Skydance's John Lasseter Hire Could Cause Problems for Paramount

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John Lasseter

The studio is set to release animated films from Skydance, which has stirred controversy by tapping the former Disney animation czar to head its animation division.

Skydance Media's surprise hire of ousted Disney animation chief John Lasseter could land another Hollywood studio in the crosshairs.

Paramount Pictures, which has a film distribution pact with Skydance, was not informed of the decision to hire Lasseter until shortly before the announcement Wednesday, according to two sources close to the situation. Separate sources have said the move has been particularly poorly received on the Paramount lot, with some wishing the studio could refuse to distribute films made by Skydance's Lasseter-led animation division. It is unclear if Paramount could extricate itself from its deal, even if studio chairman Jim Gianopulos wanted to.

Paramount and Skydance declined to comment.  

Skydance, the financing and production company founded and run by Oracle heir David Ellison, shocked many in Hollywood by hiring Lasseter seven months after the Pixar co-founder was ousted from his top job as Disney's animation czar over allegations of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. The backlash to Lasseter's return to Hollywood was immediate, with leading advocacy organizations Time's Up and Women and Hollywood blasting the company in critical statements.

The move is particularly awkward for Paramount, which is set to distribute and market the first two Skydance animated films, provided they are ready for release before the latest pact expires in four years. The first, Luck, is underway for a potential release in 2021, and Paramount is co-financing. An untitled fantasy directed by Vicky Johnson and written by Linda Woolverton is still in preproduction, so it could be years away from completion, sources say. Both films are being shepherded by current Skydance animation chief Bill Damaschke, who is expected to leave the company in the wake of Lasseter's hire.

A sustained backlash against Skydance could be problematic for the company within Hollywood. But Paramount could bear an even bigger brunt if it is targeted because it is a brand name among consumers. Paramount also is owned by Viacom, a publicly traded media conglomerate that, like CBS Corp., is controlled by Shari Redstone. Late last year, CBS chief Leslie Moonves was forced out over multiple allegations of sexual assault and harrassment.

In addition, Paramount works with a wider array of talent than Skydance does, meaning any creative backlash could hit Paramount harder.

So far, Paramount has been left out of the initial wave of criticism that included Women and Hollywood chief Melissa Silverstein saying Ellison "should be ashamed of himself."

For his part, Ellison called Lasseter a "a singular creative and executive talent" and that "John has acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes and, during the past year away from the workplace, has endeavored to address and reform them.” He also said that Skydance hired an outside company to investigate the allegations, but did not detail the investigation or what it revealed. In his own statement, Lasseter said he looked forward to building an animation studio akin to Pixar.

Skydance began its life as Paramount's slate financing partner, putting up money for such franchises as Mission: Impossible and World War Z. Ellison, whose father is Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison, expanded Skydance's reach to begin producing its own movies, such as the revived Terminator franchise.

Per their deal, Paramount in turn distributes and co-finances certain Skydance projects, such as Terminator and the animated titles.

Skydance's bold push into animation comes as Paramount is ramping up its own efforts in the arena. Last year, studio chairman Gianopulos named former DreamWorks Animation chief Mireille Soria president of Paramount Animation with the aim of releasing two films a year.