After exiting Walt Disney Co. under a cloud, Pixar Animation pioneer John Lasseter has resurfaced with a new job at prominent production company Skydance Media.
Lasseter, 61, has been named head of animation at David Ellison’s film and television company and will start later this month, the Santa Monica company said Wednesday.
The surprise move represents a major gamble by Skydance and is already sparking a backlash from anti-sexual harassment groups.
Lasseter, known for spearheading blockbusters including “Toy Story,” “Cars” and “Frozen,” was ousted in June as chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios after allegations that he engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior. He had been on a leave of absence since November 2017, shortly after allegations against Harvey Weinstein sparked an industrywide reckoning over sexual misconduct.
His return to the animation business could mark a comeback after Lasseter’s career came to an abrupt halt following complaints from Pixar employees who described unwanted touching by the executive. Lasseter, who was known for his prolonged hugs, acknowledged unspecified “missteps” in his dealings with employees.
“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 on Wednesday. “It has been humbling, but I believe it will make me a better leader.”
Lasseter’s reemergence in the executive ranks of Hollywood comes as the industry is grappling with whether to allow the return of powerful men who lost their jobs after being accused of sexual harassment, including comedian Louis C.K. The comedian’s attempted resurgence on the stand-up scene has come under intense scrutiny in the #MeToo era.
Skydance’s decision to hire Lasseter prompted sharp criticism from women’s rights supporters, including Time’s Up, which seeks to protect women in the workplace from harassment and other forms of gender discrimination and inequality.
“Skydance Media’s decision to hire John Lasseter as head of animation endorses and perpetuates a broken system that allows powerful men to act without consequence,” Time’s Up said in a statement. “At a moment when we should be uplifting the many talented voices who are consistently underrepresented, Skydance Media is providing another position of power, prominence and privilege to a man who has repeatedly been accused of sexual harassment in the workplace.”
Skydance is led by the son of Oracle Corp. co-founder and billionaire Larry Ellison. David Ellison’s sister, Megan, runs Annapurna Pictures, which focuses on prestigious movies such as Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic “Vice.”
In a memo to employees, David Ellison said the company employed outside counsel to investigate the allegations against Lasseter and had “substantive conversations” with him about his behavior before moving ahead with the hire.
“While we would never minimize anyone’s subjective views on behavior, we are confident after many substantive conversations with John, and as the investigation has affirmed, that his mistakes have been recognized,” David Ellison said in a memo to staff. “We are certain that John has learned valuable lessons and is ready to prove his capabilities as a leader and a colleague. And he has given his assurance that he will comport himself in a wholly professional manner [which] is the expectation of every Skydance colleague and partner.”
Those steps, however, did little to mollify industry analysts and activists, who blasted the hiring on social media.
“Hey @Skydance — it's not OK that you have hired a serial sexual harasser to run your animation division,” said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, on Twitter. “It doesn't matter if you are an ‘industry visionary.’ You can't be a serial harasser and get another leadership gig when you were ousted from your former job.”
The group Women in Film, which pushes for gender parity in Hollywood, called for more details about Skydance’s review of Lasseter’s behavior, and its efforts to protect female employees.
“We do think that people can learn and change, and we look forward to men who model this, but true reparation requires transparency,” the group said.
Lasseter will be in charge of growing Skydance’s nascent animation division. Launched in 2017, the division employs 70 people and has a pair of animated movies in the works, including “Luck,” directed by Alessandro Carloni of “Kung Fu Panda 3.”
Lasseter previously helped turn around Walt Disney Animation Studios, becoming chief creative officer of the unit in 2006 after Disney acquired Emeryville, Calif.-based Pixar. Under the leadership of Lasseter and Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, who retired at the end of 2018, Disney Animation produced hits such as “Moana” and “Zootopia.”
Lasseter replaces Bill Damaschke, the former DreamWorks Animation executive who joined Skydance in 2017 and is “transitioning from his current role,” the company said.
Skydance, which has roughly 200 employees, is best known for producing big-budget films such as the recent “Mission: Impossible” movies. The 8-year-old firm’s movies are distributed by Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures. It also produces television shows such as “Grace & Frankie” on Netflix, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.