In a new sexual misconduct scandal that could shake the economics of Hollywood in unprecedented ways, Disney said Tuesday that animation chief John Lasseter would be taking a six-month leave of absence starting immediately.
The company acknowledged unspecified “missteps” via a statement from the executive. But the Hollywood Reporter, which broke the story, cited allegations that Lasseter had made unwanted contact with numerous female colleagues and collaborators over a period of years.
Lasseter is one of the most important figures in modern entertainment, and a scandal that sidelines him could have more far-reaching implications for the industry than many of the other revelations of sexual misconduct that have shaken Hollywood over the past six weeks.
“It’s been brought to my attention that I have made some of you feel disrespected or uncomfortable. That was never my intent,” Lasseter wrote in a memo to his staff Tuesday. Saying that “it’s never easy to face your missteps, but it’s the only way to learn from them,” he added that he especially wanted “to apologize to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape, or form. No matter how benign my intent, everyone has the right to set their own boundaries and have them respected.”
Citing a six-month “sabbatical,” Lasseter closed the letter to employees saying he looked forward to “working together again in the new year.”
It remains unclear whether Disney could extend the leave or make it permanent. The company released a short statement late Tuesday saying that it is “committed to maintaining an environment in which all employees are respected and empowered to do their best work. We appreciate John’s candor and sincere apology and fully support his sabbatical.”
The Lasseter scandal comes at a critical time for the studio, as it prepares to release “Coco,” its Day of the Dead-themed tale from the director of “Toy Story 3,” in theaters Wednesday. The movie is already the highest-grossing in the history of Mexico and is expected to take in at least $60 million over the holiday weekend and potentially far more beyond that. It is also considered a prohibitive front-runner to win this year’s animation Oscar.
Officially the chief creative officer at Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, Lasseter’s title only hints at his influence. The 60-year-old is regarded as almost single-handedly ushering in the era of computer-generated animation. Some of the highest-grossing animated movies of all time — “Frozen,” “Finding Dory” and installments in the “Toy Story” franchise — were made directly under him.
He has long steered Pixar — and, for the past decade, its sister unit Walt Disney Animation — to numerous blockbusters. Lasseter has served as a producer and all-around creative guiding force on nearly every one of the several dozen Pixar and Disney animated films. He has also directed nearly a half-dozen movies, including in the “Toy Story” and “Cars” franchises.
Replacing Lasseter’s judgment and track record could be nearly impossible, even with the scores of acolytes he keeps around him in the close-knit unit, many of whom have worked their way up through the Pixar ranks over decades to eventually direct animated shorts and features.
Last year Lasseter’s teams were responsible for three of the 11 highest-grossing movies of the year domestically — nearly $1.1 billion in ticket sales — with “Dory,” “Zootopia” and “Moana.” Globally the three movies took in $2.7 billion at the box office.
Though Pixar has had a few film blunders of late, including “Cars 3” earlier this year, Disney animation efforts remain one of the company’s big revenue drivers. This year its studio division reported $8.38 billion in revenue, a chunk of that from two areas: the “Star Wars” franchise and its animation efforts.
While there are other figures, such as Disney Animation President Ed Catmull, involved in Disney’s animation divisions, the company’s movies are considered the reflection of one man in a way almost unheard of at a modern Hollywood studio.
Along the way Lasseter has created a cult of personality with his signature Hawaiian shirts and a big personality. At the “Wreck-It Ralph” premiere several years ago, he waited in line at a candy booth greeting fans as powerful agents and the electronic music artist Skrillex mingled less conspicuously nearby.
But that personality, the accusers said, also came with unwanted contact and advances.
The Hollywood Reporter piece cited one woman as saying Lasseter was prone to “grabbing, kissing, making comments about physical attributes.” Another woman said that Lasseter’s statement Tuesday that centered on hugs minimized the alleged offenses. Many of the accusers were anonymous.
The story said that the writer-actor Rashida Jones had left “Toy Story 4” because of Lasseter’s behavior. But she and writing partner Will McCormack later issued a statement that “we did not leave Pixar because of unwanted advances. That is untrue.” They said instead that diversity concerns played a role. “There is so much talent at Pixar and we remain enormous fans of their films. But it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice,” they wrote.
Whether “Coco” suffers any commercial or awards consequences as a result of the allegations remains to be seen. The news, which began spreading after the market closed, did not immediately affect Disney’s stock price, which was slightly up.
Animation is also key to Disney because of its planned streaming service. In a conference call with analysts last summer, Disney Chairman Robert Iger sold the service as “the exclusive home in the U.S. for subscription video-on-demand viewing of the newest live-action and animated movies from Disney and Pixar, beginning with the 2019 slate, which includes ‘Toy Story 4,’ the sequel to ‘Frozen’ and ‘The Lion King’ from Disney live-action, along with other highly anticipated movies.”
The Lasseter scandal will be a window into whether the industry can self-police its sexual misconduct, a subject of fierce debate on social media and victim rights circles over the past month. Many of the other scandals have involved radically diminished outfits such as the Weinstein Co. or free-agent types such as comedian Louis C.K. and actor Kevin Spacey — people who run small production companies and were quickly and relatively easily shunned by outside partners.
But Lasseter is one of Hollywood’s top executives, in charge of hundreds of people, making discipline a more fraught affair. The scandal, which appears to have been brewing for years, also comes just several weeks after Disney came under fire for suppressing news coverage when it imposed a short-lived coverage ban on the Los Angeles Times in the wake of the paper’s investigative series on the company’s business dealings.
Disney seemed inclined to give the embattled executive latitude in overseeing his own temporary departure, allowing Lasseter to dictate the language in the announcement. Lasseter wrote in the memo that the leave “will give me the opportunity to start taking better care of myself, to recharge and be inspired, and ultimately return with the insight and perspective I need to be the leader you deserve.”