John Lasseter’s decision to leave Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios for six months following complaints of inappropriate interactions with employees has stunned the animation community and raised questions about the fallout for Disney’s signature animation business.
The computer animation visionary on Tuesday apologized to staff for unwanted hugs and any gestures that employees “felt crossed the line in any way, shape, or form,” adding that he looks forward “to working together again in the new year.”
Industry analysts and experts in the animation community said Lasseter’s absence could be a significant blow to the studio if his departure becomes permanent because the executive has been such a key figure in its success. Lasseter is the chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Animation is a big box-office driver for Disney. Since Disney acquired Emeryville, Calif.-based Pixar in 2006, Pixar films have collected nearly $8 billion at the worldwide box office, according to ComScore. Disney Animation Studios movies, under Lasseter, have grossed $5.4 billion. “Frozen,” “Zootopia” and Pixar’s “Finding Dory” each took in more than $1 billion in global receipts.
“This is the kind of thing that can really damage a company's culture,” said Doug Creutz, a media analyst at Cowen & Co. “The question is, does this affect their future output, and how does Pixar handle this permanently?”
The revelations about Lasseter came as a shock to many within the small, tight-knit animation community.
“The reaction was, ‘Wow.' Just, ‘Wow,’” said Dan Sarto, publisher of Animation World Network, an online animation resource. “It was really like being smacked in the face.”
Within Disney, Lasseter's departure took many employees by surprise, including some members of Pixar's so-called Braintrust — the creative executives who oversee the company's feature-film productions, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to comment.
Disney did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. A Disney spokesman on Tuesday said the company appreciates Lasseter’s “candor and sincere apology and fully” supports his sabbatical.
It remains to be seen who will step in to replace Lasseter, even temporarily. Lasseter became intimately involved with Disney’s projects as soon as he arrived at the company in 2006 after the Burbank entertainment giant bought Pixar for $7.4 billion.
“Those founder-type creative individuals are very hard to replace,” said Robin Diedrich, an analyst at Edward Jones. “I would say his contribution has been pretty instrumental in creating a creative environment, which is what you need at a studio or content company.”
While Lasseter’s shoes would be hard to fill, animation analysts say there is a strong roster of respected internal candidates who could step into the job. They credit Lasseter and Ed Catmull, who is president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, for fostering a deep bullpen of talented filmmakers who could succeed Lasseter, who is 60.
Among possible contenders to fill Lasseter's seat are Pete Docter (“Inside Out”), Andrew Stanton (“Wall-E”) and Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) — all of whom have directed successful Pixar movies. The company could choose to appoint a woman to take over for Lasseter. One name mentioned in animation circles is Darla K. Anderson, a Pixar veteran who produced "Coco."
"I think they're going to be OK because, unlike some other studios where you have a strong leader, John and Ed worked on cultivating a good team," said Thomas Sito, a professor of animation at USC and a prominent animation veteran who has worked at Disney and DreamWorks. "There's a lot of good people on the bench."
That could explain why Lasseter’s move barely registered with investors. Walt Disney Co. stock closed Wednesday at $102.74 a share, down 26 cents, or less than 1%.
The short-term effect on the company is expected to be minimal, analysts said. The studio released “Coco” on Wednesday. The film is expected to gross roughly $60 million through Sunday, a decent result that experts doubt will be affected by the Lasseter controversy.
In other positive signs, Pixar on Saturday released the teaser tailer for “The Incredibles 2,” which drew 113 million views to make it the biggest animated movie trailer launch ever. The next Walt Disney Animation Studios movie is a sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph,” set for November 2018, followed a year later by “Frozen 2.”