Pixar staffers frustrated by decision to send movies straight to Disney Plus: 'It's hard to grasp'

inside pixar movies on disney plus 2x1
Sources told Insider that frustration is building at Pixar as movies like "Soul" and Luca" aren't getting theatrical releases and instead moving to Disney Plus. Pixar; Marianne Ayala/Insider
  • Frustration is building at Pixar as movies like "Soul" and Luca" aren't getting theatrical releases.

  • Several Pixar staffers spoke to Insider about their concerns.

  • Pixar CCO, Pete Docter, was disappointed "Soul" wasn't shown in theaters, according to sources.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

When it comes to a movie theater experience, the Steve Jobs Theater on Pixar Animation Studios' campus in Emeryville, California is one of the most special.

Sitting in one of the theater's comfy red velvet seats and catching a glance at the twinkly lights on the ceiling that animates into a shooting star as the house lights go down, it's hard not to be in a good mood before watching Pixar's latest, anticipated creation.

With less than two months before "Luca" comes out, the newest release from Disney's famed animation house that centers two boys who are really sea monsters, the theater named after the legendary Pixar chairman should be in heavy use. "Luca" director Enrico Casarosa and the company's brain trust - made up of chief creative officer Pete Docter, president Jim Morris, and other top executives - should be in there constantly watching the latest cuts of the movie as they prepare to sign off on another Pixar release.

But none of that is happening right now.

The pandemic has closed the once vibrant Pixar campus. In fact, no one in the US has seen a new Pixar movie in a movie theater in over a year. For months, movie theaters have been closed, leading to a previously unthinkable reality: new releases being made instantly available on streaming services and premium video on demand.

However, there are signs of normalcy on the horizon. An actual summer movie season is happening as more and more theaters are reopening around the country. Now titles like "F9," "Black Widow" (which will also be available on Disney Plus), "Jungle Cruise," and "The Suicide Squad" (also available on HBO Max) are slated for summer releases.

But, surprisingly, there will be no Pixar movies in theaters. In late March, Disney announced that "Luca" would only be released on Disney Plus. This comes on the heels of Docter's "Soul" being released exclusively on the streamer last December.

Several Pixar sources told Insider that frustration is building within the company as staff see their work appearing only on Disney Plus. They agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak publicly.

"'Luca' doesn't even have a premium price next to it," one staffer told Insider recently in bewilderment, referring to the added cost subscribers have to pay to see new releases on the service. "Does it make it lesser? It's hard to grasp."

Pete Docter Soul Image Group LA Getty
Pete Docter introducing "Soul" at D23 in 2019. Image Group LA/Getty

'Soul' director Pete Docter was disappointed his Oscar-winning movie didn't get a theatrical run

Pixar's release strategy seemed to change practically overnight.

With most theaters shutting down due to the pandemic at the beginning of March 2020, Pixar's "Onward" found itself in limbo with nowhere to be shown after a theater run of just two weeks. It resulted in the movie, following two elf brothers looking to bring back their late father, becoming one of the first to break the traditional 90-day exclusive theatrical window major movies abide by as it was then made available for digital release. Soon after it was available on Disney Plus.

A month later, Disney announced it was moving Pixar's next release (and latest Oscar winner), "Soul," from June 19 to November 20 in hopes that theaters would reopen by then. But in October, news came of another release date change and that Disney was not going to release "Soul," centered around an aspiring jazz musician whose life was cut short, in theaters. It would become the first Pixar movie in its 26-year history to not open on the big screen. Instead, it was given an exclusive Disney Plus release on Christmas Day.

pixar soul joe gardner
Pixar's "Soul." Disney/Pixar

The news disappointed Docter, according to several sources with knowledge of the situation. But the frustration was softened by the fact that Disney was ecstatic by how well the movie performed on Disney Plus.

"That's what was so eye-opening. Disney was over the moon about the numbers," said one staffer familiar with the "Soul" release.

Pixar and Disney did not respond to numerous inquires to comment.

Most at Pixar understood that due to the pandemic it was the right choice to put "Soul" on the streamer. But the hope at the company, according to several sources, was this was all an aberration; that the film, featuring the first-ever Black lead character in a Pixar movie, would be the first and last time a movie from the studio would not open in theaters.

mask theater Getty
Family movies have had successful theatrical runs during the pandemic. Getty

Kneecapped theaters need Pixar movies to remain afloat

As states began to gradually allow theaters to reopen late last year with limited capacities, it was family movies that enticed moviegoers to return.

DreamWorks' "The Croods: A New Age," Warner Bros.' "Tom and Jerry," and Disney Animation's "Raya and the Last Dragon" all topped the domestic box office its opening weekends in theaters with "Croods" and "Raya" retaining the No. 1 spot for multiple weekends.

