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Disney Faces Daunting Questions in Wake of John Lasseter, Harvey Weinstein Scandals

For nearly two months, the Walt Disney Co. evaded the sexual misconduct scandals that have afflicted some of its rivals. While Amazon (Roy Price), Warner Bros. (Brett Ratner) and Netflix (Kevin Spacey) were forced to face the public spotlight over their respective controversies, Disney managed to stay above the fray.

Until last week, that is, when John Lasseter — the creative force behind Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios — announced he would take a six-month leave after stories surfaced with allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women.

Disney declined to answer inquiries by Variety as to whether the company was paying for Lasseter’s leave of absence and whether the entertainment giant intended to launch a formal investigation into the accusations.

John Lassiter Harvey Weinstein Sexual Harassment in Hollywood
CREDIT: Rui Ricardo for Variety

Lasseter admitted in an email to his staff Nov. 21 to vague “missteps” while journalists supplied the details: touching, kissing, inappropriate comments and drunken carousing at wrap parties. Lasseter said he needed some time to reflect and “take better care of myself,” and added that he hoped to return with fresh inspiration in the new year.

Disney clearly seconds the sentiment. Since the studio bought Pixar, in 2006, Lasseter has been essential to Disney’s core animation business, overseeing 21 films that have collectively grossed about $13 billion. In its statement on the matter, Disney said it “fully supports” Lasseter’s sabbatical.

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But the company could face difficult questions nonetheless about its handling of Lasseter’s conduct. Sources told Variety that the executive’s behavior around young women has been known within the company since the 1990s. Whatever steps were taken to address it — which sources suggested included Disney having confronted Lasseter about the allegations — did not stop the complaints, which have continued until quite recently.

“This is not one guy going around acting inappropriately,” said Amid Amidi, the publisher of Cartoon Brew, a site that covers the animation industry. “This is one guy enabled by a massive corporate structure to act inappropriately.”

A former Pixar employee agreed, saying that CEO Bob Iger knew about a 2010 Oscar party where Lasseter was seen making out with a junior staffer.

“They’ve known for a long time,” the source said. “It has gone all the way to the top. I know personally that Bob was aware. … Everybody was aware. They just didn’t do anything about it.”

Disney had no comment.

When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last month, Disney denied any knowledge of misconduct or settlements with victims during Weinstein’s run at Miramax from 1993 to 2005. Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner tweeted that he had no knowledge of Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment during those years.

According to The New Yorker, Weinstein enlisted his brother Bob Weinstein in the 1990s to put up the funds out of his own bank account for one harassment settlement so as to avoid involving Disney.

The Lasseter case, however, strikes much closer at Disney’s current management.

“If this were one of those open secrets, as was alleged with Weinstein, they’re really much more culpable,” said Benjamin Hermalin, a UC Berkeley professor and expert on corporate governance. “Executives need to be held to a fairly high standard. It’s increasingly clear that corporations need to pay attention to power dynamics.”

The company could also face lawsuits from employees whom Lasseter never touched inappropriately, but who could allege that their careers suffered due to a discriminatory environment.

Rashida Jones emphasized that aspect in commenting on her own experience at Pixar. Jones departed as a writer on “Toy Story 4,” and last week was compelled to deny a report elsewhere that it had to do with an unwanted advance from Lasseter. But in her statement, she criticized the company for fostering “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”

Disney has said nothing yet on that.

In the absence of an internal investigation of Lasseter, much depends on whether Pixar employees come forward with on-the-record allegations. Either way, the company will have to weigh the risks of hanging on to Lasseter against the benefits of allowing him to continue to shepherd films onto the screen.

“This is not one guy going around acting inappropriately. This is one guy enabled by a massive corporate structure to act inappropriately.”
Amid Amidi, Cartoon Brew publisher

“The consequences need to fit the transgressions,” said Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University. Otherwise, she said, “you’re sending a message that you don’t value your employees when you say someone is so talented that we don’t fire him or her.”

Debra Katz, an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in employment law, said that if Lasseter’s alleged misconduct proves to be pervasive, “termination may very well be the appropriate remedy.”

But Disney’s initial move of endorsing Lasseter’s six-month leave may signal to employees that the company is not interested in a full airing of allegations.

“I hope Disney is a leader on this and sets the example for other companies, but I’m worried about a six-month sabbatical,” Drobac said, calling it essentially a “time-out.”

Some, however, worry that Lasseter’s boundless enthusiasm — which sets the tone at Pixar — will now be inhibited. Bill Capodagli, co-author of “Innovate the Pixar Way,” has written that Pixar’s culture of fun is essential to its success, and urged other companies to adopt it.

“I don’t think John ever grew out of his childlike enthusiasm — that’s probably what got him into trouble,” Capodagli said. “John didn’t have any boundaries. With the hugging and kissing and things like that, you have to know your audience and be aware of when people are uncomfortable with that kind of behavior.”

Capodagli said he wishes the best for Lasseter. “I hope this isn’t the end of his career,” he said. “I’m sure he looks at it and says I should have been more appropriate.”

Amidi wrote two books on Pixar, “The Art of Pixar Short Films” and “The Art of Pixar: 25th Anniversary,” both of which have forewords written by Lasseter. He argues the most responsible course is for Disney to do a full investigation.

“From a corporate standpoint, you understand why they want to keep him,” he said. “From an ethical and moral standpoint, I think it’s very sketchy. To try to sweep everything under the rug because the guy does a lot of good for your company isn’t right.”

“I’m not sure at this point Disney wants to do the right thing,” he added. “They may be forced to do the right thing.”

Brent Lang contributed to this report.

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