×

Creative Impact Animation Honoree Ed Catmull Has Lessons for Success

Toon Titan Has Lessons for Success

Imagine if Kodak founder George Eastman hadn’t just invented film, but had gone on to run MGM in its heyday. Or World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee become the CEO of Facebook.

It’s almost too much to ask of any one person. What nuts-and-bolts tinkerer is so successful a businessman?

Ed Catmull is just such a giant.

See More: Creative Impact Animation Honoree: John Lasseter

He is the father of computer animation, a field where he stands as tall as Eastman or Thomas Edison. Then he assembled the core of Pixar, leading the greatest hit machine the entertainment industry has ever known.

Paradoxically, he says, one of the keys to his success is that he thinks about failure. A lot.

“I’ve really thought a lot about why other companies fail or succeed,” Catmull says. “I had to be a student of failure, and find out why things went off the rails. I did that at a fairly deep level, and it’s still something I do.”

He’s had brushes with failure himself. His first attempt to make a CG feature, before Pixar, was a mess; that led him to hire John Lasseter.

Later, Pixar risked financial collapse, hemorrhaging cash for years after Steve Jobs bought it from George Lucas. Even after “Toy Story” assured Pixar’s future he saw several films forced to restart at considerable cost in cash and anguish.

All that has led him to a conclusion: Hollywood’s desire to play it safe is leading it down the wrong path.

“The desire to avoid meltdowns actually is one of the things that screws up live-action films,” he says flatly.

The industry tries to hedge risk up front, he observes, by hiring proven talent — but ends up recycling its formulas.

“You need to mix it up,” he says, “because it’s creatively bankrupt to be driven by something that is very safe.”

He says the early stages of a project are the best time to take chances. “Then you try to address the problems you’ve introduced by taking the risk, but you don’t avoid them by not taking the risk in the first place.”

Pixar balances risk across its slate by mixing films that may be hard to make, but are likely to be hits — he cites “Toy Story 3” as an example — with pictures like “Up” that don’t seem assured of big returns.

“It doesn’t even matter how successful a movie like ‘Up’ is, you’ll never sell a lot of toy walkers,” he says, “But that’s the way we spread out the risk.”

He also believes in taking on risk in team building, with a balance of inexperienced talent and veterans. Only when in full-bore production, or “lock-and-load” as he calls it, does he avoid taking chances.

Catmull’s 70th birthday is just weeks away now, and there are rumblings about succession.

But his philosophy for overcoming adversity suggests how he’ll face the future, whatever it holds.

“In life you’re going to have risk so you have to say ‘My attitude going forward is how to I fix the problem.’ And it’s not trying to cling onto the past,” he says. “When I look around, most problems happen because people are trying to cling onto the past.

“You’re going to have major derailments. Doesn’t matter. Just keep facing forward.”

— David S. Cohen contributed to this report

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Inauguracion SANFIC 2019

    15th Sanfic Touts Attendance Rise, Hosts Gael Garcia Bernal, Wagner Moura

    Chile’s Santiago International Film Festival (Sanfic) launched its 15th edition Sunday Aug. 18 with three of Latin America’s best-known actors, Gael Garcia Bernal, Wagner Moura (“Narcos”) and Graciela Borges (“La Cienaga”), to which it bestowed career recognition awards. “It’s been 15 years in which we have presented more than 1,400 films,” noted Francisca Saieh, director [...]

  • Kristen Stewart Underwater

    Watch Kristen Stewart Fight Sea Monsters in 'Underwater' Trailer

    Vampires, ghosts and now sea monsters? Clearly there is no monster actress Kristen Stewart cannot tame. In the first trailer for the submerged thriller “Underwater,” Stewart is a member of a stranded submarine crew. The trailer begins with the radio message: “You are now 5,000 miles from land and you are descending seven miles to [...]

  • Romanian Director Catalin Mitulescu on Sarajevo

    Romanian Director Catalin Mitulescu on Sarajevo Competition Film ‘Heidi’

    A leading figure of the Romanian New Wave, Cătălin Mitulescu has had a heralded career since winning the Palme d’Or for his 2004 short film “Traffic.” His first two features, “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (2006) and “Loverboy” (2011), both premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. He also co-produced and [...]

  • Betty Gilpin'Stuber' film premiere, Arrivals, Regal

    'GLOW' Star Betty Gilpin in Talks to Join Chris Pratt in 'Ghost Draft' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Fresh off her Emmy nomination for Netflix’s “GLOW,” Betty Gilpin has found her next project. The actress is in talks to join Chris Pratt in “Ghost Drama,” a sci-fi action film from Skydance and Paramount. Gilpin would join a cast that also includes “Handmaid’s Tale” star Yvonne Strahovski. Directed by “Lego Batman” filmmaker Chris McKay [...]

  • Stephan Komandarev on Sarajevo Player ‘Rounds’

    Director Stephan Komandarev on Sarajevo Player ‘Rounds’ and His Bulgarian Trilogy

    Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev earned critical acclaim for his 2017 feature “Directions,” which was selected for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The first installment in a planned trilogy about the social inequality and moral ills plaguing both Bulgaria and Europe at large, the film followed six cab drivers over the course of 24 hours as [...]

  • Meryl Streep Best Movie Lines

    HBO Max Lands Steven Soderbergh's Next Film Starring Meryl Streep

    HBO Max has picked up Steven Soderbergh’s next film, the comedy “Let Them All Talk” starring Meryl Streep. Joining Streep in the ensemble cast are Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan. The screenplay was written by short story author and MacArthur Fellow recipient Deborah Eisenberg. It’s the story of a celebrated author [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content