In 2009, Cassandra Smolcic walked into Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., a wide-eyed intern with big dreams. Five years later she walked out a frustrated, disillusioned graphic designer — never to return.
Smolcic said she was warned on her first day about Pixar co-founder John Lasseter’s sexist attitude and lewd conduct. During her time at the studio, she complained about being subjected to Lasseter’s leers and was told to avoid being alone in a room with the studio chief, who was ousted in June after allegations that he engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior.
When the news broke Jan. 9 that Lasseter had been hired to run the fledgling animation division of film and TV production company Skydance Media, Smolcic, 35, was stunned. “It was pretty shocking to hear that Skydance catapulted John back into such an important leadership role without anyone testing out his merit as a changed man or a ‘reformed sexist’ on the job first,” she said.
Lasseter is the first prominent Hollywood executive to launch a comeback since the dawn of the #MeToo era. His emergence at Santa Monica-based Skydance Media less than a year after several women came forward to accuse him of unwanted touching and fostering a culture of systemic bias, set off a firestorm of criticism among advocates and others who say that Lasseter has yet to fully account for his behavior at Pixar. It has also raised a tangle of morally complex questions about second chances, starting with: Who deserves them? But also: What should the conditions be for redemption and who gets to set those standards?
Hollywood has long tolerated bad behavior by powerful men. Charlie Chaplin’s stature never diminished despite his well-known penchant for teenage girls. In the 40 years since Roman Polanski fled to Europe after his conviction for raping a minor, he’s made 15 films — earning three Oscar nominations, and winning for “The Pianist” in 2003. Five years ago, when the U.S. moved to extradite Polanski from his Swiss chateau, a host of Hollywood notables (including Harvey Weinstein) signed a petition in his defense. In 2014, despite allegations that he molested his daughter, Woody Allen, who denied the claims, received a Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.
That was then.
Over the last year, several fallen men have attempted their own comebacks, gaining little traction. Charlie Rose’s proposed chatfest drew derision. Louis C.K.’s recent button-pushing standup sets have been met with contempt — and criticism for the venues that invite him to perform. Matt Lauer’s efforts at a network return have yet to get off the ground.
With the #MeToo movement in full swing, Lasseter admitted to “missteps” and offered up an apology “for anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape or form.”
At the time, Pixar parent Walt Disney Co. said it was “committed to maintaining an environment in which all employees are respected and empowered to do their best work.”
Representatives of Disney and Lasseter declined to comment for this article.
In the two weeks since Lasseter’s new role became public, the backlash has been vocal, inside and outside Skydance, but the company and Lasseter seem prepared to weather the storm.
Inside Skydance, the mood after the announcement was one of shock and anxiety. In one account, audible gasps could be heard when the news went out, with female staffers crying in their offices. In another, Lasseter’s arrival was described by one employee as the end of “a happy and creative work environment.”
In the tight-knit animation community, several female animators expressed their unwillingness to work for or with Skydance, and suggested that Skydance might have trouble attracting female animators.
After Lasseter’s hiring, Paramount Animation chief Mireille Soria told staffers they will not be working with Skydance Animation (Paramount has a distribution deal with the company).
Other animators expressed dismay about the Skydance decision. “The single biggest effect of the events last year is that we saw men experiencing consequences for their bad behavior,” Women in Animation President Marge Dean posted in a letter. “The Lasseter decision seems to have weakened that giant step forward.”
“We finally have a voice to speak up,” said Lee Crowe, an animator who has worked on films such as “The Little Mermaid” for Disney and others at DreamWorks and Warner Bros. “The fact is now we have a voice and we can speak without retribution.”
Having a voice doesn’t necessarily sway outcomes, however, and the opportunity to pick up a medium-defining talent such as Lasseter is rare. Lasseter revolutionized animation at Pixar and played a key role in reviving Disney’s fortunes along the way. His films — including “Toy Story,” “Cars” and “Frozen” — have earned the studio billions of dollars and a slew of awards. Last year, “Coco” won the Oscar for best animated feature. In the competitive world of animation, Lasseter could be an attractive gamble for an upstart animation outfit such as Skydance.
David Ellison, the son of Oracle Corp. billionaire Larry Ellison, founded Skydance Media in 2010. The company is best known for producing the “Jack Reacher” and “Mission Impossible” films. In 2017, Ellison launched an animation division and has two upcoming features scheduled: “Split,” directed by Vicky Jenson (co-director of Oscar-winning “Shrek”) and “Luck,” directed by Alessandro Carloni, who co-directed “Kung Fu Panda.”
Lasseter’s hiring could transform David Ellison’s company into a serious, bankable player.
The question, for women inside and outside Skydance, is at what cost. During a town hall at Skydance last week, Lasseter told staffers: “I’m not expecting anyone to forgive me in this room,” before asking them to give him a chance to prove himself. A spokesperson for Skydance said Lasseter declined to be interviewed, saying his current focus was on engaging with Skydance employees.
After the announcement, Ellison told the company in a memo that “we have not entered into this decision lightly.” Although the findings of an outside legal team looking into allegations were kept under wraps, attorneys told employees that no charges of sexual assault had been filed against Lasseter and that there were no settlements made by Lasseter or on his behalf. His contract is reported to contain punitive stipulations, including financial penalties for any sexual harassment claim, and gives the company the right to fire him.
But critics noted that although the contract indemnifies Skydance, it gives few, if any, protections to Skydance employees. A company spokesperson said that the company “complies with all local, state and federal laws applicable to the workplace and provides 24-hour resources for anonymous reporting of any workplace concerns.”
Although the attempted comebacks floated by someone such as Louis C.K. offer individuals the choice of whether to engage with his talent or decide to work with him, Skydance installed Lasseter in a position where its employees weren’t given that option.
“This sends the message that the experience of top brass is more important than the careers of all of the people that work for them,” said Karen C. Johnson, president of the Animation Guild.
Some also wonder why Lasseter is more deserving of a second chance than some of the women who may have been sidelined during his tenure at Pixar. “Why is the conversation about these millionaire men?” asked Marie Bower, a storyboard artist who has worked at studios including Disney and Fox. “Why is the focus on giving them a chance when so many people haven’t been given a first chance?”
Betsy Bauer, a Burbank visual designer, said she does not believe “someone’s career should be ruined over a single mistake, but that’s not the case with John Lasseter. This behavior has been explicit for more than 30 years, evidenced by the fact that Disney [had handlers] to prevent him from harassing anyone at company events.”
Lasseter was the animation industry’s centrifugal force, and at Pixar, Smolcic says she experienced firsthand what she and other women have described as a toxic boys’ club where women were routinely disrespected and swept to the fringes.
Passing Lasseter in the campus atrium, Smolcic recalled him staring at her “like a piece of meat. I wanted to crawl back into a hole and be invisible.” While she was working on “Cars 2,” she says, a manager pulled her from the weekly art reviews, where artists pitched their ideas, explaining, “‘John has a hard time controlling himself around young, pretty girls, so it will be better for everyone if we just keep you out of sight.’”
Despite her experiences, Smolcic thinks Lasseter deserves another shot. Her belief stems from a single meeting she had with him to discuss her logo ideas that a male advocate arranged. Smolcic said Lasseter was “engaged, inspiring” and perfectly well-behaved in the presence of her colleague. Although the episode left her feeling “ripped off,” in retrospect, she said, it demonstrated “he’s not beyond repair. He knows how to behave when there are others who uphold a standard in his presence.”
The brass at Skydance are betting on it.
Times staff writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.