(Credit: Entertainment Pictures / Alamy)

How Bob Iger changed Disney: 15 years of the Disney-Pixar merger

The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.” – Bob Iger

Founded back in 1979, Pixar has come a long way from being a section of Lucasfilm’s computer division to one of the biggest names in the world of animation. With critical and commercial successes like Wall-E and the Toy Story series, the studio has cemented its reputation for producing films which have a mesmerising vision and fierce originality. 

Although Pixar has kept evolving ever since it emerged as an independent company in 1986, one of the pivotal moments in the history of the studio came when it was acquired by Disney. 15 years on from the day that the groundbreaking deal happened, we take a look at how it helped shape the future of Pixar.

Pixar and Disney had maintained a successful relationship for a long time, right from Pixar’s early years when Steve Jobs came on as a chairman. Disney then bought Pixar’s custom animation software and even signed a monumental $26 million deal with Pixar to produce three computer-animated films, facilitating the marketing and distribution for the Pixar films. Such an arrangement was profitable for both companies, especially for Disney, because Pixar’s track record was an impeccable one. Before the merger in 2006, Pixar had produced some of the most iconic animated features of the last decade. Titles such as Toy StoryMonsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo were instantly recognisable critical and commercial successes that had taken the world by storm. Disney had signed a ten-year, five-picture deal with Pixar after the unprecedented success of Toy Story (1995) but the two companies had ongoing disputes since the production of Toy Story 2 (1999) due to disagreements over the parameters of their deal, including the method of release.

At one point, Pixar even considered arranging a different distributor, but it all changed when Bob Iger became the CEO of Disney in 2005. Iger identified that the iconic studio “needed a huge improvement”, believing that the Pixar acquisition was the fastest way to go about it: “I thought the fastest way to accomplish that, albeit at the riskiest and the most expensive, was to buy Pixar.” He engineered a historic $7.4 billion all-stock deal, convincing Steve Jobs to approve of this merger. As an argument against this move, Jobs noted: “Disney’s culture will destroy Pixar!” and “DISTRACTION WILL KILL PIXAR’S CREATIVITY”, but he eventually saw that the pros outweighed the cons and became a key element in Iger’s quest to get his board’s go-ahead.

Bob Iger led the merger between Disney and Pixar. (Credit: Angela George)

Iger’s meeting with Jobs had inspired him to such an extent that he wrote in his autobiography: “What I saw that day left me breathless—the level of talent and creative ambition, the commitment to quality, the storytelling ingenuity, the technology, the leadership structure, and the air of enthusiastic collaboration—even the building, the architecture itself. It was a culture that anyone in a creative business, in any business, would aspire to.”

Jobs became Disney’s largest individual shareholder, and Pixar’s in-house visionary John Lasseter was promoted to the position of Chief Creative Officer. A significant reason why the Disney board agreed to such a risky venture was because of Iger’s initiative. He presented a report which explained how the animation giants had actually lost money in the last decade, claiming that this deal could revitalise Disney for the better and carve out a new path for the studio. Time has shown that Iger’s conviction was wholly right, but there were specific irreconcilable differences that both workforces had to reckon with. Lasseter remembered a heartbreaking encounter with a disillusioned Disney artist who told him: “You don’t know what it’s like to work for four years, put your heart and soul into a film, and the day the film opens, no one mentions it again.” Lasseter quickly caught on to the fact that unlike Pixar, which focused on the filmmaking aspect of things, artists at Disney had to take directives from the executives and had relatively less creative freedom. Led by Lasseter, changes were made to the Disney machinery and filmmakers began updating their peers on their progress instead of the executives. The process became more open too, enabling any employee to come up with suggestions. Ultimately, it was the director’s choice to incorporate whatever was deemed right.

Focusing on an intersection of hand-drawn as well as digital animation, Lasseter paved the way for an immensely successful period in the company’s history. He had started his career as an animator at Disney, but his experiments with computer animation caused him to be fired by the executives, “When I saw computer animation, I said, ‘This is what Walt would have done.’ It was as plain as the nose on my face.” Upon his return, Lasseter ensured that Disney’s tradition of hand-drawn animation remained intact while also thinking about the future of animated films. Iger’s management of the merger played an essential part in this development. He assured the Pixar workers that their culture would be preserved, utilising them to change the creative vision at Disney and also tasking them with new responsibilities in order to increase the company’s efficiency. The numbers speak for themselves, indicating that this might have been one of the most successful mergers of all time. Pixar’s new projects like Toy Story 3 surpassed $1 billion in revenue while other titles like RatatouilleWall-E and Cars 2 all crossed the $500 million mark.

In recent times, it has become increasingly challenging to tell productions of the two studios apart just by watching the films. Disney’s successful projects like Frozen and Zootopia could easily have been made by Pixar, proving that there has been an organic interaction between the respective cultures of the two studios which has contributed to this incredible run of highly acclaimed and immensely profitable films. Although Pixar has stumbled with the 2020 release of Onward, it is back on track with its latest animated feature Soul which has received widespread praise and has already earned several awards and nominations.

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