John Lasseter's Return to Hollywood Divides Animators: "I Wouldn't Work at Skydance"

John Lasseter - H - 2019

While the high-profile hire could prompt women in animation to avoid working with Skydance, some in the industry believe the exec will be a recruiting boon, not a hindrance.

During the lunch-hour rush at the Dreamworks Animation commissary on Wednesday, employees on the Glendale studio lot sat glued to their phones, scrolling through news stories about former Pixar and Disney animation executive John Lasseter, who has just signed on to a new post, as head of Skydance Animation.

The scene was similar at animation workplaces across town, as the news, which came more than a year after Lasseter took a leave of absence from Disney in November 2017 following an admission that he committed unspecified "missteps," brought the small and hyper-connected animation industry to a standstill. A broad swath of women in animation tell The Hollywood Reporter they will not work for Lasseter in his new post and see his hiring as a sign the cultural shift they were hoping for in their industry had stalled.

"People are shell-shocked," says Megan Dong, an animation director. "As long as he's there, I wouldn't work at Skydance. And every female artist or creative who I've spoken to today has said they'd never work at Skydance as long as he's involved. It's just a terrible message to send to women."

Lasseter, 61, is by far the most powerful of a group of men in animation who left their jobs in the midst of the #MeToo movement — he is one of the co-founders of Pixar and had produced or executive produced the studio's major projects, including blockbusters Toy Story, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles and Coco. His departure helped ignite changes in the traditionally male-dominated field, including the animation guild's mandatory sexual harassment training being treated with new seriousness by supervisors.

Some women say they were disturbed by the memo Skydance CEO David Ellison sent to staff explaining the hire, with its emphasis on Lasseter's "creative vision" and assurances that the executive has "learned valuable lessons."

"The memo was like, 'We know he's bad, but trust us,'" says storyboard artist Ashlyn Anstee. "Well, what changes did you actually make? If you can't even admit what you've done, I don't buy it. When a company hires somebody like that, that's a red flag that it's going to be a boys' club."

One woman in animation who took a meeting at Skydance not long before the Lasseter hiring was announced says that she is no longer interested in working at the studio. "I told my agent, 'I'm not gonna work with this person. I won't do this,'" she says. "So much progress was made last year in terms of people being able to speak out about experiences they had with harassment. John Lasseter had so clearly violated peoples' boundaries. The message they're sending by giving him this immense power and authority is just 'We don't care.'"

Compared to the animation powerhouses Lasseter steered at Disney and Pixar, Skydance Animation is a small, untested player. It relies on a partnership with Madrid-based Ilion Animation Studios, a Los Angeles-based staff of 65 people and a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. One of the projects in Skydance's pipeline, set up under the company's previous chief, Bill Damaschke, is a fantasy with a female protagonist, led by two of the most important female creative figures in feature animation: Shrek director Vicky Jenson and Beauty and the Beast and Lion King screenwriter Linda Woolverton.

Some people in the industry believe Lasseter's hiring will be a recruiting boon for Skydance, not a hindrance. "Absolutely yes, people will work with him because they want to work with a genius," says one source who has worked with Lasseter in the past. "The issue for some people may be, What is Skydance? It isn't a studio. It's a film division. It doesn't have the ability to offer what John would have had to offer had he gone to Google or Apple."

"I do think many filmmakers will want to work for him," says a source at another animation studio. "He got stubborn and [was] ego-driven but hopefully gained back some humility. He'll have to choose the right projects and filmmakers — women directors — that send a positive message to the community."

Some in that community feel Lasseter has not sufficiently addressed his history at Disney, which included allegations of grabbing, kissing and making unwanted comments about the appearance of his female employees. "Do women have to acquiesce and accept that we have to work with these people?" asks Sarah Marino, a design supervisor. "It sends a signal that the pursuit of this person's so-called talent is more important than the feelings and safety and care of women who have been affected by him."

"It's a small industry, and we all work together," says Betsy Bauer, a visual development artist. "It's like nothing matters. He got to go sit in the time-out chair for a year and now he's allowed to come back. At least Disney did the right thing. What Skydance is doing is just validating his behavior. It's saying, 'We know that that happened. And we just don't care.'"