From the second-story window of Emeryville's City Hall, the Pixar movie studio looks like a Hollywood version of a secret spy facility. A grim redbrick structure looms behind the foreboding iron curtain that surrounds the compound, separated by a vast rolling green lawn. If a foolhardy interloper hopped the fence and charged the building, a sniper would have ample time to protect the studio's intelligentsia.
For some Emeryville residents who came to complain during a recent series of council meetings, the mammoth Soviet-style fence has become a daily reminder that Pixar is not only a formidable resident, but an aloof one. Studio executives, who rarely speak to reporters or even appear in public unless they're pushing a product for popular consumption, find no humor when their fence gets criticized.
"It is no laughing matter. The world is a different place," said Tom Carlisle, the studio's facilities manager, in an implied reference to September 11. "Our fence is very important to us."
Carlisle made his comments at a council meeting two weeks ago after being dispatched by Pixar's mercurial czar, Steve Jobs, to deliver a demand from the growing animation empire. The studio wanted to add three more buildings to its fifteen-acre lot, along with a parking garage for workers. Carlisle had come to win the council's approval for the expansion, but instead found himself defending Pixar's iron curtain. Residents and city officials had suggested that since Pixar was proposing an expansion, this was an opportune time to redesign the fence and open up a portion of the lawns to the public.
"The fence can be moved back to open up a pedestrian walkway," said Jim Martin, a planning commissioner who'd shown up with computer-assisted drawings that showed Pixar's lot surrounded by trees. Roughly fifty residents crowded the small council chambers and lined the hallway; another 25 watched the meeting downstairs on a large television set.
But Carlisle was unmoved.
"There are a lot of people who want to get close to us," he said. "We get tons of fans coming up to the gate just to take a look. We call them 'looky-loos.'... They just want to see a star."
Carlisle also suggested that there might be some Thieving Theodores lurking outside the wall. He told the council that the company had logged "numerous incidents" of fence-hoppers trying to reach the studio's doorway. "But we're catching these people at the perimeter," he said. "So it's an emotional issue for us, but we feel strongly about it.
"We also welcome very, very important people coming here all the time," he added. "We have limousines visit our buildings every day. Just two weeks ago, the king of Jordan visited us."
Suddenly, the iron fence seemed reasonable to some of those in the community seating area.
"Of course, Ellen DeGeneres was coming quite often."
The proletariat whispered and snickered.
"She did a lot of voice-overs," Carlisle explained, in an attempt to please his audience. "She was coming and going, in and out, all the time."
Indeed, Ellen DeGeneres lent her voice to an animated fish in Finding Nemo which, according to Variety, will most likely surpass The Lion King as world's best-selling video and DVD ever, with 25 million units sold. To date, the film has grossed $863 million in theatrical ticket sales worldwide, making it eighth on the all-time list. And later next year, Pixar is poised declare its independence from the even vaster Disney empire, all the better to claim a greater share of its own gross receipts.
Carlisle said that as long as its expansion plan won approval, Pixar would share its wealth and pay Emeryville a total of $1.5 million over the course of three installments. He added that Pixar had already deposited $950,000 into a low-income housing fund. And the studio would even push back the fence seven and a half feet along Hollis Avenue to make room for a strip of lawn and park benches for the town's citizenry. Before construction breaks ground, Carlisle noted, Pixar will have paid the people $2 million. "I think that's a substantial amount," he said.
Despite Carlisle's hope to win approval that night, councilmembers deferred the tough decisions and used the time to hear from the residents. Many said they were grateful Pixar had picked Emeryville and feared that it would leave town, just as it abandoned Richmond in 2000.
"It's a lead or gold situation," said resident Ty Shipman. "We give 'em what they want, and we're golden. We don't, they leave, and we've got lead."
Another Emeryville resident said that while he appreciated Pixar's donations, he found the fence repulsive. He suggested that the fence -- which he deemed a "wall" -- only pushed the community away and kept them shut out; the structure confirmed the studio's arrogance.
"Mr. Jobs," the speaker said in a wavering voice while invoking Ronald Reagan's famous riposte to the evil empire, "If you want peace, if you want prosperity -- then you've got to take down that wall."
"Mr. Jobs," the speaker repeated, "take ... down ... that ... wall."
Of course, Mr. Jobs was not in the room and, at that late hour, probably not even in Emeryville.
Since January 2003 the city's officers have been called out to the studio's address just seven times, and only twice did the incident involve trespassers, according to a spokeswoman from the Emeryville Police Department. In the first incident, two juveniles snuck onto the campus and were promptly escorted off. In the other, a suspicious man on a bike was seen riding around, but fled before the cops arrived.
In another incident, Pixar called the cops on a guy who was standing outside the gate with a sign that read, "I want to work for Pixar."
One week later, Pixar's Carlisle returned to City Hall ready to accept the council's approval. The iron bars remained an issue for the city, but Pixar, per Jobs' orders, would not budge. According to one councilmember, Jobs had issued the city a Stalinesque ultimatum: Give us what we want or we flee the city. After all, the company had done just that once before.
Councilwoman Ruth Atkin said she was disappointed with the studio, and wished that it had taken the comments about the fence more seriously. "Pixar is a creative company," she said. "It could have responded more creatively."
Councilman Dick Kassis, a proponent of design changes, tried to explain the difficulty he experienced arriving at his vote. First, he said he believed in his heart that Tom Carlisle had negotiated in good faith. "I believe today that if this were your company we would not even be sitting here," Kassis said, choking up in the process. "And I believe you were sent here to deliver an ultimatum. ... Steve's threat to take his company elsewhere is not an idle threat ... and it is not one that can be blown off."
Still, Kassis said there were economic realities to consider, and in this case, Emeryville was at a disadvantage. After all, Carlisle had pointed out the week before that Pixar contributes $600,000 a year in property taxes, and Kassis noted that its employees have become an integral part of the community.
"Pixar is more important to Emeryville than Emeryville is to Pixar," Kassis said resignedly, like a man who knew full well just how powerless he was. "I will just have to swallow the ultimatum that's been handed to me."
The man with the true power wasn't even in the room. Perhaps he was holed up inside the fortress across the street.
The city council voted 5-0 to approve the expansion plan.
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