During the production of A Bug's Life, a public feud erupted by DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steve Jobs and John Lasseter of Pixar. Katzenberg, former chairman of Disney's film division, had left the company in a bitter feud with CEO Michael Eisner. In response, he formed DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen and planned to rival Disney in animation. After DreamWorks' acquisition of Pacific Data Images (PDI) —long Pixar's contemporary in computer animation— Lasseter and others at Pixar were dismayed to learn from the trade papers to learn that PDI's first project at DreamWorks would be another ant film, to be called Antz. By this time, Pixar's project was well-known within the animation community. Both Antz and A Bug's Life center on a young male, a drone with oddball tendencies who struggles to win a princess's hand by saving their society. Whereas A Bug's Life relied chiefly on visual gags, Antz was more verbal and revolved more around satire. The script of Antz was also heavy with adult references, whereas Pixar's film was more accessible to children.
It was clear that Lasseter and Steve Jobs believed that the idea was stolen by Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg had stayed in touch with Lasseter after the acrimonious Disney split, often calling to check up. In October 1995, when Lasseter was overseeing postproduction work on Toy Story at the Technicolor facility on the Universal lot in Universal City, where DreamWorks was also located, he called Katzenberg and dropped by with Stanton. When Katzenberg asked what they were doing next, Lasseter described what would become A Bug's Life in detail. Lasseter respected Katzenberg's judgment and felt comfortable using him as a sounding board for creative ideas. Lasseter had high hopes for Toy Story, and he was telling friends throughout the tight-knit computer-animation business to get cracking on their own movies. "If this hits, it's going to be like space movies after Star Wars" for computer-animation companies, he told various friends. "I should have been wary," Lasseter later recalled. "Jeffrey kept asking questions about when it would be released."
When the trades indicated production on Antz, Lasseter, feeling betrayed, called Katzenberg and asked him bluntly if it were true, who in turn asked him where he had heard the rumor. Lasseter asked again, and Katzenberg admitted it was true. Lasseter raised his voice and would not believe Katzenberg's story that a development director had pitched him the idea long ago. Katzenberg claimed Antz came from a 1991 story pitch by Tim Johnson that was related to Katzenberg in October 1994. Another source gives Nina Jacobson, one of Katzenberg's executives, as the person responsible for Antz pitch. Lasseter, who normally did not use coarse language, cursed at Katzenberg and hung up the phone. Lasseter recalled that Katzenberg began explaining that Disney was "out to get him" and that he realized that he was just cannon fodder in Katzenberg's fight with Disney. In truth, Katzenberg was the victim of a conspiracy: Eisner had decided not to pay him his contract-required bonus, convincing Disney's board not to give him anything. Katzenberg was further angered by the fact that Eisner scheduled Bugs to open the same week as The Prince of Egypt, which was then intended to DreamWorks' first animated release. Lasseter grimly relayed the news to Pixar employees but kept morale high. Privately, Lasseter told other Pixar executives that he and Stanton felt terribly let down by Katzenberg.
Kaztenberg moved the opening of Antz from March 1999 to October 1998 to compete with Pixar's release. David Price writes in his 2008 book The Pixar Touch that a rumor, "never confirmed," was that Katzenberg had given PDI "rich financial incentives to induce them to whatever it would take to have Antz ready first, despite Pixar's head start." Steve Jobs was furious and called Katzenberg and began yelling. Katzenberg made an offer: He would delay production of Antz if Jobs and Disney would move A Bug’s Life so that it didn’t compete with Prince of Egypt. Jobs believed it "a blatant extortion attempt" and would not go for it, explaining that there was nothing he could do to convince Disney to change the date. Katzenberg casually responded that Jobs himself had taught him how to conduct similar business long ago, explaining that Jobs had come to Pixar's rescue by making the deal for Toy Story, as Pixar was near bankruptcy at that time. "I was the one guy there for you back then, and now you’re allowing them to use you to screw me," Katzenberg said. He suggested that if Jobs wanted to, he could simply slow down production on A Bug’s Life without telling Disney. If he did, Katzenberg said, he would put Antz on hold. Lasseter also claimed Katzenberg had phoned him with the proposition, but Katzenberg denied these charges later.
As the release dates for both films approached, Disney executives concluded that Pixar should keep silent on the DreamWorks battle. Regardless, Lasseter publicly dismissed Antz as a "schlock version" of A Bug's Life. Lasseter, who claimed to have never seen Antz, told others that if DreamWorks and PDI had made the film about anything other than insects, he would have closed Pixar for the day so the entire company could go see it. Katzenberg and Jobs would not back down and the rivaling ant movies provoked a press frenzy. "The bad guys rarely win," Jobs told the Los Angeles Times. In response, DreamWorks’ head of marketing Terry Press suggested, “Steve Jobs should take a pill." Despite the successful box office performance of both Antz and A Bug's Life, tensions would still be high between Jobs and Katzenberg for many years. According to Jobs, Katzenberg came to Jobs after the success of Shrek (2001) and insisted he had never heard the pitch for A Bug's Life, reasoning that his settlement with Disney would have given him a share of the profits if that were so. Although the contention left all parties estranged, Pixar and PDI employees kept up the old friendships that had arisen from spending a long time together in computer animation.
A Bug's Life Production Information
- Nov 14, 1998- Limited Release
- Nov 25, 1998- General Theatrical Release
- Apr 20, 1999- Apple iMac DV Promo
- Aug 15, 2000- DVD Release
- May 27, 2003- Collector's Edition Release
- May 19, 2009- Blu-Ray Release
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