November 22, 1995: Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature-length movie, lands in theaters. The charming film wows the world with the wonders of computer animation.
The most successful of Steve Jobs’ business ventures during his wilderness years outside Apple, the box office smash hit makes his belief in the power of computer graphics pay off in a big way.
How big? A cleverly timed decision to sync the movie opening with Pixar’s public offering turns 40-year-old Jobs into a billionaire.
You’ve got a friend in me
Toy Story was an astonishing achievement for its time. The early 1990s was a high point for animated feature films, thanks to Disney’s back-to-back-to-back successes with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Those movies combined celebrity voices, high-quality animation, great scripts and big Broadway musical numbers to stunning effect.
All three of those films featured computer graphics to some degree, but only for backgrounds and special effects. With Toy Story, computer graphics would need to prove themselves capable of creating emotion as well.
It worked. Audiences fell in love with the toy characters, including Woody (an earnest cowboy) and Buzz Lightyear (a bumbling astronaut). During a January 1995 sneak preview double bill of Toy Story and the traditionally animated Pocahontas, the former emerged an undisputed winner.
When Toy Story arrived in theaters, it lived up to this potential. Box office sales of $358 million worldwide made it a runner-up only to the aforementioned Aladdin and The Lion King.
Jobs’ involvement with Pixar at this stage has often been discussed. There’s no doubt that he later became a crucial part of the company as its CEO, in a role which also made him the single biggest shareholder in the Walt Disney Company. But how much impact did he have early on?
Steve Jobs and Toy Story
Primary credit, of course, goes to creators Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, who shepherded Toy Story to the screen. Jobs himself offered no input on the movie’s plot, although he contributed in other ways.
For instance, Jobs negotiated the movie deal with Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg. Unfortunately, Pixar did not retain ownership of the film and characters. And — in a move that shows how much Jobs’ thinking changed over the coming decade — Pixar did not get a cut of home video revenue. (Jobs apparently did not appreciate the significance of that market.)
Later on, Jobs fought with Katzenberg to get more money to fund Toy Story‘s development.
Jobs also became a vocal proponent of the movie. He spent countless hours watching rough cuts and offering feedback — and even sometimes showing advance copies to journalists he particularly liked and trusted.
When the movie eventually came out, Jobs deserved the credit he received for helping bring the movie to the screen. He was much more than simply a wealthy patron.