Hollywood loves a comeback story, whether it’s an actor overcoming an addiction or a director finding a hit after a series of flops. It offers hope.
In the era of reckoning, that sentiment seems somewhat out of fashion. “Their time is up,” Oprah Winfrey said at last year’s Golden Globes, dispatching sexual harassers with biblical finality.
The hiring of John Lasseter, the former creative guru at Pixar who last year was forced to step aside at Disney amid a sexual harassment scandal, is becoming a test case of which impulse — redemption or condemnation — now prevails. Last week, Skydance Media CEO David Ellison named Lasseter to run his animation division.
Lasseter was accused of groping staffers, making lascivious comments, kissing underlings on the lips and thwarting the careers of female animators. Ellison, in making the announcement on Jan. 9, argued that Lasseter had reformed, had learned from his mistakes and made amends. Lasseter took questions at a town hall on Jan. 14 and again expressed his remorse.
Howard Bragman, a veteran crisis consultant, favors the side of redemption. “I’ve never believed that there’s not a path forward, and that because somebody made a mistake in their life they can never work in this town again,” he said. “I would be shocked if John hasn’t learned his lesson and doesn’t act with a lot of decorum.”
But many are not so quick to take Lasseter’s word for it and forgive. The Time’s Up organization blasted his hiring, as did a number of female animators.
“The overall feeling from women, and a lot of male colleagues, is that it was a tone-deaf move,” said Megan Dong, an animation director. “Nobody that I’ve spoken to would want to work under his leadership.”
Lasseter’s case is different from, say, that of Louis C.K., who has stumbled in his efforts to return to stand-up in the wake of his own #MeToo scandal. The primary issue is not whether Lasseter’s audience will show up for his films — which are still many years away. The real concern is whether he can be trusted to wield power over women’s careers.
At Pixar, where he was the leading creative force for decades, Lasseter was accused of failing to include the voices of women and minorities. It took Pixar until 2012 to release “Brave,” its first film with a female protagonist. The director, Brenda Chapman, was fired midway through and replaced by a man.
Skydance has two animation films in the works, including an untitled action fantasy project helmed by “Shrek” co-director Vicky Jenson that tells the story of a female hero with magical powers.
At Skydance Animation, Lasseter’s hiring came as a shock. One employee said she had decided to work at the company because it seemed to be moving in an inclusive direction. Lasseter’s hiring struck her as a disappointment, especially considering the job could have gone to someone without the same baggage.
Kirsten Schaffer, the executive director of Women in Film, noted that the hiring might be counterproductive. “There’s a good chance they will lose creative talent because women don’t want to be in that environment,” Schaffer said. “Women feel empowered to say, ‘I’m not going to take this — I’m going to take my skills somewhere else.’”
The animation community is in the middle of its own #MeToo revolution, as a number of other high-profile men have been accused of sexual misconduct over the past year. Chris Savino was fired as showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “The Loud House” after a dozen women came forward with allegations. John Kricfalusi, the creator of “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” was accused of grooming underage girls for sexual relationships. More recently, Kobe Bryant was removed from an animation festival jury after an outcry over a past rape allegation.
Amid that cultural upheaval, Lasseter’s hiring struck many as a reactionary step.
“All of us at the bottom of the pyramid are feeling this cultural change that’s really inspiring,” said animation director Katie Rice. “But at the highest point of the pyramid, people are not getting the memo. They’re thinking this will all blow over. It feels like we’ve been screaming, and now we’re being put on mute.”
In its announcement, Skydance stressed that it had carefully considered the circumstances. The company hired an outside law firm to look into the allegations, and took steps to indemnify itself in the event of further misconduct.
Privately, some wonder if Lasseter is genuinely contrite. According to a person familiar with the executive’s state of mind in recent months, he felt that Disney CEO Bob Iger had betrayed him. He had long been known at Pixar as a “hugger,” and felt that his accusers were blowing things out of proportion.
Lasseter became tremendously wealthy at Pixar and is not going to Skydance because he needs the money. Instead, some longtime Pixar watchers say his motives are more personal. When he was a young animator in the early 1980s, he was fired from Disney. He relished his success at Pixar in large part because he had proven Disney wrong. Once again, he has something to prove.
“It feels like this is more about restoring his legacy and continuing his own work,” Dong said. “If he was truly remorseful, he could take steps to elevate other people, especially women and minorities and people who haven’t gotten opportunities.”
Schaffer argued that Lasseter should follow the steps developed by the field of restorative justice, which prescribes redemption through reconciliation with victims. His apology, she said, “can’t just be within a company. It needs to be within the wider industry.” Lasseter should also undergo training to address unconscious biases, she explained. “You don’t get to come back to the industry if you haven’t done the personal work.”
Time’s Up offered a similar prescription, saying in a statement that as a “bare minimum,” Lasseter should demonstrate remorse, reform and deliver restitution.
This goes well beyond the older model of Hollywood redemption, in which a public confession on Winfrey’s couch was generally sufficient.
Whether the new, higher standard can be met in practice is another question. Bragman argued that if a company wants to hire a talented individual, it will generally find a way to do it. “The standard is the marketplace and what the marketplace will accept,” he said. “In the end, it’s a business decision. People are allowed to make their own business decisions.” Lasseter’s failings, Bragman added, “are not as egregious as many.”
Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, which advocates for gender diversity and inclusion in the industry, argued against setting a low bar for workplace conduct. “Just because this person is not Harvey Weinstein doesn’t mean this is a guy who you want to work for,” she said. Lasseter’s conduct, she added, was bad enough. “Why should someone have to submit to that kind of behavior in order to be successful in the workplace? We’re trying to change the rules that have governed Hollywood for so long. Women are saying, ‘No, I want to work in a place where I’m not touched inappropriately.’ People just want to work.”
Silverstein said the hiring underlines that the conversation should not be focused on the merits of derailing the careers of powerful men. She noted that many women have said they left the industry due to sexual misconduct.
“Find some of those people — Brenda Chapman and the other people who have left Pixar,” Silverstein said. “Hire them.”