authenticity
stance is all about.

But I’m an idealist. Society and finance have no time for my sentiment.

Steve Schnier said...

To Matt Bell
I hate to say it - but this is show-BUSINESS. You'll note the emphasis on "business".

In order to survive and profit, a studio has to see a return on their investment. For all the development work that goes into an animated feature, it makes sense that they re-use key creative elements in future productions.

Anyone who doesn't want to accept the realities of the business is free to work on their independent productions on a hobby basis.

There's a market demand for sequels. The studios exploit that market demand. Simple as that.

kelly erwin said...

Hey Mark,
I kinda agree with you here. As much as I love pixar, I'm finding that their getting scared about breaking the mold on their story pattern structures, and I'm starting to notice them recycling characters. What they did with toy story 3 is nothing short of a miracle, but I feel like their getting more predictable.
I'm very excited to see brave, but I think the next 6 years will be the most important time for pixar. Because they're really gonna have to keep old concepts fresh, and they might have to deal with over exposure and a turn in public favour. Something Disney had to deal with after it's hay day, where it wasn't cool to like them anymore.
hope I'm wrong though