Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pixar in Vancouver Continued or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I've been quite surprised by the absolute glee that has resulted from the announcement that Pixar will be opening a studio in Vancouver. It is, of course, a good thing. However, I hope that the people celebrating are not blinded by the Pixar dust in their eyes. It is a good thing, but not a great thing. There are limitations relating to Disney, Pixar, general corporate behaviour and the nature of Canadian industry.

The good things are fairly straightforward. It's always good when there's an increase in employment opportunities, especially in the current economy. There will undoubtedly be educational benefits. Pixar will bring their rigs, their pipeline and their software tools and more people will have the opportunity to use them. While they are proprietary, the nature of software is such that once something exists, it is relatively easy to imitate. Just as Disney knowledge spread into the larger animation industry at the time of the 1941 strike, Pixar's approach will spread into Canada.

The Pixar name will enhance people's resumes and job opportunities. A commenter in the previous post seemed to believe I was endorsing Pixar by praising them "for being THE place." I was not praising them so much as pointing out a Canadian reality.

To date, Canada has no animation studios that can compete with Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, etc. Canadian studios have yet to produce an animated feature that grossed $100 million or attracted the same kind of critical attention. Furthermore, those features that have come out of Canada are based on scripts and stories that originated outside the country (Pinocchio 3000, The Wild, Everyone's Hero, 9, etc.) so even if any of those films had done well at the box office, it would have been a mixed endorsement of Canadian studios at best.

Canadian studios are aware of this. Therefore, when they see a resume with a big name studio on it, they see it as a mark of excellence. A studio better than a Canadian studio has seen fit to hire this person, therefore, they have no reason to question the person's skills. This attitude is not unique to Canadian animation. Many people go to Harvard for the opportunity to have it on their resume and many employers are happy to welcome Harvard graduates.

This does not mean that all graduates of Harvard or all former big studio employees are uniformly excellent. It also doesn't mean that people who came from other places are unworthy. However, when the hiring is being done by someone who is unqualified to judge someone's skills -- and that person might be from Human Resources or be a producer -- or if a company is in a hurry to fill a position, the right name on a resume is a shortcut to a solution. This is not fair, but it is a fact of life. Those people who work at Pixar Vancouver will be taken more seriously than those who work at other Canadian studios.

The last bit of good news will be determined by the quality of films that come out of Pixar Vancouver. If they are good, then the people who work on them will have the pride and pleasure of doing good work in an industry where that is rarer than it should be.

Now, on to the bad. The following quote comes from an email list I'm on. The author is a Pixar animator who has given me permission to reprint the quote but has asked to remain anonymous.
There are some factual errors in this article (big surprise). The Vancouver studio will only be producing ancillary work with legacy characters, like Cars and Toy Story. All the stuff that Pixar doesn't have the time or money to do to keep the franchises alive. The original shorts and DVD shorts will still be done in Emeryville. As I understand it, Pixar will still generate all the stories for the ancillary work, and the Vancouver studio will be strictly for production.
In other words, Pixar Vancouver is for outsourcing. It will be owned by Disney and not a service facility bidding on work, but will still be treated like a subcontractor. In essence, it will do the work that Pixar doesn't consider important enough to bother with itself. The article referenced above also states "John Lasseter, chief creative officer at both Pixar and Disney Animation, is not expected to spend much time at the Vancouver studio." That's because his time is too valuable to waste on what will be produced in Vancouver. I don't doubt that Lasseter will make an early appearance to give the staff a pep talk about what great work they're going to produce, but with the budgets, concepts and stories being worked out in Emeryville, Lasseter has no need to spend time in Vancouver. Should Vancouver not produce sufficiently good work, the Vancouver managers will be called to account in Emeryville. Lasseter's appearances in Vancouver will be more for morale and publicity purposes than for making creative or managerial decisions.

Now we get to the ugly, and I'm sorry to say that it relates more to Canada than it does to Pixar. While I've lived in Canada since 1980, I was born and raised in New York City. As a result, I've got a dual perspective on Canada. There is much about this country that I love; I feel more comfortable politically here than I did in the U.S. I value ethnic and cultural diversity and living in Toronto I am surrounded by people from all around the world.

