John Lasseter Lands a New Job at Skydance, But At What Cost?

As upstart Skydance rolled the dice by hiring the tarnished Lasseter, the future for the animation player is uncertain.
John Lasseter

John Lasseter Leaves Disney and Pixar

When John Lasseter was hit with multiple allegations of workplace sexual misconduct and forced to step down in 2018 as the head of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, a seismic shift occurred at the two animation powerhouses. Directors Pete Docter ("Inside Out," "Up") and Jennifer Lee ("Frozen 2" and "Frozen") were promoted as the new chief creative officers of Pixar and Disney. Then Pixar co-founder and tech guru, Ed Catmull, retired after Lasseter's departure, truly ending an era. Docter and Lee have already started changing the cultures at their studios, expanding inclusion and diversity from the top down in all creative areas. The Oscar-winning Docter ("Inside Out," "Up"), one of Pixar's first employees, is beloved and has been an essential leader of the Braintrust  He's a warm, sensitive, bold director. Lee, a funny, sharp-eyed, and compassionate writer and director, has been a godsend to Disney. As co-writer of “Wreck-It Ralph,” she provided a fresh, hip, female voice. And her reward was being elevated to co-director of the Oscar-winning “Frozen,” helping create a phenomenon with the tender sibling story that resonated worldwide. Lee subsequently played a crucial role as a member of the Story Trust on the Oscar-winning “Zootopia,” and is currently finishing “Frozen 2." Both Docter and Lee immediately began emphasizing originals over sequels, with Docter determined to make his next movie, the cosmic "Soul" (June 19, 2020), while adjusting to his new leadership role. He also greenlit the initial feature by story artist Domee Shi (the Oscar-winning “Bao” short), the first sign of inclusion and diversity under his watch. Lee has reportedly put into development an Asian-themed, fantasy-adventure with a female hero, scripted by Adele Lim ("Crazy Rich Asians"), produced by Osnat Shurer ("Moana"), and directed by story artists Paul Briggs ("Frozen") and Dean Wellins ("Zootopia"). There have been departures: Oscar-winning director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla K. Anderson ("Coco," "Toy Story 3"), and Oscar-winning director Rich Moore ("Zootopia"). Anderson went to Netflix and Moore will produce, direct, and advise on all projects at Sony Pictures Animation. Meanwhile, Lasseter resurfaced as head of upstart Skydance Animation in 2019, which shocked and outraged the industry. Despite pressure to oust the fallen animation giant, Paramount Pictures' refusal to work directly with Lasseter as part of its pact with Skydance, and actress Emma Thompson quitting the Skydance movie, "Luck," in protest, Lasseter has begun an effort to forestall retirement through redemption and reinvention, returning to his roots of creative independence.—BD

On Wednesday, the animation industry was rocked by two major events: Ousted Pixar/Disney leader John Lasseter resurfaced as head of upstart Skydance Animation, and DreamWorks Animation TV head Margie Cohn took over feature animation from Chris deFaria (who served as president for only two years).  Her elevation should improve synergy at DreamWorks and create greater unity with Illumination, which has taken an active role in developing “Shrek” and “Puss in Boots” sequels.

But the Lasseter hire was the most shocking update, as it found the disgraced animation guru instantly returning to a new senior leadership position after a string of sexual harassment allegations took him out of circulation.

It was unlikely that Lasseter would ever return to Disney and Pixar, the company he helped launch more than 30 years ago, or any other major studio. The post-Lasseter era at Pixar and Disney has already begun, with the promise of greater inclusion, diversity, and originality from chief creative officers Pete Docter and Jennifer Lee.

But it took only nine days after officially leaving Pixar and Disney for Lasseter to join Skydance. He starts later this month in L.A., reporting to Skydance Media’s CEO David Ellison. The motivation on both ends is obvious: Lasseter hopes to redeem and reinvent himself after last year’s workplace sexual harassment debacle forced him out as chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney. And it’s a chance for Skydance to build a strong animation presence. But many throughout the industry will see the move as a crass repudiation of the claims against Lasseter, no matter what he does now.

“I have spent the last year away from the industry in deep reflection, learning how my actions unintentionally made colleagues uncomfortable, which I deeply regret and apologize for,” Lasseter said in a statement. “It has been humbling, but I believe it will make me a better leader.”

Lassseter’s statement suggests he believes that taking on a role at a company with much to prove will allow him to return to his roots. “I join Skydance with the same enthusiasm that drove me to help build Pixar, with a firm desire to tell original and diverse stories for audiences everywhere,” he said.

Nevertheless, it’s a risky roll of the dice internally and externally for Skydance. Ellison even addressed anticipated concerns in a letter to his staff, admitting that he “employed outside counsel to thoroughly investigate the allegations,” and promising that Lasseter “will comport himself in a wholly professional manner.” Yet Ellison’s not taking any chances. He’s reportedly making Lasseter financially responsible for any past or future legal claims of sexual harassment.

Lasseter, meanwhile, is gambling on the potential for Skydance to become a major player, but the projects in the pipeline have yet to prove their worth. The first two animated features are already in place with Madrid’s Ilion Animation Studios: “Split,” a female-driven coming of age fantasy, directed by Vicky Jenson (“Shrek”), and “Luck,” a comedy about good and bad luck, directed by Alessandro Carloni (“Kung Fu Panda 3”).

In addition, Skydance signed a multi-film agreement with Disney director Nathan Greno (“Tangled”), the first of which is “Powerless.” But, most important, Skydance has a distribution agreement with Paramount to supplement its new animation division run by former DreamWorks Feature Animation co-president Mireille Soria. This deal raises concerns about whether a major studio would want to be associated with a company run by Lasseter. The question isn’t whether the animation veteran knows what he’s doing, but whether anyone out there is willing to do it with him, especially women. In fact, Paramount has already balked about not being informed of the Lasseter hire in advance by Skydance, which could jeopardize the pact.

Also, as an executive, Lasseter will reenter an increasingly crowded landscape that will soon include none other than Netflix, which is building an ambitious animation studio (including Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio,” “Wendel & Wild,” from Henry Selick and Jordan Peele, and “Over the Moon” from Glen Keane). Plus, there’s the shot in the arm for Sony Pictures Animation as a result of its disruptive “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which won a Golden Globe last weekend. Skydance will therefore have to fast-track some projects with serious potential while riding out a publicity headache associated with its new leader unlikely to subside anytime soon.

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