Hollywood has often taken a disapproving stance toward Big Oil in recent years, from "Syriana" (2005) and "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006) to "Avatar" (2009) and "Cars 2" (2011). Even Disney's new "Muppets" movie stars an oil baron as the bad guy.
Despite all this bad publicity, though, one Canadian oil company is apparently still a fan of the film industry. It's such a big fan, in fact, that it has built its brand identity — and the identities of its subsidiaries — around the names of Hollywood studios. And now it's adding another one to the list, it announced this week, with a new oil sands spinoff called Pixar Petroleum Corp.
That may sound odd, since the word "Pixar" is most famously associated with Pixar Animation Studios, the Disney-owned producer of such film franchises as the "Cars" and "Toy Story" movies. But it's business as usual for the parent company, Paramount Resources Ltd., which has a history of borrowing studio names.
Not only does its own name echo Paramount Pictures, owned by Viacom Inc., but many of its subsidiaries follow a similar pattern. Paramount Resources wholly owns Fox Drilling Inc. and Summit Resources Inc., which share names with the studios Twentieth Century Fox and Summit Entertainment LLC, respectively. It also owns a nearly $300 million stake in Trilogy Energy Corp. (reminiscent of Trilogy Entertainment Group) and more than $8 million in MGM Energy Corp. (similar to MGM Studios). None of these may stand out on its own, but together they seem to suggest a film fixation.
Pixar Petroleum ups the ante a bit, too, since "Pixar" isn't as generic of a term as "Paramount," "Summit" or "Trilogy." The original Pixar took its name from the Pixar Animation Computer, which was designed by a division of Lucasfilm that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs bought in 1986. The word was coined by Alvy Ray Smith and other founders of that animation studio, evoking "pixel" to sound like a made-up Spanish verb meaning "to make pictures." Jobs' investment group renamed the studio Pixar, and it soon became the multibillion-dollar producer of such hits as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles." Disney bought Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion.
Paramount Resources hasn't offered much insight into its naming decisions. Jim Riddell, the company's president and chief operating officer, didn't respond to MNN's request for a comment on Friday, and a Nov. 28 press release about Pixar Petroleum makes no mention of Pixar Animation Studios. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Paramount's pattern has been "a long-running mystery" to energy industry analysts.
Disney isn't amused by the apparent homage, telling the WSJ that "we intend to take the appropriate legal action." It remains unclear what that action would be, though, since the two Pixars operate in such different commercial spheres. While Disney owns entertainment-related trademarks on the Pixar name, its reach may not extend to the oil industry, which presumably has little audience overlap with "Ratatouille" or "WALL-E." The rules on brand trademarks are less rigid when two companies have distinct customer bases — like Delta Faucets and Delta Air Lines, for example.
"In an infringement claim, the issue is whether ... the relevant consuming public is likely to be confused," an intellectual property attorney tells the WSJ. "But just because you have a mark in one area, like in animation, doesn't mean you have a monopoly on a mark." Executives at Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and other studios have said they either didn't know about their oil-industry doppelgangers, or have no intention of pursuing legal action.
Paramount's naming method may be unconventional, but it's not unprecedented. Enron, the now-bankrupt Texas energy firm, created "shell companies" to hide its accounting fraud, and gave some of them "Star Wars"-based names like Chewco (à la Chewbacca) and Joint Energy Development Investment Ltd., or JEDI. There's no indication that Paramount Resources is involved in any such misdeeds, however — its Hollywood crush seems innocent, at least aside from any future trademark battles.
According to the Nov. 28 press release, Pixar Petroleum will combine all of Paramount's oil sands and carbonate-bitumen interests into one subsidiary. Paramount owns an array of fossil resources in Canada and the U.S. (as detailed in its 2010 annual report), and now Pixar Petroleum takes over its stake in the lucrative but controversial oil sands — the same type of oil sands behind the now-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline. Developing oil sands often requires clearing tracts of old-growth forest, and is also more energy- and carbon-intensive than traditional crude.
Yet even though Pixar Animation Studios and Disney have recently cast Big Oil as a bad guy — specifically the "über bad guy" in "Cars 2," as director John Lassester put it, and embodied by unscrupulous oilman Tex Richman in "The Muppets" — Paramount Resources seems unfazed. As the company boasted in its press release, "The creation of Pixar will allow for the accelerated development of these high impact, capital intensive properties, on a self-funding basis, which will further unlock the value of these assets for the benefit of Paramount's shareholders."
Here's the theatrical trailer for "Cars 2," which was released in June of this year: