Paramount Pictures Grapples With John Lasseter Surprise, Slate’s Future

David Ellison John Lasseter Jim Gianopulos

Skydance’s decision to hire John Lasseter to head its animation division has put Paramount Pictures in a bind.

The studio was not consulted about the decision to bring Lasseter on board, according to insiders. This omission is remarkable because Skydance has a distribution pact with Paramount and the two companies are pairing on a number of animated films, two of which, “Split” and “Luck,” will now be overseen by Lasseter. Feelings were raw on the Paramount lot after Lasseter’s hire was announced.

Lasseter was one of the most powerful men in animation, but he was ousted from Disney after staffers complained that he touched them inappropriately or kissed them without their consent. The former Pixar chief was forced to take a sabbatical and remained at Disney through the end of 2018, at which point his contract was not renewed.

Many staffers on the Paramount lot, particularly female employees, are said to be uncomfortable about the prospect of working alongside Lasseter. Privately, they are expressing concerns about having to be in meetings with a man who has been accused of sexual harassment.

The partnership remains strong, another person close to the companies said, and business continues as usual. On Friday Paramount hosted a summit to discuss the “Terminator” franchise it produces with Skydance, two insiders familiar with the meeting said. The studio invited teams from Skydance and 20th Century Fox Film (the project’s international distributor) for the day, said the individuals.

Both Paramount and Skydance Media declined to comment for this story.

When Skydance announced Lasseter’s hire, CEO David Ellison made a point of noting that the company had conducted an extensive legal investigation into allegations. It spoke to more than 20 people, according to knowledgeable individuals. Skydance has not publicly revealed the conclusions from its probe, but said in a note to staff that Lasseter has recognized his mistakes.

“We are certain that John has learned valuable lessons and is ready to prove his capabilities as a leader and a colleague,” Ellison wrote in a letter to staff. “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.”

Staffers at Paramount are hoping that Ellison and Skydance will provide more clarity about what the investigation concluded and are also looking for Lasseter to offer a more vociferous apology for his alleged misdeeds.

It’s also unclear if any blowback toward Lasseter’s hire will hit Paramount. The studio works with actors and actresses who are active in the Time’s Up movement and it’s possible that they will steer clear of being associated with a company that is in any way aligned with Lasseter. There are also questions about whether or not this will hurt Paramount’s efforts to recruit talent for its own in-house animation division, which is currently being reinvigorated by its new chief Mireille Soria after years of under-performing films.

No one among them could deny how essential the output deal with Skydance has been for the health and survival of Paramount, especially in recent years given the regime change after the late Brad Grey’s departure in 2017. Hits like their joint $791 million worldwide box office smash “Mission: Impossible – Fallout ” have bolstered confidence in the studio. Current studio head Jim Gianopulos, who replaced Grey two years ago, is trying to reinvigorate Paramount’s film slate, something that requires capital from partners such as Skydance.

Legally, there’s not much Paramount can do about Skydance’s decision to hire Lasseter.

“It’s highly uncommon to have a right to terminate [a deal] based on an employee,” said Darrell Miller, chair of the entertainment law practice at Los Angeles-based firm Fox Rothschild. “They could say the [good-faith] party they’re doing business with is suddenly doing bad business. That’s the leverage they have — to step away from the relationship because they want to minimize their association.”