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.
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.
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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