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Walt’s Shoes at Disney Could Be a Fit for Jobs

Times Staff Writer

What does Steve Jobs want?

With Walt Disney Co.'s board scheduled today to consider whether to buy Pixar Animation Studios, Jobs, the mercurial visionary whose iPod transformed the way Americans consume entertainment, is being compared to Disney’s late founder, the mercurial visionary whose theme parks sparked similar change half a century ago.

Like Walt Disney in his day, the 50-year-old Jobs is a perfectionist known to fuss over the number of buttons on a computer mouse. Jobs is a college dropout; Disney never finished high school. And with Pixar’s mastery of computer-generated movies such as “The Incredibles,” Jobs has taken the animation that Disney first popularized in the 1930s and not just re-energized it but made it box-office gold.

If Disney acquires Pixar, Jobs would join the company’s board of directors, own the largest individual stake and become, by far, the most recognizable face on the company’s corporate roster -- potentially overshadowing Chief Executive Robert Iger.

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At present, “Disney doesn’t have a guy who shakes the walls, a larger-than-life character like Walt,” said Jeffrey S. Young, co-author of the Jobs biography “iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business.”

Jobs, a co-founder of Apple Computer Inc., has the brash confidence to assume that role. But if he does so, the man who once shaved his head and begged for alms in his search for enlightenment stands to inherit more than the mantle of the company’s lionized founder.

People who know Jobs and analysts who have tracked his companies for years say the potential deal is notable less for what it would mean for Disney than for how it would expand the cult of Jobs.

“Let’s be clear: Steve’s not in this for the money,” said analyst Tim Bajarin, who watched Jobs unveil the first Macintosh computer in 1984. “It’s his original vision of doing something that would change the world that’s important. This is another step in seeing him influence that vision and goal.”

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Jobs declined to be interviewed for this story, as did several of his closest friends.

Venture capitalist Michael Moritz once commented: “Almost everybody has an opinion of Steve Jobs, but very few people know him.” That’s because Jobs is a master at controlling his own image.

Often featured on magazine covers wearing his trademark black turtlenecks, Jobs has been more famous than his companies’ market share would seem to justify. His products are innovative, but they don’t always sell.

A savvy marketer with a keen eye for design, Jobs nevertheless has had to fight to rebuild Apple’s share of the personal computer market, which is just less than 4%. And with big technology competitors lining up to challenge iPod, he cannot afford to assume that his company’s must-have gadget of the moment will remain top-of-mind forever.

And that, some believe, is part of what’s driving him to consider selling Pixar, whose seventh feature film -- “Cars,” due in theaters in June -- is already rumored to be the animation studio’s best film yet.

Selling Pixar to Disney would give Jobs two things he dearly wants, say those who have made it their business to study him. First, it would show the world that the Burbank-based entertainment empire needed his scrappy Emeryville, Calif., animation house to compete. Second, it would free him up to concentrate on the company that will cement his own legacy as an innovator: Apple.

“His interest is in either power or cultural impact,” said Alan Deutschman, author of the biography “The Second Coming of Steve Jobs.” The proposed sale would give him a little more of both.

Jobs, like Walt Disney, follows his gut instincts -- even when they defy market research, conventional wisdom or common sense.

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When he first teamed with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the 1970s, their tinkering in a cluttered garage came to typify the can-do mentality of Silicon Valley. Although Wozniak was credited as the better technician, Jobs was considered a magician of spin even then. He understood what was cool and knew how to persuade others to think it was cool too.

Early on at Apple, for instance, Jobs fought to make a laser printer, even as his colleagues dismissed the notion that anyone would buy a $7,000 printer. Jobs prevailed and desktop publishing was born.

“Typography used to be big business,” said Young, the Jobs biographer. “There’s no such business anymore. That’s completely due to Apple. That’s completely due to Steve Jobs, because he believed.”

Similarly, the iPod was anything but an obvious hit when Apple unveiled it in 2001. At the time, stores were filled with big, clunky digital music players that barely attracted a listen from shoppers -- let alone billions of dollars in sales.

Jobs’ doggedness and self-confidence have not always led him to success. In 1985, just nine years after founding Apple, he resigned from the company after a bitter power struggle with then-CEO John Sculley. He returned a decade later and has personally overseen Apple’s resurgence.

