This is how the folks at Pixar will supposedly address their perceived brand fatigue problem. Not through tricks & gimmicks. But by deliberately stepping away from just producing CG animated features & shorts.

What’s it going to take to make the domestic release of a new Pixar film seem like a special event again? Will live action projects like John Carter of Mars & 1906 really be enough to re-energize this animation studio’s U.S. fanbase?

I know, I know. Pixar diehards keep insisting that Ratatouille is this enormous success. That there’s no possible way that anyone could ever be disappointed with the way this Brad Bird film has performed to date.

Well, if that’s really the case, then someone should probably tell Brad that. For — in many of the recent interviews that Bird has given while doing promotion for the international release of this new Pixar Animation Studios production — the guy sounds pretty downbeat about the way Ratatouille has been received.

Don’t believe me? Okay. Let’s start with this quote from an interview that Brad did with the Herald Sun last month. Where this director reflects on how the entertainment press has been harping on the fact that Ratatouille didn’t earn as much domestically as the Pixar pictures that proceeded it.

“Certainly, some times you get the feeling people aren’t rooting for you any more within the industry. If it isn’t the Second Coming of the Lord it’s somehow a disappointment. I don’t know what you do about that.”

Or — better yet — how about Bird’s explanation as to why Ratatouille didn’t do as well as Cars did during its stateside release? In an interview that this acclaimed animation director did last week with Wally Hammond for Time Out London, Brad suggested that …

“I think we, with Ratatouille, have been more than a victim of a lot of fuzzy animal films that came out before us that just have a bunch of jabbering, wise-cracking practically interchangeable animals. People will take one look at our talking rats and think: ‘Oh! It’s one of those.’. And it’s true, they’ve not showed up. Even though it comes from Pixar. We’ve had the greatest reaction ever from people who have gone to see it, but the reaction to seeing it we’ve found surprising. And I think it’s partially down to that rack of animal films.”

Trust me, folks. If Ratatouille ’s director is now out there admitting to the press that this picture didn’t do as well domestically as it had initially been projected to do (i.e. that the enormous audiences that had originally been expected to turn out for this new Disney / Pixar release did ” … not show[ed] up”) … Well, perhaps now you can understand why Pixar’s latest is considered to be something of a disappointment by the folks back in Burbank & Emeryville.

Not a huge disappointment, mind you. I mean, it’s hard to be dismissive of a movie that was as well reviewed as Ratatouille was. And the $204 million that this Brad Bird film has earned domestically to date (coupled with the $245.8 million that Pixar’s latest has pulled in so far over its overseas run) isn’t exactly chump change. And given that the DVD version of Ratatouille is expected to be a particularly strong seller when it hits store shelves next month, it’s not as if anyone in the executive suite is actually concerned that this project will eventually be able to recover all of its production & promotional costs.

But that said … Even as this Emeryville-based animation studio gets ready to celebrate (via the November 1st release of Karen Paik’s new book, “To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios” as well as the upcoming 14 city roll-out of Leslie Iwerk’s new documentary, The Pixar Story) over two decades of achievement … There are some very powerful individuals in both Burbank & Emeryville who are reportedly growing concerned with what is now being referred to as Pixar’s brand fatigue problem.

To explain: Though Disney’s own survey work shows that most moviegoers in the U.S. still hold the Pixar name in very high esteem (In fact, until just recently, more people associated the Pixar name with quality & innovation than did Disney), the slow-but-steady erosion of this animation studio’s domestic earnings over its last three pictures suggest that stateside audiences have begun taking Pixar for granted. That they no longer consider the release of a new feature from this animation studio to be a special event.

As one WDAS veteran explained it to me just last week:

“Pixar now finds itself in the exact same position that we were in back in the mid-to-late 1990s. Where we were putting out at least one new animated feature every year. And each film was then compared to the pictures that had proceeded it. And it wasn’t enough that we made a movie that did well at the box office or received good reviews. If that film didn’t make as much money as ‘The Lion King’ did … Well, the press then labeled that picture a disappointment and said that it had failed to meet the studio’s expectations.

