Behind Skydance's Risky John Lasseter Hire: An Ellison Family Friend

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Skip Brittenham (center), represented David Ellison (left) and John Lasseter (right) when the Pixar mogul was hired at Skydance.

The Pixar mogul's return was facilitated by Skip Brittenham, who is close with David Ellison.

For decades, John Lasseter relied on two attorneys to handle his business deals: Los Angeles-based Nancy Newhouse Porter, who negotiated his contracts with Disney, and Santa Rosa-based Phillip Kalsched, who handled matters related to his Sonoma County estate and winery.

But last fall, as the former chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation faced the unfamiliar dilemma of joblessness, he began taking meetings with a new lawyer by his side, Hollywood dealmaker Skip Brittenham. "People under attack want a bulldog," says one person who has worked with Lasseter, explaining the exec's new confidant.

Having left Disney following an admission that he committed unspecified "missteps," Lasseter, 62, faced challenges finding a new role in a post-#MeToo entertainment industry, and Brittenham, it seems, was uniquely positioned to help him.

Brittenham has long-standing ties to Lasseter, having brokered Disney's first deal to finance, market and distribute Pixar movies in 1991, when the nascent company was four years away from finishing its first feature, Toy Story. Brittenham also served on Pixar's board from its earliest days, after being recruited by the company's founder Steve Jobs, who wanted a well-connected Hollywood figure associated with what was then a little-known Silicon Valley startup.

The attorney, whose long list of A-list actor, creator and executive clients often finds him working both sides of a deal, represents David Ellison (son of Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison), whose Skydance Media was in the midst of building an animation division just as Lasseter was hunting for work. Brittenham also has a more personal connection to Skydance — his daughter, Kristina Brittenham, is married to Skydance president Jesse Sisgold.

In the fall, Brittenham accompanied Lasseter to multiple meetings in L.A., including at least one at a major studio that was interested enough to consider hiring the scorned executive, a source tells The Hollywood Reporter. At Lasseter's meeting with senior leaders of Skydance, executives pressed the animator on his history and ultimately became convinced that he deserved another chance.

Skydance hired William Briggs and Caroline Murray of the Washington-based law firm Venable to investigate claims of sexual harassment against Lasseter, but how serious that investigation was is unclear: At least one person contacted by the firm describes a perfunctory conversation, while multiple other longtime colleagues of Lasseter say they were not contacted at all.

The Skydance deal brought with it something that comforted Lasseter — the presence of a controlling shareholder whom he trusts (David Ellison) without the bothersome politics of a publicly held studio (not unlike the structure he enjoyed in Pixar's early days, with Jobs as protector).

But when Skydance announced the hire Jan. 9, even a private company no longer looked like such a safe bet, as groups like Time's Up and Women in Film condemned the hire, and several women in animation spoke out against the message it sent. Brittenham may have brokered the deal, but it will be up to Lasseter and Ellison to make it stick.

Kim Masters contributed to this report.

This story also appears in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.