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It’s a Small World, After All

The Walt Disney Company announced last week that it will be acquiring animation house Pixar in a $7.4 billion all-stock transaction (a nice return on Steve Jobs’s original $10 million investment when he purchased Pixar from filmmaker George Lucas in 1986). The deal has been approved by the boards of both companies, and is expected to be completed by mid-2006. Pixar President Ed Catmull will serve as the President of the new Pixar and Disney animation studios, and John Lasseter (considered by many to be the crown jewel of Pixar) will serve as Chief Creative Officer of the studios, as well as Principal Creative Advisor at Walt Disney Imagineering, where he’ll contribute to Disney theme park attractions.

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And what of Pixar’s iconic CEO Steve Jobs, also CEO of Apple Computer and in control of about half of Pixar’s stock? He’ll be joining Disney’s Board of Directors as one of three non-independent members and, overnight, become Disney’s largest shareholder, owning roughly 6.5 percent of Disney’s stock.

Pixar has developed several successful animated films distributed by Disney under a long-term deal, including Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, with total earnings from the films estimated near $3.2 billion. However, friction between Jobs and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner led Jobs to walk away from the original Disney distribution deal when it concludes this year with the release of Cars. Jobs apparently gets along well with Disney’s current CEO Robert Iger and plans to spend a whole lot more time with him.

The Disney acquisition brings Pixar’s talent and unique culture into the Disney fold, and enables the House of Mouse to further leverage Pixar characters, stories, and creations through its many media and merchandising channels. For many Pixar employees, the deal may represent a bit of a dream come true: many of the storytelling and production values of classic Disney animated films initially inspired Pixar. However, the deal may complicate life for Steve Jobs’s other day job at Apple Computer, where, as a member of Disney’s board, he may face additional hurdles convincing other video content providers (Time Warner, NBC/Universal, CBS, etc.) to put their content up for sale on Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

At first glance, the merger might seem eerily reminiscent of Apple’s acquisition of Jobs’s NeXT, Inc., several months after which Jobs ousted Apple CEO Gil Amelio and took over Apple’s troubled reins in 1997. Indeed, with Pixar’s upper management being placed in charge of the combined Pixar and Disney animation studios, it might be easy to see this acquisition as a reverse takeover for Pixar, if not for Jobs personally. But the situation is significantly different. For one thing, Jobs didn’t found Disney, so it’s hard to see him having the same passion for Disney that he does for Apple. Further, despite a recent shareholder revolt led by Roy Disney against former CEO Michael Eisner, Disney is much more than its animation studios. In total, Disney garnered nearly $32 billion in revenue during 2005 from businesses including its own cable television channels, the ABC broadcast television network, half a dozen music labels, half a dozen more movie studios, plus theatrical productions, its world-famous theme parks, and – of course – vast merchandising. That said, none of this means Jobs won’t have an impact: he’s always been out to change the world, and with control of Apple and a board position at Disney, he’s better placed to do so than ever before.

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