And it was stories like that that then allowed all of those creative VPs to start messing with our movies. To start giving us notes about what needed to be changed on these pictures. Which characters had to be made more sympathetic. What scenes needed to be cut. Which — in the end — is what wound up making the films that Feature Animation was making back then even worse.

Thank goodness that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull have Steve Jobs in their corner. As long as Jobs has Bob Iger’s ear, John & Ed don’t ever have to worry about that sort of meddling. They can just go on making the sorts of movies that they want to make.”

And according to what Pixar insiders have been telling me … The people up in Emeryville don’t really buy into this brand fatigue idea. Not yet, anyway.

The way they see it, the real reason that this animation studio has seen progressive smaller grosses for the domestic releases of its last three pictures is that … Well, Pixar’s now dealing with a better educated consumer.

According to one 15-year Pixar vet put it to me this past Friday:

“Everybody knows now that — three to four months after our movies debut in theaters — that they then go on sale on DVD. So what’s the point of paying upwards of $50 – $60 to take your family out to see a single showing of the newest Pixar picture? When — if you can just wait a few months — you can then own that very same movie outright for just $15 – $20? Which your kids can then watch over & over again at home?

That’s what happened with Ratatouille. It wasn’t that people didn’t go to Brad’s movie this past summer because they thought it was going to be bad. Far from it. We’ve got tons of surveys in hand that show that people were really looking forward to seeing Ratatouille. But because of a number of factors that Disney & Pixar didn’t have any control over — ticket prices, gas prices, a very competitive summer at the multiplex — a lot of people just didn’t go out to the theater to see this movie. They opted instead to wait for the Ratatouille DVD.

Looking ahead, I can anticipate that we’ll probably have the exact same problem with WALL * E.‘That that picture will also get great reviews and do well domestically for a few weeks due to good word-of-mouth. But in spite of that, a certain portion of that picture’s domestic audience — no matter how great the reviews are, how good the word-of-mouth is — will still opt to wait for the DVD.

Of course, that could change if we can figure out how to market WALL * E as an event. As a movie that you have to see on the big screen.

But — to be honest — we don’t like using gimmicks like IMAX 3D in order to sell our movies. We believe that our pictures should be strong enough to stand on their own. That the stories that we tell, that the characters that we create should be enough all by themselves to compel people to come out and see our newest films while they’re still in theaters.”

Mind you, this isn’t to say that Pixar Animation Studios isn’t willing to experiment. That the folks up in Emeryville won’t ever tinker with their highly successful formula. Take — for example — those two live-action projects that Pixar currently has in development.

Oh, sure. Both 1906 (i.e. an epic disaster film that will look back at the great San Francisco earthquake of — you guessed it — 1906) as well as John Carter of Mars (i.e. the first installment of a proposed trilogy of films that will be based on Edgar Rice Burrough’s 11-volume Barsoom series) will feature plenty of CG.

But the real reason that Pixar has put these two projects into development is that they’re looking to expand the studio’s production parameters. In much the same way that Walt Disney used films like Song of the South and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in order to prove to the world that the Mouse Factory could do so much more than then continually crank out cartoons.

This is how the folks at Pixar will supposedly address their perceived brand fatigue problem. Not through tricks & gimmicks. But by deliberately stepping away from just producing CG animated features & shorts. By using the same storytelling craft & skill that they applied toward the creation of Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles and then using it to change the way the world views disaster films. Or by bringing to life what Edgar Rice Burrough’s unique vision of the planet Mars — with its 10-legged dogs and 8-legged horses — is like.

Of course, what’s kind of ironic about all this is … Well, guess who’s playing a key role in Pixar’s transition from being strictly an animation operation to becoming a full-fledged studio? Brad Bird.

Bird’s actually been developing “1906″ for quite a while now. And provided that some of the studio’s concerns about this proposed disaster pic can be settled fairly soon, Brad could begin shooting his live action debut as early as 2009.

So there you have it, folks. Pixar hopes to re-energize domestic ticket sales by creating some earth-shaking live action films. Effects filled pictures that are literally set out-of-this-world.

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