Whether Jobs would bring the same clear, stubborn vision to Disney is impossible to predict. Analysts said Jobs’ instincts as a tech guide could help the entertainment giant navigate the digital media landscape to find new ways of distributing its movies and television shows.

“Historically, you have a lot of great content minds at Disney and Viacom and all the media conglomerates,” said Anthony Valencia, a media and entertainment analyst at TCW Group. “But there’s also been a big hesitation to try new things and there’s been a lot of inertia at the big media companies. One thing I don’t think anyone has accused Steve Jobs of is inertia.”

Since taking the reins from Michael Eisner in October, Iger has been vocal about the company’s need to embrace technology, particularly where it can boost profit. But even though Iger and Jobs appear to see eye to eye on this -- Disney-owned ABC was the first TV network, last fall, to forge a deal to make some of its top shows available for download to the video iPod -- history would suggest that Jobs’ arrival on the Disney board could lead to conflict.

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For example, former Time Warner Inc. CEO Gerald Levin found out how hard it was to deal with a powerful, opinionated shareholder when his company bought Ted Turner’s entertainment empire in 1996. Turner became a thorn in Levin’s side.

Another question is whether someone as ambitious as Jobs would be content to be a mere board member, especially given that he would have billions of dollars tied up in Disney stock.

Robert X. Cringely’s “Accidental Empires,” another book that describes the early days of Apple, recounts how Jobs protested when the company’s directors assigned him employee name tag No. 2 and Wozniak No. 1. Jobs, Cringely wrote, suggested that his tag read “0" because it came before “1.”

At Disney, Jobs conceivably could make a play to be named vice chairman, a title Roy E. Disney had when he was the company’s largest individual shareholder, or even nonexecutive chairman when former Sen. George J. Mitchell leaves that post at the end of this year.

Whatever his title, Jobs would have considerable clout simply because of the dominance of Pixar’s films at the box office, which dwarf even Disney’s popular animated fare, such as last year’s “Chicken Little.”

But analysts who study Pixar say its success says more about Jobs’ business acumen than it does about his creativity.

In 1986, Jobs heard that his friend George Lucas was trying to sell his computer graphics operation. When Jobs visited Lucasfilm, he was amazed by the high-resolution images he saw on the computer screens. Sensing money to be made, he bought the company for $10 million.

It was the savviest investment of Jobs’ career, one that would make him a billionaire.

Jobs adopted an uncharacteristically hands-off approach to Pixar. Former Disney animator John Lasseter served as Pixar’s creative force, while Ed Catmull oversaw the day-to-day operations of the company.

Jobs would occasionally exert his influence. Much like how Disney walked the construction site of Disneyland, Jobs personally oversaw the design of Pixar’s studios. The exposed beam and brick entry bears the mark of Jobs’ modernist sensibilities.

And he employed his formidable negotiating skills to force Disney’s Eisner -- one of the most powerful men in Hollywood -- to a much more lucrative 50-50 split of box-office revenue for Pixar’s films that Disney distributes.

Those who know Jobs say he never aspired to become a media mogul. He grew up deeply ingrained in the ‘60s counterculture. As a teen, he talked buddy Daniel G. Kottke into visiting India in search of spiritual enlightenment. There, with his head shorn, wearing only a robe and sandals, Jobs had an epiphany.

But it didn’t come from the gurus he had traveled so far to find.

One night, Young said, Jobs and Kottke found themselves outside in a violent thunderstorm. As he huddled by rocks for safety, Jobs watched flashes of lightning. “It was there that I realized,” he would later say, “Thomas Edison did more for civilization than all the gurus and all the world’s religions.”

Decades later, Jobs would come to realize that movies, too, were a way to affect people’s lives. Biographers trace that revelation to a 1995 screening of “Toy Story” in San Francisco. Jobs was host of the black-tie affair and when the lights went up, he took center stage as Silicon Valley’s tech elite gave him a standing ovation.

“I think it was intoxicating for him to see that he could create these movies that were like the great Disney movies, dating back to the ‘30s, like ‘Snow White,’ that would be a lasting part of American culture,” said Jobs biographer Deutschman. “He saw that movies had an even more lasting influence than any particular computer.”


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