In recognition of Steve Jobs' passing at the age of 56, we're republishing this piece from August about his impact on the film business, just one part of the incredible legacy he leaves behind.
When it was announced Wednesday that Steve Jobs would step down from his post as CEO of Apple, Peter Sciretta at SlashFilm prefaced his report by suggesting the news might be outside the scope of the movie site. It's understandable since there are those who only know of Jobs as an innovative executive always wearing those turtlenecks at tech conferences or even if they were aware, he once owned Pixar, they might only think his role was crunching numbers. But his impact on our experience as moviegoers has been profound well beyond his role as a savvy businessman, even if it’s not immediately recognized (nor should it, considering his gift for making the complex simple). Here are five ways that Jobs has and will continue to shape the production, the distribution and our enjoyment of movies.
The best $10 million Jobs ever spent.
The most obvious and most important moment of Jobs’ movie career was purchasing LucasFilm’s computer division, which counted future Pixar prexies John Lasseter and Ed Catmull among its employees, for $10 million initially and continuing to back it out of pocket through the lean decade that followed to the tune of $50 million. As mentioned in Karen Paik’s “To Infinity and Beyond! The History of Pixar Animation Studios,” had the company been sold to Philips Electronics, the Pixar name would’ve been adorning medical equipment or in the service of automotive design if they had gone to GM, as it almost did in late 1985. But Jobs was content to let Lasseter and Catmull pursue their dream of creating a completely computer-animated film and as a result, we not only got Pixar, but countless innovations that would affect productions well beyond the company’s walls.
Pixar’s software system CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) would save Disney’s animation division from the death knell in the mid-1980s, long before the two became creative partners, by bringing down costs. The company also created the revolutionary RenderMan software that’s become the backbone for computer-generated visual effects since it could render 3D effects at a speed that was previously unthinkable. Of course, Pixar would eventually make “Toy Story” as the first computer-animated feature, but haven’t stopped innovating in the years since, using every short they’ve produced since as an opportunity to test out new technological breakthroughs.
It’s become legendary that “Toy Story 2” was intended to be a direct-to-video sequel before clearer heads prevailed, but according to David A. Price’s “The Pixar Touch,” Jobs played a key role in making what could’ve been a cheaply made, cel-animated cash-in into an even more ambitious bigscreen adventure that took Pixar to the next level of world domination and cemented Buzz and Woody’s status as screen icons.
Unexpectedly fitting into Jobs’ less is more philosophy, Pixar’s hands were tied in 1996, having a staff of 300, just big enough to produce one movie at a time and while the iron was hot to capitalize on the success of “Toy Story,” two-thirds of the small staff were already dedicated to the production of “A Bug’s Life.” That left just a hundred employees in the Interactive Products Group, who also were occupied with creating CD-ROM games, which took advantage of the “Toy Story” brand and required them to produce significant amounts of animation. When Jobs was told the games wouldn’t perform up to his high expectations, he made the decision to change the division’s direction towards fleshing out the artwork for Lasseter’s story skeleton for a sequel. The rest is history, but without that one decision, Pixar’s signature characters may never have endured beyond just one film.
A movie fan needs only to look at Jonathan Caouette’s harrowing 2003 documentary “Tarnation” to thank Jobs for the iMac, and equally important, iMovie. Famously made for $218 and change off the computer’s sample software, the film is an extreme but telling example of how Apple democratized moviemaking for the masses, just one distillation of Jobs’ belief in how if people have the technology, they will be able to do amazing things with it.
Certainly, iMovie and its progenitor Final Cut Pro (first developed by Macromedia) weren’t the first video editing software products out there. But alongside the rise of cheaply available digital video cameras, consumers finally had the ability to shape their films with ease using the same software that could be used by professional filmmakers. (When perfectionists such as David Fincher (“The Social Network”) and the Coen Brothers (“True Grit”) allow their films to be cut with a product, you know it isn’t what’s typically accepted as consumer grade.) For better or worse, it’s created a world where anyone can call themselves a legitimate filmmaker, but for the many who break through year after year and bring with them a personal vision of people and places rarely represented by an industry governed by high costs, the inexpensive software and hardware of Macs have made them priceless amongst independent filmmakers.
Where was the last place you saw a movie trailer? Since you’re reading this online, it’s fair to guess it might not have been a movie theater. One of the key ways Jobs shaped the modern movie industry happened because of some “Star Wars” fans in his Web department came across a crappy copy of “The Phantom Menace” teaser trailer streaming in 1998 and believed they could do better. According to Chad Little, a former Apple employee who explained on the Q & A site Quora, Apple had hosted a few trailers on their site as a showcase for the multimedia player Quicktime, but their first major hit was when they got in touch with LucasFilm, and subsequently Quicktime partner Akamai, to show off Darth Maul without the choppiness that often cropped up on a streaming service such as the then-popular RealVideo.
Not only did the trailer become one of the most downloaded web videos at the time with a quality improvement that everyone could appreciate, but the importance of a trailer debut online meant the reformation of how movies have been marketed, eventually sparking competition amongst different media outlets to get exclusive content that’s essentially advertising, as well as becoming a key offering both online when bandwidth was still limiting and on early versions of the color iPods where memory was an issue. Even with YouTube, Apple still gets most trailers first and there’s no doubt they still present them best and psychologically, it helped prepare audiences for…
Since Jobs’ role in the inventions of delivery systems for movies such as the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone are well-known, it’s unnecessary to go into detail about them here, but what’s less regarded and possibly even more influential is how he let those systems dictate the market for Hollywood.
From personal experience, I remember buying my first DVD in 2000 – and yet I had no set-top DVD player to watch “Fight Club.” Instead, I turned to my recently purchased computer, an iMac, to play this thing that was surely an upgrade from a CD-ROM. Of course, Apple was hardly the only computer company to start including DVD-ROMs as part of their basic package, and their market share at the time wouldn’t suggest they made a major impact in accelerating the rise of DVDs, which in turn created a boom time in Hollywood productions that studios are still trying to replicate with sequels and reboots of franchises to this very day. But they did hold some sway by supporting the format. More importantly, Apple has made a much bigger impact in not embracing another physical media format, such as Blu-ray, in their most recent line of products and turning their attention to the cloud.
A disc-free future has been in the cards ever since Jobs introduced the MacBook Air in 2008. But hardware is only a small part of how Jobs has leveraged his considerable influence into the future of how media will be consumed. Using Pixar’s sale to Disney and his resulting role as the conglomerate’s largest stockholder in 2006, Jobs instantly had a surplus of movies and TV shows (through ABC) to provide as product for his many devices, building confidence among other studios to join him as he built a paid outlet to digitally deliver films to join the one he built for music through iTunes. Whether or not Apple remains the studios’ primary choice to sell their films online, Jobs’ vision undoubtedly will serve as a chief template for the future, as it has in so many other ways in the movie industry, the computer industry and beyond.