Elton John had just rocked the house with a new song. Jodie Foster had stopped by to chat up her new film with the crowd. But the show that Walt Disney (DIS) was putting on at a Hollywood theater to pitch upcoming movies came to a stop because one headliner was late from the airport. Quickly improvising, Disney Studios Chairman Richard Cook staged a mock conversation between himself and the missing guest, Pixar's top creative executive, John Lasseter. During his conversation with himself, Cook implored Lasseter to "tell Steve Jobs that we can't leave Disney."
Pudgy, with a childlike laugh and a penchant for sneakers and loud Hawaiian shirts, John Lasseter was crucial to Disney's $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar Animation Studios (PIXR) announced on Jan. 24. The onetime Disney animator is regarded by Hollywood executives as the modern Walt himself -- capable of weaving computer-generated classics like Toy Story and A Bug's Life that have made Pixar a sure thing in the high-stakes animated world.
Indeed, Jobs said he would never have made the deal if Lasseter hadn't given him his okay. "From the beginning, John said, 'We have to find a way to make [this deal happen],'" recalls Cook, who negotiated the sale. "He bleeds Disney, and he just couldn't see leaving."
RAISED ON DISNEY. With the deal, in fact, Lasseter becomes the new Walt Disney, with creative input not only over Disney's upcoming animated films but also over theme parks. For the 49-year-old, it's like returning home. Raised in Southern California, Lasseter's mother was a high school art teacher, and he grew up ashamed to tell high school friends he was still reading comics and playing with G.I. Joe. For kicks, he wrote letters to Walt Disney, hoping for -- but never getting -- a response.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Disney-sponsored California Institute of the Arts, where he watched old Disney classics, especially his favorite, Dumbo. He was hired at Disney in 1978 and worked as an animator on the studio's Mickey's Christmas Carol. He became smitten with technology after watching animators working on the computer-looking film Tron.
In search of high-tech animated work, he signed on with George Lucas' film unit in 1983 to do computer animation special effects on Young Sherlock Holmes. Lasseter stayed on with the new company when Lucas sold his computer animation business to Steve Jobs in 1986 for $10 million.
"WONDER AND JOY." After creating several animated shorts, Lasseter directed Pixar's first film, 1995's Toy Story, even providing some of the character voices for a movie that would redefine animation. "He is a kid who has never grown up and continues to show the wonder and joy that you need in this business," says former Disney Studios Chief Peter Schneider.
Indeed, toys line the shelves of Lasseter's office in Emeryville, Calif. He spends much of his time overseeing a staff of other writers and directors, many of whom he lured from Disney or knew at CalArts. So important is Lasseter to Pixar's continued success that Disney insisted Jobs sign him to a new 10-year contract in 1997 before it would extend its contract to distribute and help finance Pixar's films.
Today, Lasseter earns $2.9 million a year. He got a $5 million bonus to extend the deal again in 2001, and he owns a $177 million stake in Pixar -- enough for him to buy a winery on more than 17 acres in Sonoma.
USE THE FORCE. Disney's deal will make Lasseter key to its future success. "John is like Michael Jordan," says Disney studio chief Dick Cook. "He makes all the players around him better."
For Lasseter, who once swept streets at Disneyland, it will mean helping to design new theme park rides. At the studio, the job will be to beef up Disney's ability to produce two films a year -- while at the same time maintaining the same close-knit, fun-loving atmosphere he nurtured at Pixar (see BW Online, 1/25/06, "Hi-Ho! Work for Disney or Go?").
Can he revive a Disney animation business as sleepy as one of Snow White's dwarfs? "John is a force of nature," says Jobs. And Disney execs are thankful that the force is with them now.