Ed Catmull On Why Things Will Always Go Wrong–Even At Pixar

In a wide-ranging conversation with Fast Company, Catmull–the president of Pixar, who has led the animation powerhouse to 14 No. 1 hits–shares his management secrets.

Ed Catmull On Why Things Will Always Go Wrong–Even At Pixar
Cars 2 brought in $561 million at the box office [Image: Buena Vista Pictures, Everett Collection]

Right now, since Disney Animation has Frozen, which has a shot at becoming a billion-dollar movie, they’re elated. Meanwhile, at Pixar, after a lot of work we’ve had to say, “You know, Good Dinosaur doesn’t meet our standards, so we’re going to restart. It’s a promising idea, but we need to rethink the team.” That’s painful, but it’s a pain we own. Every time we make a mistake there is pain, and I’m acutely aware that some people bear more pain than others [some 50 people were recently laid off]. But our core belief is that we’ve got to do the right thing for the movies. The ongoing value here is that everything we do is in service of that final story we deliver to the world.

So you can look at this moment in time and say Disney is on the way up and Pixar is on its way down. No! First of all, there was that remarkable run of four films [from 2007 to 2011, Pixar released Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, all critical darlings and box office leaders], which set the bar so high that we ended up in a situation where our other films were compared to Pixar films, not to the competition. Second, that success brought a kind of scrutiny we didn’t have before. We restarted Toy Story and Ratatouille, but no one even noticed. All this really means is that Disney will run up against this problem later, and at Pixar we are facing it now.

Still, in every turnaround case, we did miss something. We screwed up. Whenever one of these things happens, we analyze it to see, what did we miss? And we draw new con­clusions. Sometimes the conclusion we reach actually runs against a decision we reached years before. When we’ve done something and figured it’s right, we operate according to that. But something new can come along and we realize we misread the original event. We did not interpret it correctly, so now we’ll try something different. Some conclusions were heavily weighted by the personality of the director. For that person with that skill at that time, our approach was the right thing; but if we apply the same methodology to a different director, it could blow up in our faces. So we rethink the process, and we change some things.

I do believe that our ability to catch things earlier needs to be improved. And our job is to continually rethink what we are doing. But we will never get it right. One of the messages of my book is that things are always going wrong and that we can’t see them. These things are really hard to see, and they’re hard to explain.I think there are a lot of philosophical reasons why we won’t ever get it right.

Think about our industry, or the things that your readers are facing: The underlying technology continues to change, successful people are always getting older and aging out, and everyone is drawing new conclusions about what really works. There is no stable place. But there is this illusion that somehow you can get to a stable place, figure it all out. People have their fear: They want to be in a secure place; they want to know what to do; they want people to tell them what to do. And there isn’t anything that can remove that underlying piece of human nature. It is when we try to avoid, stop, or control change that we get into trouble.

So it’s better to try to recognize that life is change, to face toward the problems. Now, that’s an old saying, right? Every time I say something like that I think, Oh, actually, I’ve heard that before. But it’s true, and that’s the way I look at it.


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