However, Canada suffers from two major problems. The first is colonialism and the second is a small population. Canada never fought for its independence and has historically seen itself as a junior partner to a larger, protector nation. Canada entered World War II in 1939 when the British entered the war, even though Canada itself was not attacked. Since the war, Canada has seen itself as depending on the economic and defense largesse of the U.S. While Canada has not marched in lockstep with the U.S. (Viet Nam and Iraq being two examples), no political decision is ever made in Ottawa without first thinking about U.S. reaction. I don't doubt that if the U.S. was not so vehement about its war on drugs that marijuana would be legal in Canada.

Canada's population is 1/10 the size of the U.S. population. It is easier for U.S. companies to expand their products or services by 10% to take advantage of the Canadian market than it is for a Canadian company to grow by 1000% to compete in the U.S. market. Besides logistical problems, there is also the problem of securing the necessary capital.

Canada's economy can be roughly divided into three parts: natural resources, branch plants and protected industries (primarily culture and communications). The presence of resources is just a matter of luck. Because Canadian companies have difficulty competing with American companies 10 times their size, it has been easier to open branch plants of American companies than to create Canadian companies. For instance, many countries have their own car companies. The U.S., Japan, Korea, England, Germany, Italy, etc. all have cars identified with their countries. Canada has many auto manufacturing plants, but there is no Canadian car.

Entertainment falls in the area of protected industries and this is an area of particular annoyance to me. Canadians don't create markets. They wait until someone else creates a viable market and then Canadians go to the government and ask for protection in order to participate in the market. It's easy for American studios to dump TV shows in Canada for less money than it costs Canadians to create original programming. For the Americans, the money is pure gravy. On the face of it, it makes sense that the government should carve out a percentage of TV air time for Canadian programs and then figure out a way to fund them.

The danger of not doing this can be seen in the film industry. The U.S. walked into Canada in the 1920's and owned all the movie theaters. They treated Canada as part of the U.S. domestic market and the Canadian box office is still considered part of the U.S. domestic gross. Furthermore, on average only 3% of screen time in Canada is devoted to Canadian films. As low as that number seems, it's actually lower because the percentage is higher in Quebec due to language differences. So in English speaking Canada, the percentage of Canadian films is actually less than 3%. The government, not wanting this pattern to repeat in other aspects of popular culture, instituted various quotas and then fought to have culture exempt from the free trade agreement and it's successor, NAFTA.

While this works in theory, the reality is another story. What happens is that the companies who are protected under the quota spend more time working the system than creating work that would allow them to compete. As in most democracies, profitable companies make political contributions to protect their interests and are happy to hire former government officials to lobby for them at salaries higher than those people made in government. So while Canadian television has benefited from government intervention in ways that Canadian film has not, it has not done a significantly better job of creating popular work because the companies have been too busy protecting their profits.

Name a Canadian animated character who is a worldwide success. If you managed to name one (and I'd be surprised if you could), I'll bet that it was based on a children's book and was not an original character. The branch plant mentality combined with government protectionism has killed risk-taking in Canada and creative Canadians know this. That's why so many of them head to the U.S.

The problem is not the talent, the problem is the management. I can personally name dozens of Canadians who have worked at ILM, PDI, Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony, etc. and have done well at those studios. The U.S. welcomes people with ability while Canada is content to let them leave. There are no Canadian animation managements with the guts, brains and resources to create original material that entertains a worldwide audience.

That's why when a company like Pixar opens in Canada, people are so gleeful. Maybe here is an opportunity to go beyond the run of the mill Canadian product. Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. What comes out of Pixar Vancouver is going to be the equivalent of the direct-to-DVD Tinkerbell features. Those films make money for Disney, but nobody takes them seriously. They are there to bolster the bottom line, not to win awards, not to inspire critical essays, and are only known by parents with young daughters. With all due respect to the people who work on them, they are conceived as filler and they fulfill their corporate duty.

People in Vancouver have a right to be happy over Pixar's arrival, but keep it in perspective. The problems of Canadian animation (and entertainment generally) are still there and still awaiting solutions. When Canada produces its own Aardman or Ghibli, then no one will be cheering louder than me.

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