Disney And Pixar Look To Life After Divorce

As the ink on the settlement dries, both companies have several films in the works.

After a Woody, a Buzz, a bunch of monsters, hundreds of bugs and untold billions of dollars, it seems that the Walt Disney Company and Pixar are parting ways.

Although the divorce is not yet final, the animation house ended talks with Disney in January about extending its existing five-picture deal, and began discussions with other studios to distribute its films beginning in 2006. While Pixar has delivered hit after hit with such animated titles as “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo,” it says it has seen only a portion of the profits. And by delivering some $2.5 billion in ticket sales with just five films, it wants more of that pie. As the ink dries on the separation, both companies are looking to the post-divorce era.

Before that happens, however, there are still two more movies to be released under the partnership, and Disney was promoting the upcoming “The Incredibles” at the Cannes Film Festival this month. The film is about superhero Bob Parr and his wife, who were fighting crime and saving lives in the past but are now living civilian lives, complete with boring jobs and three kids. Bob yearns for the life of adventure and gets his chance when a top-secret communication summons him to a faraway island, and ultimately the entire family becomes superheroes. Featuring the voice talents of Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson and Craig T. Nelson (from the long-running TV comedy series “Coach”), the film is scheduled for release on November 5.

“Cars,” slated for 2005, is likely to be the final Pixar/ Disney release, and with a title like that, it of course features a wide assortment of cars as characters. The voice cast features Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt and NASCAR legend Richard Petty, and the film is being directed by two-time Academy Award-winner John Lasseter, who directed both “Toy Story” films as well as “A Bug’s Life” (and has been a creative force in all Pixar/ Disney films).

Pixar has already green-lighted a film for the post-Disney era. While the subject for “Project 2006″ remains top secret, it’s safe to assume that it won’t be the sequel to a previous film. Sequels to Pixar/ Disney films remain a contentious issue: Disney has the right to make sequels of all seven films if Pixar decides it doesn’t want to make them on its own. Pixar has already declined to make a “Toy Story 3.”

“It is likely that we won’t want to make sequels to any of them ourselves, but we haven’t decided that yet,” Pixar Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs said. “Our filmmakers are more interested in telling new, original stories, and we have demonstrated that our original films like ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ can be even more successful than our sequels, like ‘Toy Story 2. ‘ ”

For its part, Disney has two films slated for 2005. “Chicken Little,” featuring the voices of Joan Cusack and Don Knotts, is scheduled for July 2005 and finds its namesake character shipped off to a special camp, where he meets other animals with challenges of their own. The company has also struck a deal with Walden Media to produce and distribute “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which is based on the 1950s series of children’s fantasy books by C.S. Lewis. The first installment of the live-action film will be released Christmas 2005, with “Shrek” director Andrew Adamson at the helm. A spokesperson for Disney had no comment on the timetable for the production of future installments.

As with the dissolution of any successful partnership, observers wonder whether Pixar and Disney can, individually, approach the strength they had together. At the moment, many observers feel that, with Disney suffering setbacks on several fronts, Pixar is the horse to back.

“Pixar is one of the best,” said David Miller, media analyst with Sanders Morris Harris in Los Angeles. “Animators will take a pay cut to work for Pixar and take stock options instead.” But high production costs and animation houses eager to cull Pixar’s talent means that the company must keep replenishing its resources. And in a business that is nothing if not mercurial, staying on top is an ongoing struggle..

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