Book Review: To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy: Surprisingly Accessible Financial Memoir

If Toy Story had flopped, it would have been the end of Steve Jobs. Remembered in his later life for his keynotes, his turtlenecks, his creation and latter day resurrection of Apple, it can be easy to forget that from the mid-’80s until the late-’90s, Steve Jobs was written off. Played out. A two-time loser, with a computer-graphics company hemorrhaging money left and right. Pixar had been in the red practically since its founding as The Graphics Group by Lucasfilm (that George Lucas had, on some level, anticipated and helped bring about every aspect of the digital-video revolution, audio, visual effects, animation, and non-linear editing systems is another one of those truths seemingly lost to history in the opprobrious latter-day assessments of the man – people who commit arguably massive follies usually only have the opportunity to do so on the back of massive success and massive hard work.)

But while the genius of the storytelling in Toy Story came largely from John Lasseter and the technical prowess built on Ed Catmull’s intellectual shoulders (and their respective crews), the man who actually paid the bills was Steve Jobs. And in 1995, that meant literally writing million-dollar checks from his personal bank account. Every month. To chart some kind of financial future for the company, it needed a financial officer to look at what they were doing, how they were generating income, and what had to change to make the company profitable and, more importantly, to make it an enticing prospect for investors as a public company.

The man Jobs pegged for this task was Lawrence Levy, a Silicon Valley lawyer and CFO of a different tech company. In this engaging and educational memoir, Lawrence details the state of Pixar before they finished that fateful first film, and the state of Steve Jobs in this turning point for both these men, their company, and indeed the world of cinema. When Levy arrives at Pixar, morale is low for various reasons, many of them Steve Jobs related. Jobs wasn’t a hands-on man at Pixar, but he also wasn’t a part of the company culture – most there knew him as the man who promised stock options that didn’t seem to be arriving.

They were also a company that, as far as Levy could see, had nearly no way to actually make any money from what they were doing. Movies took too long to make, their contract with Disney siphoned off as much as 90 percent of the potential profits, and the very medium they were working in of computer animated feature films was completely untested. In To Pixar and Beyond, Levy takes us through the entire process of maneuvering the company into a position where they would be able to profit from their own work. It’s the origin story that isn’t about the movies, but about the business that makes the movies (and the absolute creative freedom Pixar demanded) possible.

Which makes the memoir sound dry and dull, but Levy keeps us interested in two ways – first, by clearly and concisely explaining every step of the business, and by foregrounding the people involved in the business decisions. Every business is about networking and negotiation – conversations between people.

And, at least according to Levy, everybody he works with is a “great guy.” You wouldn’t think there was a shark in either entire industry, Silicon Valley or Hollywood, to listen to Levy tell it. However, this doesn’t necessarily come across as whitewashing on Levy’s part, but rather a function of his business personality. His job is to mediate between personalities to create the best position for his company, and that means keeping good relationships with everybody on both sides of talks. It’s also, I think, a reflection of the personality that led Levy away from the business world and into the development of a new approach to Zen Buddhist practices. This he only gets to in the latter few chapters, and they come across as a description of a mindset, not some attempt at indoctrination.

Levy is thrilled to be working in close proximity to Hollywood, and he relays some charming anecdotes of Steve Jobs’ own starstruckedness, when they are in a business meeting with an executive that’s interrupted by a call from Robert Redford. This was, as Levy says, before Steve Jobs regularly held court with the rich, famous, and powerful of the world. Early-’90s Steve Jobs was a has-been.

He also goes into details about just what it means to set up an IPO, who is involved, how the value is determined, and the work that goes into each and every decision along the way. Levy makes all this accessible by presuming nothing of the reader’s business knowledge. Everything from stock options to IPOs to roadshows are given easily digestible definitions, without ever feeling condescending.

What this memoir does not do is delve too deeply into the creative aspect of Pixar. Levy is clearly in awe of the talent that resides there and readily admits he had no idea how to do things in the entertainment industry. While some famous incidents of Pixar mythology are briefly mentioned, such as the disastrous early animatic screening of Toy Story, that’s not the story Levy is here to tell – in fact, his memoir covers only two express periods of life within Pixar – the events leading up to the IPO (which happened the week after Toy Story‘s release) and, much more briefly, the negotiated purchase of Pixar by Disney little more than a decade later. It’s not anything like a comprehensive history of the studio.

It is a touching memoir of the friendship that developed between Levy and Jobs. The two lived walking distance from one another, and even after Levy left Pixar they stayed in touch and became, in Levy’s description, great friends (though he’s also careful to note that Steve Jobs had a gift for compartmentalizing parts of his life – being his friend didn’t mean he had access to the man’s deepest, most private thoughts). Steve Jobs comeback through Pixar (which is where he became a billionaire, not from Apple) is a great American success story, but Levy shows that, just as with the filmmaking at Pixar, it wasn’t the result on one man’s iron will. It took the right team – not only of Levy, but of the investment bankers and consultants (including the man who literally wrote the book on Hollywood economics, wherein he said that IPOs for film companies were almost always bad investments) to make that comeback possible, and in To Pixar and Beyond they’re given their due.

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Kent Conrad

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