With more theaters reopening as vaccinations ramp up, theater owners have been licking their chops to put "Luca" on their marquees as Pixar titles have historically brought families and adults alike in droves. The decision to release the film solely on Disney Plus came as a gut punch for an industry struggling to stay afloat.

"When that news came out with Disney's reshuffling of its 'Luca' release, it was very disappointing and very discouraging," Russell Vannorsdel, the vice president of Iowa-based Fridley Theatres, told Insider. "It's pretty clear the handwriting is on the wall that we will not be going back to normal, particularly with Disney."

Fridley Theatres, with 18 locations in the Midwest, is just one of many mid-market chains across the country that are not just desperate for new releases, but Disney and Pixar titles, as family content is a cash cow for these chains.

"'Soul' not showing in theaters had some levels of justification," Vannorsdel said. "It was Christmas. They wanted to promote Disney Plus. People were still very hesitant to go to movie theaters."

"'Luca' was scheduled for the summer and could have had an amazing theatrical run," he added. "That one is a complete head-scratcher. I honestly don't know if Disney has a master plan. I believe they are looking at each title at how it can best serve them instead of working with theaters."

luca pixar
Pixar's upcoming release, "Luca." Pixar

'We don't want to be a title just on Disney Plus,' one staffer told Insider.

Sources told Insider that when news came that "Luca" would be released on Disney Plus, it was frustrating, especially for those who love to see their work end up in theaters.

"We don't want to be a title just on Disney Plus," said one staffer, who is working on several of its upcoming feature films. "These movies are crafted for the big screen. We want you to watch these movies with no distractions, no looking at your phones."

There's also the question of sustainability: Pixar titles have ridden a box office wave of success for decades. Its recent movies like 2018's "Incredibles 2" and 2019's "Toy Story 4" both earned over $1 billion worldwide at the box office. Some staff wonder if not going after box office dollars, even during a pandemic, will be harmful in the long run.

Soul skyscraper ad AaronP Bauer Griffin GC Images Getty
Skyscraper ad of "Soul" showing in Disney Plus. AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty

"If these movies aren't having $1 billion runs, does that hurt the company? You wonder that," said one animator.

A veteran staffer put the collective anxiety more bluntly: "Everyone is worried about keeping their jobs if our films aren't seen by Disney as financially successful."

Meanwhile, Vannorsdel believes Disney not allowing Pixar titles to play in theaters could have ramifications for the studio's other slate of movies.

"There's going to be less movie theaters for them to play their big-budget Marvel movies," Vannorsdel predicted, noting the recent close of Arclight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters in Los Angeles.

Dan Rayburn, a streaming media analyst, believes with streaming being so competitive right now, Disney needed to have Pixar titles released exclusively on Disney Plus to compete and bump up subscription numbers.

"Pixar is targeting a specific demographic and a lot of Disney Plus subscribers are families, so it makes sense if you're Disney that with Pixar you are going to target that more to your streaming service that has that kind of built-in membership," he told Insider. "They are going to do what makes the most money."

The Pixar atrium
The atrium on the Pixar Animation Studios campus. Marcin Wichary

'If I'm doing this so my name can be on the big screen, I'm doing it for the wrong reasons,' one artist said.

Not everyone at Pixar sees doom and gloom because the studio's movies aren't playing in theaters.

"For me, personally, if I'm doing this so my name can be on the big screen, I'm doing it for the wrong reasons," one artist said.

To some staffers, the bigger adjustment has been working from home, as the Pixar campus has been empty since the start of the pandemic.

"It has its pros and cons," one animator, who's now been working remotely for over a year, told Insider. "The con is you no longer can go bounce off an idea with a colleague and get inspired. But the pro is the work to life balance is exponentially better. If you're a night person, take a nap during the day, then you can get work done at night."

Some staff point out that with Pixar's recent funneling of projects to Disney Plus, the opportunity for those rising up the ranks in the company to get their stories made has increased substantially. For example, there's the SparkShorts series in which Pixar employees are given six months and a small budget to create shorts that will go directly the streamer. The series resulted in two Oscar-nominated shorts: 2019's "Kitbull" and 2020's "Burrow."

And confidence is high that features currently in the works at Pixar - like the "Toy Story" spin-off movie "Lightyear" - will hit theaters.

But regardless of where they show up, several staff members at Pixar told Insider the same thing: the quality of what's being made hasn't been affected.

"There will not be a change on how we make the films," one animator said. "That's what's important; the piece of art. That's what matters."

Read the original article on Insider