John Lasseter to Head Animation for Skydance

John Lasseter - Inside Out Premiere - Getty - H 2017
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The former Disney and Pixar animation chief will report directly to Skydance Media CEO David Ellison and will be based in Los Angeles.

John Lasseter, the former creative chief of Pixar and Disney Animation, has been named head of Skydance Animation, it was announced Wednesday by Skydance Media CEO David Ellison.

Lasseter, who will report directly to Ellison, will be based in Los Angeles and start later this month.

“John is a singular creative and executive talent whose impact on the animation industry cannot be overstated,” Ellison said in making the announcement. “He was responsible for leading animation into the digital age, while telling incomparable stories that continue to inspire and entertain audiences around the globe.”

The bombshell announcement comes more than a year after Lasseter took a leave of absence from Disney in November 2017, following an admission that he committed unspecified "missteps" that left some employees feeling "disrespected or uncomfortable." The Pixar co-founder never returned to the studio, which said in June that he would retire at the end of 2018.

Time's Up immediately criticized Lasseter's hiring, saying Skydance is "providing a position of power, prominence and privilege to a man who has repeatedly been accused of sexual harassment." Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, told The Hollywood Reporter, "This is a horrible message to the women at Pixar who stood up and told their truths about their experiences. This is also a message to all that the bro culture is alive and well and thriving in Hollywood."

Ellison said the decision to hire Lasseter was not taken lightly, saying in the memo, “John has acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes and, during the past year away from the workplace, has endeavored to address and reform them.”

Bill Damaschke, the former DreamWorks Animation chief creative officer, has been serving as president of animation and family entertainment at Skydance Media since October 2017. Ellison said that with Lasseter's hire, Damaschke "will be transitioning from his current role, and we are hopeful he will choose to remain with the Skydance family."

Said Lasseter in a statement: "I'm grateful to David and the Skydance team and know that I have been entrusted with an enormous responsibility. It is a distinct privilege that I will relish. I have spent the last year away from the industry in deep reflection, learning how my actions unintentionally made colleagues uncomfortable, which I deeply regret and apologize for. It has been humbling, but I believe it will make me a better leader."

He continued: "I want nothing more than the opportunity to return to my creative and entrepreneurial roots, to build and invent again. I join Skydance with the same enthusiasm that drove me to help build Pixar, with a firm desire to tell original and diverse stories for audiences everywhere. With what I have learned and how I have grown in the past year, I am resolute in my commitment to build an animation studio upon a foundation of quality, safety, trust and mutual respect."

Ellison sent a memo to employees where he addressed potential concerns, adding the company even hired outside counsel to "thoroughly investigate the allegations."

Skydance, which has focused on big-scale action efforts like the recent Mission: Impossible – Fallout and the upcoming Terminator and Top Gun: Maverick movies, has only recently begun to venture into animation. In 2017, it formed Skydance Animation and struck a multiyear partnership with Ilion Animation Studios, a dedicated CGI feature animation studio based in Madrid, to develop and produce a slate of animated feature films and television series.

Skydance currently has two animated features in the works. Luck, which it is producing in partnership with Paramount Animation, is being helmed by Alessandro Carloni, who co-directed DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda 3, and written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger. It has been described as a comedy about the battle between good luck and bad luck. The other project is Untitled Action Fantasy, helmed by Vicky Jenson. whose directing credits include Shrek and Shark Tale, and written by Linda Woolverton, whose credits include the animated versions of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

Skydance said that Lasseter will be responsible for setting the overall strategy and creative direction for Skydance Animation, overseeing production and operations with the goal of creating a full slate of animated projects across all media. 

Before his fall from grace, Lasseter had been the most influential force in animation, a modern-day equivalent to Walt Disney. Having co-founded Pixar, he popularized CGI in animation with early films like Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Monsters Inc. In 2006, after Disney purchased Pixar, Lasseter was named CEO of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, overseeing the resurgence of the studio's namesake brand with properties like Frozen and Moana.

Lasseter, who directed Toy Story and Toy Story 2, among other Pixar films, had produced or executive produced every Pixar project and also executive produced the WDA features. While Lasseter, a former member of the Academy's board of governors, won only two Oscars himself (one a specialty Oscar for his work on Toy Story), Pixar racked up eight best animated feature wins and WDA scored three wins during his tenure.

Ellison's memo is below.

Dear Colleagues:

I wanted to share with you first some news that we are announcing today. 

Industry visionary John Lasseter is joining us to lead Skydance Animation. John will be based in Los Angeles and will report directly to me. 

Bill Damaschke will be transitioning from his current role, and we are hopeful he will choose to remain within the Skydance family.

The attached press release outlines the news more fully, but I wanted to share a few things that have informed our decision to bring John on board.

First, no one can dispute John’s legacy building Pixar and Walt Disney Animation into the leadership position they now enjoy. His creative vision and forward-looking approach to animation has transformed the entire industry. At his heart, John is a storyteller – with a unique ability to tell beautiful and emotionally-driven tales that resonate and inspire audiences around the globe. 

Second, I know many of you are aware of John’s admitted mistakes in his prior role helming those studios. John has been forthright in taking ownership of his behavior, apologized for his actions and has spent the past year on sabbatical analyzing and improving his workplace behavior.

Third, we employed outside counsel to thoroughly investigate the allegations, which we considered serious and have warranted our full attention as we made this important decision.The senior leadership team and I have all carefully evaluated the findings of this extensive investigation. 

Let me be clear: we have not entered into this decision lightly.

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. 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. 

We are very hopeful and excited about what the coming years will bring, as John’s art transcends generations and cultures, while deeply resonating on a fundamental level with what makes us uniquely human. 

The senior leadership team and I will be hosting a town hall for all Skydance Animation colleagues shortly to speak with you directly about this transition. Additional town halls at SDM and SDI will take place today and tomorrow.

Skydance Animation colleagues, please be on the lookout for a call-to-gather email. I look forward to speaking with you in person.