Editor’s Note: Late this afternoon, Disney announced John Lasseter’s departure from the company. The former chief creative officer of both Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios will continue to consult for the company till December 31, 2018. While no official announcements regarding who will replace him at both studios, it is said that longtime Pixar employee Pete Docter (Inside Out) and Disney Animation veteran Jennifer Lee (Frozen) will both take on new leadership responsibilities at their respective studios. This story was written before the announcement was made.
This past May 21 turned out to be another quiet day at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, CA. Still, it wasn’t a date that could be completely ignored. It was supposed to be the day that Pixar chief creative John Lasseter was set to return to his old post.
He had taken a leave of absence six months ago when former Pixar employees revealed sexual harassment allegations between them and the Disney executive. This was happening right in the middle of the #MeToo movement surrounding the abuses against women that stemmed from Hollywood elite like Harvey Weinstein.
Unlike the Weinstein cases, those employees did not publicly come forth. Instead, their tellings sent a ripple effect throughout the company that led to a “day of listening” at Disney Animation and internal changes to ensure that this would never happen again.
While much of the attention was toward Lasseter’s unwanted sexual advances, other former Pixar employees also revealed more about working with him that many did not know.
In a feature story with The Hollywood Reporter, a former Pixar employee and friend of Lasseter’s named Jorgen Klubien recalled an incident where his original idea for the “Cars” movies was apparently rejected by Lasseter, but then taken by him at a later time to create the popular franchise.
If it sounds anything like something that Ernesto De La Cruz from Pixar’s most recent film Coco might have done, you wouldn’t be wrong. If one were to think about it further, one might have argued that the only reason why Lasseter’s behavior was “tolerated” and swept under the carpet for so long was because he was perceived to be Disney’s most important creative asset. No one can deny that during his leadership of both studios that Disney successfully rebooted their animation operations to a billion-dollar influential powerhouse studio.
It’s these past lessons that Disney should remember in this era, too. There is no more room for poor behavior and ego-driven power coercion, especially in Hollywood. There’s no excuse to let it slip in either, no matter how important and influential you are. John Lasseter is learning that lesson the hard way. Should Disney allow him to come back, it would in effect signal that the toxic environment can return.
In the end, however, Lasseter has made multiple enemies during his dealings with Disney. From his behavior only bolstered by his ego in these instances alone, it’s clear that he was creating a toxic environment all around. It’s a familiar environment that Disney has encountered in the past (with Walt Disney himself and his alleged dealings at his booming animation studio in the 1940s and 50s), but weathered the storm through a change in leadership and over time.
There is no excuse on the talent-front as well, since Lasseter had been training up many at both studios to creatively follow-by-example. Among the top talent that he groomed directly was Pete Docter, the award-winning director of Monsters Inc. and Inside Out to name a few films. It has been said internally that Docter has already been handling much of the creative decisions and management in Lasseter’s absence.
Disney’s decision, however, should be an easy one because there are successful and talented people who are capable of replacing him. And we shouldn’t worry either! Rest assured, both Disney and Pixar are in good hands without John Lasseter’s name at the end of every movie.