The Pixar Model: What Makes It So Successful?

December 17, 2013 Film, General

The Pixar Model: What Makes It So Successful?With more than $7 billion in box office revenue and 27 Academy Awards, Pixar has done the seemingly impossible: It has made acclaimed films that actually make money. Most Hollywood films generally fall into one of two categories: money-makers or award winners. The studio has successfully managed to combine the two, so what is the secret to their success?

Getting at the Heart of It

It may not seem like talking cars and an old man riding in a balloon-powered house have much in common, but the truth is every Pixar film shares one major component: heart. As Andrew Stanton explained at Disney’s D23 event in 2011, “With each film, we try just for one moment to capture that same wonder we felt when we were younger, as if it were an obligation to carry on that wonder, to infect others so that they can also do it to others.”

Heart is not something that comes out of any screenwriting formulas or filmmaking conventions. It is something that is produced out of the perfect balance of passionate storytelling and strong character development, in order to create a strong emotional connection with the audience.


Pixar is clearly on the cutting edge when it comes to computer animation. One need only watch Toy Story alongside Toy Story 3 to see how advanced the technology has grown since the studio first began operating. While technological innovation is certainly a key component to the studio’s success, it is actually their unique and innovative storytelling that truly defines them as a leader in the industry.

Though out-of-the-box may seem like a trite way to describe the studio’s style, there is really no better way to explain the choices that the studio has made when it comes to story. Though every new Pixar film is a success, the studio doesn’t fixate on recreating the same stories and elements every time. There are no clearer examples of this than 2008’s Wall-E and 2009’s Up. Both of these films are so far removed from the typical subjects of children’s animated films it’s a wonder they were actually made. Thankfully, they were, because they are both shining examples of how the studio’s willingness to take risks pays off.


A four-quadrant film, by definition, is one that appeals to all four major demographics of moviegoers: males, females, young and old. Though all of Pixar’s films could arguably fall under the four-quadrant category, one of the best examples is The Incredibles. At first glance an animated film about superheroes may not seem like an obvious four-quadrant story, but, in fact, the universal appeal of this film is staggering.

Superhero stories of any kind are generally male-oriented. The idea of kids becoming superheroes has an obvious appeal to a young audience as well. What may not be quite as apparent are the feminist undertones that Elastigirl’s story evokes. She is the embodiment of a woman balancing work with motherhood, and her story helps create a strong emotional investment for the female audience. At its core The Incredibles is really the story of one man’s midlife crisis. Mature audiences can certainly relate to the concept of coming to terms with disappointment in how your life has turned out. With all the bases covered it’s easy to see why audiences flocked to this film.

All of these elements come together to make Pixar’s films successful, both financially and critically. The model is not limited to animated films and can be applied to any medium and genre, from live-action features to student films. Learn more about the tools needed for a successful career at Brooks Institute.

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