There’s no doubt that Pixar helped put Emeryville on the map and they have a history of being generous, but have they become the “Trophy Wife” in the complicated relationship with the city? Yes, they are Beautiful, Rich & Famous … but don’t question “who wears the pants” in this marriage.
Since its 2006 acquisition by Disney for $7.4 billion (joining its stable of companies that include ABC/ESPN, Marvel Comics and now Lucasfilm), has the culture of “The Magic Kingdom” affected them? It has Emeryville residents wondering: Is the Disney-owned version of Pixar the same, generous, community-minded neighbor it used to be … or has it become just another big corporation?
Pixar initially moved to Emeryville from Richmond in 2000 when tax-incentives and the desire to expand attracted them to the Park Avenue district site of the former Oakland Oaks ballpark and more recently Del Monte Cannery facility (with the help of State redevelopment money). In 2004, Ballot Measures T & U were passed that authorized the Pixar Phase II expansion when they threatened to leave. They issued a similar threat when it was suggested that they remove some or part of their eight-foot iron fences to allow the community to utilize some of their vast open space. T & U passed overwhelmingly (perhaps the free AMC movie tickets they mailed to every resident or the estimated $100,000 they put into campaigning had something to do with this?). Now it seems as if since the city has conceded to give Pixar whatever they want, they have no more leverage with them.
Generally having a “high-profile” neighbor creates a Halo-effect of small businesses that cater to the affluent workforce but Pixar’s “Compound approach” gives its well compensated staff of over 1,000 little reason to venture outside of its well-fortified campus. They have Gourmet-food, an outdoor amphitheater, soccer field, organic vegetable garden, olympic-sized swimming pool, volleyball court, jogging trail, basketball court … what need is there to patronize local businesses and interact with the community? In some regards they’ve had a negative impact on the surrounding business climate as the Family run Semifreddi’s Cafe/Bakery on Hollis was a causality of their expansion. Besides Rudy’s, it’s hard to say any of the surrounding businesses really benefit from Pixar’s existence. Shortly after the Disney Acquisition, they even shifted all their receipts to their offices in Burbank to avoid paying Emeryville’s business license fee. The City had to pass measures C & D in 2011 to close this tax loophole. The Disney version of Pixar seems more intent on reducing the company’s tax liability than “Doing the right thing”. (Is this part of “The Disney Way“?)
Pixar used to honor its hometown. In fact, they used to make a point out of placing Emeryville-specific “Easter Eggs” in its films. When I saw the community pre-release of “The Incredibles” it was noted that they had six references to us including a high-speed chase down San Pablo and the use of Emery High’s “Spartans” Mascot where Violet attends school. I couldn’t find a single reference to us in Pixar’s most recent film “Brave” (although they did make headlines when Disney attempted to sexualize Merida, the red-haired female protagonist and draft her into their legion of “princesses”). It’s even been suggested that Pixar may have conceded the glory of the Disney 2012 box office hit “Wreck-it Ralph” to its new overlords … but I digress.
Some of us have been fortunate enough to breach the walls of our famous gated neighbors before their acquisition. Pixar used to offer residents a special pre-release screening of their upcoming films through an Emery Education Fund private fundraiser that included dinner in their cafeteria and a guided tour of their campus for a nominal $100 donation. Subsequent movie releases saw this figure jump to $250 for WALL-E (2008) and then abruptly end after the 2009 screening of “Up”. In addition, Pixar hosted a “Family Day” Behind the scenes event to benefit the Emery Ed fund. These events were eliminated in 2006 (again, coincidentally after the Disney acquisition?). These days, if you want a tour of their well-guarded campus, you need to know somebody … or make a run for it! In this article, iO9 takes you behind the scenes of Pixar for their to-be-released Monsters University film (Sorry, this may be the closest you ever get!).
What about the direction of community funding? Last year Pixar made a generous donation to the Emery Ed Fund in the amount of $80,000 in addition to a 20,000 donation to the Emeryville Child Development Center. They also have an ongoing weekly volunteer program at Anna Yates Elementary called “Pixar Reading Buddies”. For the forthcoming release of Monsters University, Pixar opted to fundraise for Oakland-based College Track (an organization that Emeryville school Superintendent Debbra Lindo is a board member of) instead of The Emery Ed Fund. The Tattler outlined these dramatic cuts in this 2012 post. Is it the strained relationship with the City or Disney’s bean-counters causing Pixar’s belt-tightening?
I’m not suggesting that it should be the burden of corporations to foot the bill for all city services (their “fair share” should be fine), and I know that their intellectual property needs to be closely guarded. But being a “good corporate citizen” means engaging with the community, not just cutting big checks. Treat us like neighbors. Open your doors every once in a while. We’re a small town, there aren’t many people to please.
I was optimistic that Pixar would maintain its spirit in the post-Disney era, I may have been wrong. It may be time for Pixar to reflect on where it started and what it’s become. We love Pixar, we’re proud to call Pixar a Neighbor, we just don’t want Pixar to become … Disney.
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