John Lasseter's Second Chance: Will He Survive at Skydance?

Chris Danger

Female animators are "shocked and distressed" by the hiring of the former Disney and Pixar creative force, but Skydance chief David Ellison is taking a wait-and-see approach after having a law firm vet harassment claims.

As John Lasseter took questions from the Skydance Animation staff during an intense town hall meeting on Monday, one young woman asked simply, “Have you atoned for your actions?”

The former Disney and Pixar animation czar, who officially stepped down from his post in June after admitting to “missteps,” said yes and leaned into the work he’s doing in therapy and referenced his past unconscious bias. The woman seemed satisfied with his response, and Lasseter eventually moved on to the next staffer.

But now the broader question looms: Is Hollywood satisfied? As Skydance chief David Ellison held his second town hall in five days, industry reactions rolled in, including a days-in-the-making statement from Women in Animation president Marge Dean, who said she was “shocked and distressed” by Ellison’s decision to bring Lasseter back into the community and “reward him so well.”

That point was echoed by Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood and director of the Athena Film Festival. “I don’t understand how, if people are committed to change, this man can lead another institution,” she says. “It just confirms that so much more work needs to be done in this industry.”

But will the pressure lead Ellison to cave? Sources say the billionaire son of Oracle founder Larry Ellison is taking a wait-and-see approach and is committed to giving Lasseter a second chance after having attorneys William Briggs and Caroline Murray of the Washington-based law firm Venable vet the claims of sexual harassment made in a Hollywood Reporter exposé on Lasseter in November 2017.

A source who is familiar with the report that Venable presented to Ellison says the firm spoke with a broad enough cross-sampling of women who worked closely with Lasseter over the years to “feel comfortable” with giving Ellison the green light to hire the Pixar founder behind such films as Toy Story, The Incredibles, Cars and Monsters, Inc.

As an added measure of security, Lasseter, and not Skydance, would be on the hook for any lawsuits stemming from future sexual harassment claims. Ellison underscored that in his Jan. 9 hiring memo, which noted, “we have not entered into this decision lightly.”

In a sign of how much optics count in the #MeToo era, a Skydance source says a representative for Ellison reached out to the Time’s Up movement back in the fall when the company first began taking meetings with Lasseter about how to carry out such a potentially controversial move. But Time’s Up CEO Lisa Borders questioned the genuineness of the outreach.

“Skydance reached out to us after they had made a decision,” Borders says. “There’s nothing we can say after you have made your business decision. You’re not asking for advice; you’re asking for a blessing. A blessing obviously was not forthcoming. We’re not going to rubber stamp or endorse or sign on to a situation like that. We are not going to be used that way.”

Instead, Borders is looking for a more collaborative relationship with studio heads. She continues: “If someone calls us — a company, an individual — and asks for advice, we are happy to sit down with anyone, anywhere, anytime. You can’t call someone — you make a decision and then say to them, ‘Join me in doing this.’ Not in this type of environment.”

Still, for all of the criticism, it is unclear if it will have an impact on Ellison’s bottom line. Although Paramount Animation chief Mirielle Soria told her staff during a town hall meeting, also held Monday, that the division will not be working with Lasseter in the future due to her own discomfort, there’s no studio-wide mandate to cut ties with Ellison’s studio.

Paramount, after all, has a distribution deal with Skydance to release its animated movies. “The partnership between the two studios is still strong,” says a studio source, noting that there’s no legal wiggle room for Paramount to pull out of that deal.

Rebecca Sun contributed to this report. 

This story also appears in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.