Can ‘Creativity’ and ‘Corporate’ Somehow Work Hand-in-Hand?

Ed Catmull Pixar
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Even notable innovator Pixar is running long on sequels and short on inspiration

I’ve been doing some binge reading lately — books about creativity and business success — but have come away feeling somewhat skeptical about their messages.

Ed Catmull’s new book, titled “Creativity, Inc.,” explains how, as the czar of Pixar, he banished “those unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration.” I admire Catmull and his Pixar partner, John Lasseter, but worry that the company has lately been exhibiting a shortfall of inspiration as reflected in some rather disappointing releases; Pixar won’t even have a movie out this year.

On the other hand, I found myself initially reassured by “Think Like a Freak,” a new work by those two freakonomics proponents, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. They argue that the model for success is to go back to zero on every issue, and then “think like a child.”

Trouble is, like most economists, they like to mobilize Big Data in analyzing problems, and children, by and large, don’t grapple successfully with such things. Neither do I.

It turns out I even need Big Data to cope with comedy, as explained by a new book titled “The Humor Code.” Its authors, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, both academics, have summoned their algorithms to develop a “benign violation theory” to explain what makes audiences respond to humor. I appreciate their methodology, but don’t find the data or the algorithms amusing.

Of course, the academic who has stirred the most noise with his Big Data theories is Thomas Picketty, whose new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” sits atop global bestseller lists. Picketty’s basic thesis banishes the conventional wisdom of free-market economists, arguing that the gap between rich and poor has been expanding irrevocably, that the trickle down theory has never actually worked and that the only way to ward off revolution long-term is to invoke a global wealth tax.

To be sure, his ideas are based on an exhaustive analysis of decades of tax records from Western countries (including the U.S.) — Big Data research so vast that no academic can raise the capital to challenge Picketty’s “Capital.”

That’s why Catmull’s musings are much more tempting to consider — his product revolves around imagination, not math. His book thoughtfully traces his rise in the worlds of animation and technology, and the evolution of Pixar’s amazing successes: “Toy Story,” “Wall-E” and “Cars.” A charming but (seemingly) unspectacular film like “Finding Nemo” became a billion-dollar grosser.

Catmull’s management theories are constructive if prosaic: He distrusts corporate hierarchies, encourages employees to speak their minds, and ardently believes that creative companies can resist the forces of bureaucratic self-destruction that inevitably follow success.

That Pixar provides an interesting case study of all this is something his book does not candidly deal with. Catmull’s office, packed with toys and merchandising gizmos, reflects his own level of corporate distraction, with the exec — now the president of Disney Animation as well as the Czar of Pixar —  having become ever more significantly involved in theme parks, marketing and the overall geopolitics of the Disney empire.

Catmull and Lasseter have much to contribute in these areas, to be sure, but in becoming corporate hierarchs they’ve arguably allowed the output of Pixar itself to become corporate, slowly stamping out a  slate dominated by sequels like “Toy Story 3” or “Cars 2.” Great companies do not have be defeated by their own success, Catmull argues. But now he has to prove it.

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  1. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    You’re at least a decade and a half off in your age group assumption, kid. A tail ender born in the early 60s, I’m a child of the 70s, a time when TV was free and family value oriented, weekends were ruled by kids shows, almost every tune was a hit on the radio and box office saw the birth of the blockbuster based on original material. What millennials fail to realize is that since societies and civilizations age just like people, showbiz had to be better when it was younger. Or when it was timeless, better scripted and cast and entertainment value was based on talent and performance and not digital tabloid trivia. .

  2. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Burnt out on movie land debate and politics is obsolete in a climate changing world. When you reach an age where your taste and definition of creativity are not commercial and don’t matter, you learn to shut up. So I live in the past and let the good old days be my time machine. What’s old is still gold.

    • LOL says:

      BigBang, is your home a shrine to Baby Boomer nostalgia? Do you, like, look thorough your 1950s high school yearbook to evoke memories of you and Peggy Sue sharing a romantic ice-cream soda, while also goofing on Sedaka records the two of you would rock out to on the diner juke box?

      Modern life sucks, BigBang. We need to send you back in time like the Wolverine does in Days of Future Past.

  3. Richard Thomas says:

    Creativity in the movie biz?
    You know better than anyone where creativity comes from in most cases! FROM SOMEONE ELSE or someone else’s mistakes in trusting someone else.
    Also, since it is now all about getting 14 year olds to rip they’re pockets off buying tickets or tie ins,, what dif does any of this make. The usual formula of a max reaction every 12 to 24 seconds with limited thought input is guaranteed to work so what is the point of creativity?

    How are you’re 2 buddies doing?

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