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Pixar's Creative Chief to Have Special Power at Disney: Greenlighting Movies

January 27, 2006|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

When Walt Disney Co.'s $7.4-billion acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios closes this summer as expected, Pixar's creative chief, John Lasseter, would be empowered to "greenlight" all feature animated movies at both studios, it was disclosed Thursday in a regulatory filing.

As is common in Hollywood, the ability to give a film the go-ahead comes with a caveat: Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger still would have final approval over anything set in motion by Lasseter, who would be chief creative officer at Pixar and Disney Animation, as well as at Walt Disney Imagineering.

In announcing the deal this week, Iger and Pixar Chief Executive Steve Jobs said Lasseter and Pixar President Ed Catmull would take the reins of Disney Animation from its leader, David Stainton. Catmull would report to Iger and Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, and Lasseter would report solely to Iger.

The filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission said the acquisition would be jeopardized if Iger, Lasseter or Catmull quit or died. The same would hold true if the majority of Pixar's seven directors and creative executives, including "Finding Nemo" director Andrew Stanton, "Monsters, Inc." director Pete Docter and "The Incredibles" director Brad Bird, left the combined company.

For the time being, at least, it appears that Disney has locked up Lasseter's services for only five years. In an interview transcript filed with the SEC, Iger said Disney would pick up the animation guru's current 10-year contract, which expires in 2011.

It is unclear whether Lasseter, the only Pixar senior executive with an employment contract, might be able to negotiate a longer and more lucrative pact if the sale goes through as expected.

The director of the "Toy Story" hits, "A Bug's Life" and Disney-Pixar's upcoming summer release "Cars" already is rewarded handsomely, with a $2.5-million salary and 5% annual increases. He also enjoys a rich package of stock options and bonuses based on the domestic performance of his movies. When he inked his 10-year deal in March 2001, he received a $5-million signing bonus.

Lasseter and Catmull, who would remain at Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., were in Burbank on Wednesday to meet with Disney's animation troops. While there, Lasseter said a version of "Toy Story 3" that Disney set in motion last year without Pixar's input would be scrapped, according to a person familiar with the matter. More than 100 Disney employees have been working on the project for months.

According to the filing, if the deal goes through, Lasseter would sit on a new committee that would oversee feature animation at Disney and Pixar. The committee, which would include Jobs, Catmull, Iger, Cook and Disney Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs, would approve all film budgets, oversee Pixar compensation packages and help maintain the company's creative "culture." The group is expected to meet at least once a month in Emeryville.

Under Disney's ownership, the SEC documents indicate, the traditionally free-spirited Pixar would retain its compensation philosophies and practices, including its refusal to grant employment contracts (other than Lasseter's). Pixar also would continue to give employee stock options, bonus plans, medical benefits and other policies for at least five years.

If it bails out on the deal, Pixar would be required to pay Disney a penalty of $210 million.

In the regulatory filing, Pixar sought to safeguard its independence as it joins the world's second-largest media conglomerate. The studio would continue to be called "Pixar" and the branding of its previous films and products "will not be altered." However, future films produced by Pixar would be branded Disney Pixar.

Perhaps most symbolically, the agreement guarantees Pixar a concession that costs nothing but means much to the people who work there.

Referring to the huge black-lettered logo that greets visitors as they approach the entrance to the studio's Bay Area compound, the agreement stipulates, "The Pixar sign at the gate shall not be altered."

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Times staff writer Kim Christensen contributed to this report.

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