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Never Mind Beethoven's Fifth
Let's Talk Pixar's Fourth...
by Jim Hill

In the wake of this weekend's press release that offered details on the three feature length films that the computer animation company still owes Disney, Jim Hill points out the importance of what wasn't revealed.


By now, all of you animation fans out there have undoubtedly heard Pixar's big news. You know, that story that hit the newswires this past weekend (click here); the one where the acclaimed animation studio officially offered up the titles as well as pertinent plot points on the next three feature films that Pixar will be delivering to the Walt Disney Company for marketing & distribution?

Folks in the financial world supposedly saw this story as a sign that Pixar's infamously icy relationship with the Mouse might be thawing. More importantly, it's been suggested that there may now be reason to hope that the productive, profitable if somewhat prickly arrangement between the two entertainment giants could continue after Pixar's current five picture deal with Disney expires in December 2005.

Sadly, I fear that this may all be just wishful thinking on Wall Street's part. Why? Well, as I was reading all of this past weekend's upbeat stories about Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Cars, I didn't see a single reference to the fourth film that Pixar Animation Studio currently has in development. You know, that feature length project that "Geri's Game" director Jan Pinkava is riding herd on?

"Which film are you talking about, Jim?" I hear you asking. This is the movie that John Lasetter himself inadvertently revealed was in the works back in January during Pixar's 15th anniversary celebration at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

How did this happen? Well, the highlight of that evening's festivities at the LACMA was a screening of all of Pixar's prize winning shorts (as well as clips from several of the studio's features) with commentary by Lasetter. After "Geri's Game" was shown, John lavishly praised Pinkava's directorial debut. Almost as an after thought (before moving on to the next clip), John added that Jan was already at work on a feature length project. A film that he'll be directing for Pixar.

Now -- if you'll carefully reread this weekend's press release -- you'll notice that there's no mention at all of a Jan Pinkava film being in the works. So -- if Andrew Stanton is helming Finding Nemo, and Brad Bird is riding herd on The Incredibles, and Lasetter himself is directing Cars -- how does this unmentioned Jan Pinkava / Pixar project fit into the company's future plans?

Could Jan's film be the first picture released under a renewed Disney / Pixar pact? Doesn't seem likely, folks. Why? Executives at Disney Feature Animation love to shape and mold Pixar projects as they move through the story phase. (Remember that these were the guys who -- back in November of 1993 -- actually forced Pixar to shut down production of Toy Story because they didn't think Woody was sympathetic enough. It took Lasetter & his team 'til April 1994 to come up with a workable way to make the cowboy character someone you could really care about. Then -- and only then -- did Disney executives deem the project worthy of resuming production.) So I can't imagine Mouse House execs being all that enthusiastic about their company distributing & marketing a movie that they've had zero creative input on.

Which brings us to our next question: If Pixar *ISN'T* developing Pinkava's project for Disney, then who exactly is the studio making this movie for? Could this film be the bait that the acclaimed animation studio hopes to use to lure another enormous entertainment conglomerate into signing an even more lucrative marketing / distribution deal than the one the company currently has with the Mouse? Or -- God forbid -- could Jan's movie be actually Pixar's first ever solo project? The film that the studio will make, market and distribute all on its own?

Only one man knows the answer to these questions: Steve Jobs, Chairman and CEO of Pixar. And Steve ain't talking ... Except back in January, when Jobs -- in response to a somewhat confusing comment that Michael Eisner made while discussing Disney's latest quarterly earning statement -- issued the following statement:

"Pixar has only three pictures left to deliver under its current deal with Disney, and all three of these pictures are currently in some stage of production ... Pixar enjoys a very successful relationship with Disney and we look forward to completing the remaining three pictures of our current deal."

Note the language used in this press release. "Completing." Not "continuing," but "completing." Not exactly what you'd call a beacon of hope for the Walt Disney Company, now is it?

Now where this all gets interesting is that -- under the terms of the company's 1997 coproduction deal with Disney -- Pixar can't even talk with any other companies about possibly cutting a production deal until the finished version of their third film (Finding Nemo) is delivered to the Mouse House. Which (according to studio insiders) would be about this time next year.

So wouldn't those negotiations get really interesting if Pixar were able to reveal that it already had a post Disney film well in pre-production? A movie that -- following the exacting terms that Mouse House attorneys had inserted into the 1997 Coproduction contract -- couldn't legally be released to theaters 'til December 2006 (One year after the release date of Pixar's Cars).

But that would still mean that some lucky conglomerate could be sending a brand new Pixar picture out into the multiplexes by early 2007. So I would imagine that -- once word of this fourth as yet unnamed and unclaimed Pixar project gets out -- that the entertainment giants will begin lining up outside the animation company's Emeryville, CA. headquarters. Just counting down the days 'til April 2003 when the negotiations can legally get underway.

My advice (for those of you who are really curious about how all of this is going to play out)? Make sure that you're somewhere near a phone on Wednesday, May 8th. That's the day that Jobs -- along with Pixar's executive vice president and chief financial officer, Ann Mather -- will be holding a teleconference to discuss Pixar's earnings for this first quarter of 2002. At that time, Steve & Ann will also talk about -- quoting from the press release here -- "other recent or upcoming developments affecting the company's operations."

Should someone bring up the subject of Jan Pinkava's film and/or what this movie fits in to Pixar's future plans at this meeting, I would imagine that you'll hear a most intriguing answer.

But you didn't hear this from me ...

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

To participate in Pixar's quarterly earnings teleconference, please call
888-428-4473 (U.S.) or 612-288-0340 (Int'l) approximately 10 minutes
prior to the meeting's start time on Wednesday, May 8, 2002 at 5:00 p.m.
Eastern Time, 2:00 p.m. Pacific Time. For those of you whose dance card
is full that day, a replay of the call will be provided by Pixar through
Monday, May 13, 2002 until midnight Eastern Time. To access the replay,
please call 800-475-6701 (U.S.) Or 320-365-3844 (Int'l) and reference
the reservation code: 635252.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

I know, I know. All you Digital Media FX readers have been patiently waiting for weeks now for me to deliver Parts II & III of my "Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due" series. My apologies, but -- due to some unforeseen family obligations -- I've gotten really behind in my writing. I'll try to catch up on all the stories that I still owe you guys over the next week or so. First finishing up that "Credit" series... Then moving on to the rather important role that 20th Century Fox's success with Ice Age (and Paramount Pictures' somewhat smaller success with Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius) is currently playing in the Pixar / Disney deal extension negotiations.

Again, my sincerest apologies for all the delays, folks. Please hang in there. Hopefully, the finished version of these stories will make it worth the wait.


Jim Hill is an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital Media FX on the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those subscribed to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive an advanced look (including full access) at each of Hill's columns.

Based out of a log cabin hidden away in the woods of New Hampshire, Jim is currently at work on an unauthorized history of the Walt Disney World Resort and a book on the history of Jim Henson. In addition, he writes for several online Websites. He has a beautiful 8 year old daughter and four obnoxious cats.

You can email Jim Hill at stadlerhill@mindspring.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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