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The Pixar Junket

Every morning, after returning from the cafe next to my apartment building, I turn on my computer and delete spam. There's tons of it. Most of the time it's things like: "Congratulations! You've just won a chance to get robbed!" or something like that. But I can't just delete the previous evening's emails in one fell swoop. Every now and then there's something that comes out of the blue which might actually be worth responding to.

 Sandwiched between the Nigerian versions of The Spanish Prisoner and the Dutch lottery drawings for games I never entered, there are usually some legitimate screening invitations and jokes sent by friends. I get to these after the email count goes down from 87 to 12.  One of these was an invite to a Disney/Pixar film press junket being held in California. I was about to delete it, when, as a joke, I decided to reply.

I know why they have these things. Advertising. The fawning press is supposed to ask some softball questions for the evening newscast, or to get some background from a producer for a feature in a magazine or newspaper. You get everyone in the same place and it's actually pretty easy for all involved.

Now one can see why they do this for a film that's coming out. Even if the buzz is terrific, the studios still need publicity in order for that all important first weekend. It's a major expense, but a necessary one.

Sometimes, during major film festivals, the survivors of some old films are trotted out for the press. Just a couple of months ago, they had press conferences for El Topo and Reds -- films with great reputations which few have seen in many years. That's understandable, too. But what I couldn't understand is why they would have a full-fledged junket for the animated feature, Cars.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about the one they had last June. They should have had one just before the film came out. No, I'm talking about having another one four months later for the release of the DVD.

I saw the film twice when it first came out, once at the regular press screening and then at the screening for the IMAX version, and I gave the thing a good review. Maybe that's why they invited me, I don't know, but going out there, on their dime, and getting to see the innards of this magical factory, that is something no one in their right mind would pass up.

That's what made this trip so disappointing. We didn't actually see all that much. This was only what was advertised, nothing more. Damn!

I don't really want to seem ungrateful. San Francisco is a great city, and had I not had to get back when I did, I would have had an extremely enjoyable day hanging out on Market or Polk Street. The food was wonderful and the Hotel Monaco  [501 Geary St, San Francisco, CA 94102] has soft beds and a wonderful free wine tasting program. But that's not why I was there. I was there to see Pixar, and if I saw nothing else, that would be just dandy.

The lot of us got together at 6:45 am in the lobby, and got on a pair of minibuses where we headed out over the Bay Bridge and into Marin County, Passing Berkeley and into the town of Emoryville, which is sort of in Oakland, and where all the factories are. The scenery was very much like it was on the other side of America, with the beginnings of autumn changing the trees from green to orange and gold. It was all very California.

Sooner than expected, there we were. They let us out of the vans and we walked into the building. the Pixar building is a two-story structure with a huge interior "courtyard" surrounded by two wings which are connected on the second floor by a bridge. The schedule went something like this:



The morning roundtables


The Afternoon screenings

A tour of the campus

Back to the Hotel

Breakfast was really good. Various versions of scrambled eggs and cheese omelets, and really fine coffee and fruit. Then we had to sign in. I'm sorry. The sign-in was lame. Usually when you sign in for one of these things, you just sign your name on a register, grab some press materials and go on. That's lame too, but in the usual bureaucratic way. Nobody minds that.

This time, we had to go through a pseudo-DMV type thing, where we had to recognize some of the characters and do a quiz, followed by a demo of the video game (that part would have been fine, but I suck at that sort of thing). This was too cute by half. If there were little children there, that would be one thing, but you had a few dozen adults going through this none-too-pleased.

Then we had some more food and wandered around the vast area that was the first floor for a bit before lining up and heading past the "unauthorized personnel forbidden" signs and up the stairs for three round tables with a couple of the storyboarders and some technicians, who told us about how much work it is to do lighting in an all CGI film and how to make color packets for the techies doing the rendering. That was fine, then we went downstairs again where a couple of people showed us how wonderful all the extras were.

Now extras are important to a DVD. Nobody likes "vanilla," and no one did vanilla more annoyingly than Disney did back in the day. The original Roger Rabbit had a list of them where actually weren't on the disc.

Pixar knows this and they're justly proud of what they did on some of their earlier efforts. They gave us a brief tour of what's on there, and the whole presentation was mostly boring. Menus are like that. However, I want a plasma TV more than ever. God that was beautiful.

Then came lunch, and this was where the problems started. No. The food was terrific, the buffet was to perfection and I enjoyed every morsel. The problem was stonewalling. I sat down and there he was. Director John Lasseter, sitting catty corner from me. He was very pleasant, and I decided, since I was there, to find out what exactly was going on with the studio. Bang! He and his main flunky are very good at stonewalling. They had just come out with a new short, called Lifted, and they had a few signs for it on the wall. I asked about it and they seemed very exited, although they wouldn't say anything specific.

I asked about the next project he's producing, Ratatouille, and the project after that, W.A.L.L.-E.... Stonewall.

I persisted. "Do you see any posters for Meet the Robinsons... do you?"  he snarled at me. I was there to do journalism, right? But what was I supposed to do? I couldn't do what I wanted, after all it was on their dime and in their house.

This was a squandered opportunity on Pixar's part. If you're going to spend thousands of dollars to bring people thousands of miles, it would be really cool to dazzle them. Show them a tease here and there like some character designs for Ratatouille, or Lifted, for example.

We've got something special for you! Not special like a t-shirt (which I'm wearing, by the way), something that you can tell your readers in confidence.

The afternoon sessions were rather boring. They showed us the specially-made cartoon for the DVD, Mater and the GhostLight, and that wasn't particularly good. The character of Mater in the feature was silly and colorful, but he was actually one of the more intelligent characters. Here he's just a moronic child. The punch line was cute but the build up wasn't.

But you can't say "This sucks" on their turf. The questions were for the most part polite and perfunctory. Lasseter made his official appearance and talked about how how he was inspired by a road trip he took with his family after Toy Story 2 was finished. Very sweet. Of course the original concept had nothing to do with the finished film except for the fact that all of the characters were automotive. I was still a bit ticked off.

Then we took the tour. We actually saw quite a bit of the preliminary art from Cars, and some from Finding Nemo. But we didn't see anyone working. That was all hidden. We did go outside and see the volleyball court.

We went back to the hotel and drank more free wine before having dinner on Disney's dime. It helped me sleep on the flight back.


The Hotel Monaco
501 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102

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