The hire comes after Lasseter has been trying, and largely failing, to drum up interest from studios in recent months, having met with Warner Bros. and other players. Many major studios and technology companies were wary of partnering with Lasseter because he was ousted from Pixar in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal.
Lasseter will be based in Los Angeles and will start his job later in January. Variety contacted Skydance about a possible deal for Lasseter in December when word had begun to leak that the animation guru was trying to find a new home, but the company was initially evasive and ultimately unresponsive.
If Lasseter is successful at Skydance, he will be one of the first industry figures to mount a career come back in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era. Some publicly traded companies were particularly concerned about the optics and legal issues surrounding the hiring of a man who had been pushed out of his last job for misbehavior.
Lasseter, who was chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, was initially placed on a “sabbatical” in November of 2017 after employees complained about his inappropriate behavior towards female employees. Pixar staffers who worked with Lasseter told Variety that the animation chief had rubbed their legs and kissed them on the lips and was reprimanded for making out with a subordinate at an Oscar party in 2010. In a memo at the time of his leave of absence, Lasseter stopped short of addressing allegations in detail, but he said he was sorry for giving staffers “unwanted hugs.” As the leave of absence stretched on, Disney ultimately decided to part ways with Lasseter, believing that keeping him employed would be untenable at a time when Hollywood was going through a sexual harassment reckoning.
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In a letter to staff announcing the hire, Skydance Media CEO David Ellison praised Lasseter as an “industry visionary,” but spent much of the note explaining the decision to give him a second chance. He said that the company had employed outside counsel to investigate the allegations against Lasseter. One individual with knowledge of the investigation said that attorneys spoke to roughly 20 people about the accusations.
“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,” Ellison wrote. “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 that is the expectation of every Skydance colleague and partner.”
Ellison went on to say that Lasseter had spent the past year “analyzing and improving his workplace behavior.”
Skydance will host a town hall meeting with employees on Wednesday to give them a chance to voice their concerns and ask questions. Lasseter will meet with staff later this week.
Before he lost his post at Disney, Lasseter had an unprecedented run in family entertainment. He was praised for expanding the creative possibilities of the genre and revitalized an animation business that had grown stale, producing hits such as “Frozen,” “Up,” “Wall-E,” and “Toy Story.”
Lasseter will replace Bill Damaschke, a former DreamWorks Animation executive who was hired to oversee Skydance’s nascent animation business in October 2017. Damaschke was informed of Lasseter’s hire shortly before a formal announcement was made on Wednesday, according to an insider. In the staff memo, Ellison said he was “hopeful” that Damaschke “will choose to remain within the Skydance family.” One insider told Variety that Damaschke is unlikely to stay at the company.
As some meetings with industry professionals, Lasseter pitched the idea of having a production deal, which would have given a financial partner more of an arms length relationship with the producer. That won’t be the case at Skydance. Lasseter will work in the company’s Los Angeles office and will report directly to Ellison.
Skydance was founded in 2010 by Ellison, the son of billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison. The company has backed several “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek” sequels, and is working on a follow-up to “Top Gun” and the Ang Lee/Will Smith thriller “Gemini Man.” It is a newcomer to the animation space. Skydance’s first animated offerings include “Luck,” a comedy about the battle between good and bad luck, and “Split,” a fantasy about a teenager dealing with magical powers. The first animated film is unlikely to hit theaters before 2021.
Lasseter has had a number of powerful defenders who have quietly been advocating for studios to give him a second chance. According to individuals with knowledge of his meetings with potential employers, Lasseter’s advocates have argued that his offenses are relatively minor and are being unfairly conflated with rape and assault charges against other Hollywood figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Dustin Hoffman because the Disney sabbatical was announced in the wake of these other scandals.
Skydance’s distribution deal with Paramount runs for two more years. The studio was only told about Lasseter coming on board as a press release announcing his hire hit the wires, according to an insider.
The backlash to Lasseter’s hire started almost as soon as it was made public.
“Hiring decisions have consequences,” said advocacy organization Time’s Up in a statement. “And offering a high-profile position to an abuser who has yet to do any of those things is condoning abuse.”