Steve JobsIn another lifetime, Steve Jobs might have been Walt Disney. Both were charismatic showmen, both were relentless fountains of innovative new ideas who inspired their underlings to make them real, and both were genius pitchmen who could persuade millions to buy the same products over and over in slightly different form.

As far back as 1983
, there were even suggestions that Jobs should be running the Disney company. Instead, he built his own Disney (that is, Pixar), became Disney's biggest shareholder, and tried to drag Disney and the rest of Hollywood kicking and screaming into the digital era. Along the way, he changed the way movies were made (with Apple's Final Cut Pro editing software) and the way we watch them (on the go).

With Hollywood in mourning over Jobs' death on October 5 (just six weeks after his announcement of his retirement as Apple's CEO), it's worth taking a look back at his remarkable career to note how the man who changed the face of computing did the same -- perhaps without even trying to -- for movies.
Jobs' career at Apple even had the classic three-act arc of a movie, divided neatly into ten-year periods. (And of course, there was a movie, the made-for-cable 'Pirates of Silicon Valley,' in which Noah Wyle played Jobs.) In the first third (the Rise), he and his partners would found their company in a garage, all but invent the personal computing market, become huge, and unveil the game-changing Macintosh. In the second (the Fall), Jobs is exiled from Apple and wanders in the wilderness, tinkering with a new computer company called Next and a computer-animation company he bought for $10 million from George Lucas; meanwhile, the company he started founders without him as Microsoft and the Windows PC dominate the market. In the third act (the Redemption), Jobs returns as Apple CEO when Apple buys Next, then retakes the market with a series of earth-shaking devices and apps (the iPod, the iTunes Music Store, the iPhone). Meanwhile, Pixar fulfills Jobs' prediction that it will become the next Disney, so the first Disney buys it (for $7.4 billion, one of the biggest deals in Hollywood history), making him Disney's biggest shareholder, with a seat on the board. Jobs was well into the fourth decade of the story, a coda that included the introduction of the iPad, when he decided to retire for health reasons.

Pixar, of course, remains the most visible way that Jobs changed the way movies are made. Starting with 1995's 'Toy Story,' the studio made it clear that computer animation was the future of cartoons and animated features. "It's the biggest advance in animation since Walt Disney started it all with the release of 'Snow White' 50 years ago," he said at the time, a boastful prediction that turned out to be true. As with Apple, Pixar has seen plenty of imitators, none of which have matched its products' sleek design and emotional accessibility, though DreamWorks, the house of 'Shrek' has occasionally come close.

Also visible is the impact of Final Cut Pro, Apple's suite of editing software, which has become the standard for editing Hollywood movies over the last 10 years. Its consumer-friendliness makes it accessible to the skilled low-budget indie filmmaker as well as the Hollywood studio-backed director. Such editors as Walter Murch ('Cold Mountain'), the Coen brothers, and Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (who cut David Fincher's movies) have been nominated for Oscars for movies they've edited using Final Cut Pro.

Less clear is Apple's impact on streaming films and mobile movie-watching. When Apple introduced the video iPod several years ago, it also had deals to make available movies (primarily from Disney) at the iTunes music store for purchase and download on the tiny screen. Most of the other studios balked at letting Apple standardize price for movies through iTunes as it had with songs and albums, assuming they could get more money selling streaming movies through big-box retailers like Wal-Mart than through iTunes. There were other rough patches, too, like AppleTV, the set-top box that made downloading movies on demand easy for your television but hard to share with other devices. Eventually, Netflix, with its monthly subscription rental model, outdid iTunes as the leader in movie downloads.

Other Apple innovations may further change the way we view movies, but in ways that haven't panned out yet. The iPad seems to solve the problem of matching portability with a screen that's not as small as a business card. It's easy to imagine tablets becoming a common way to watch movies. On the other hand, Apple's refusal to accommodate Flash as a video platform on its portable devices raised the specter of format wars for mobile video. In May, Flash maker Adobe threw in the towel and issued an HTML5 converter that makes Flash videos and apps work on an iPad or iPhone, but Apple's intransigence hastened the day when Flash will be obsolete.

Another Apple innovation on the too-soon-to-tell list is glasses-free 3D technology. This has been the direction that home 3D has been moving in, but it's still not clear to Hollywood whether 3D is going to be the gimmick that saves the industry or, as several recent box office disappointments have suggested, an expensive nuisance that moviegoers don't really want to pay for.

Finally, while the iPhone isn't about to replace the traditional movie camera, it is possible, as some innovative filmmakers have shown, to make a decent movie using just an iPhone. Apple's innovations have allowed just about anybody to be a filmmaker (or at least a TV producer), though not yet for mass entertainment that people will pay money to watch.

During this fourth-act period of uncertainty and rapid change, Apple has, largely through Jobs' salesmanship, managed to maintain its image as the maker of gadgets for smart, hip people. That image has been cultivated in movies, too, thanks to relentless product placement. According to Brandchannel, Apple was the brand whose products appeared in more box office chart-toppers than any other in 2009 and 2010, and it's likely to threepeat in 2011. A movie as tech-heavy as 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' looks like it was outfitted at the Apple Store.

Apple's stamp, then, seems indelibly inked on movies. It's not clear what Apple -- or movies --will look like without Jobs, but it's not far fetched to imagine yourself in the near future watching a movie on your 3D iPad, a film made by Pixar, edited on Final Cut Pro, and sold to you via iTunes, a film in which the characters casually demonstrate their cool by watching video on their own iPads -- and so on, in an infinite mirrored loop.

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.
categories Features, Hot Topic