Pixar’s Cars, which outran the box office competition by a mile last weekend with a solid opening of $60.1 million, looks like the beginning of a beautiful new friendship between the hitmaking CG ‘toon shop and Disney. And like the backward-driving antics of the movie’s hillbilly tow truck, Mater (see sidebar next page), the Pixar-Disney union represents an amazing reversal. As plenty of coverage over the past few years has detailed, Cars nearly became the final co-production between the two studios, thanks to loud and public tangles over how their relationship should work?and what it should cost. Instead of divorcing, they wound up renewing vows, as Disney agreed to fork over a staggering $7.4 billion to acquire Pixar outright, along with handing over management of all Disney animation to Pixar’s gurus.
But what sounds like a fairy-tale ending actually involves a dramatic coda — one that affects the fates of some of Pixar’s most beloved characters. As part of the renewed partnership, Disney scrapped a nascent, in-house animation studio called Circle 7, which had been crafting follow-ups to Toy Story 2 and other Pixar flicks. And within the brief rise and fall of the place waggish observers christened ”Pixaren’t,” there’s a terrifically twisty tale of high-stakes poker involving contract battles, clashing egos, and a mountain of scrapped creative work.
And here you thought the cartoon world was such a nice, sunny place.
It all started after Toy Story 2 opened to $57.4 million in November 1999. That’s when Pixar CEO Steve Jobs and then-Disney chief Michael Eisner started bickering over how the Pixar empire should be run, and on what terms Disney could go on being part of it. (Their deal was to expire after Pixar’s seventh feature.) The crux of this fight between two family-entertainment titans boiled down to creative control and cash — and Eisner brought those issues to a head with Circle 7. The Disney exec had conceived the upstart studio as a new engine for franchising Pixar’s cartoon stars…without Pixar. How could he do that? Because Disney controlled rights to all Pixar characters up to and including those in Cars, and could deploy them in as many sequels, made-for-video spin-offs, and theme-park rides as it wanted. To make manifest that control, Disney boldly constructed a surrogate-Pixar CG studio on Circle 7 Drive in Glendale, Calif. — hence the name — and began hiring staff in earnest in 2004. (Not that it was easy: Many potential hires fretted they might alienate Pixar if they signed on.)
Asked about Circle 7 during an early-April interview for Cars, Pixar’s star director John Lasseter had no comment. But Andrew Stanton, writer-director of Finding Nemo and a co-writer on the Toy Story movies, was less circumspect in a separate chat (also on the topic of Cars) . ”We were never fooled that [Circle 7] wasn’t the most expensive bargaining chip ever created,” Stanton says. ”But we also knew that, bargaining chip or not, they’d go through with it. They weren’t going to blink.”