Pixar Co-Founder to Exit After Misconduct Claims

Posted June 8, 2018 9:25 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — John Lasseter, the animation titan who has been on leave from the Walt Disney Co. following complaints about unwanted workplace hugging, will not return to the conglomerate.

Disney said Friday that Lasseter — the creative force behind the billion-dollar “Toy Story,” “Cars” and “Frozen” franchises — would take on a consulting role at the company until the end of the year and then leave permanently. He will not have an office in the interim.

Lasseter, 61, served as chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios, which he helped found, and the separate Walt Disney Animation studio. Disney did not name replacements. Jennifer Lee, a director of “Frozen,” is expected to be promoted at Walt Disney Animation, and Pete Docter, the director of films like “Up” and “Inside Out,” is expected to take on greater responsibilities at Pixar, according to a person briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because plans had not been finalized.

A self-described Peter Pan, Lasseter has long been known for his jolly public persona and tendency to greet anyone in his proximity — subordinates, stars, fans, reporters — with lengthy bear hugs. In 2011, The Wall Street Journal published a photo slideshow of his frequent squeezes, saying he had handed out at least 48 of them in one day at the office.

Lasseter said in November that he would take a “six-month sabbatical” after unspecified “missteps” that made some staff members feel “disrespected or uncomfortable.” He made the announcement in a lengthy email to employees apologizing “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.”

The email came as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements gained momentum in Hollywood. It also coincided with an article in The Hollywood Reporter that cited “grabbing, kissing and making comments about physical attributes” as recurring behavior by Lasseter in meetings and at work events, particularly when consuming alcohol.

Since then, he has kept a low profile in Hollywood, skipping the Academy Awards in March, when Pixar’s “Coco” won the Oscar for best feature animation, and spending time in Italy and New Zealand. He did not attend the premiere Tuesday for Pixar’s latest film, “Incredibles 2,” which will be released in theaters on June 15 and is expected to be a box office juggernaut.

In a statement announcing Lasseter’s departure, Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, did not address the reasons. Iger instead emphasized Lasseter’s achievements, crediting him with “reinventing the animation business, taking breathtaking risks and telling original, high-quality stories that will last forever.” Iger also said that Lasseter was leaving behind “a team of great storytellers and innovators.”

Lasseter said in a statement that he had concluded that the time had come “to begin focusing on new creative challenges.”

He added, “I remain dedicated to the art of animation and inspired by the creative talent at Pixar and Disney.”

The accusations against Lasseter did not rise to the level of those against powerful Hollywood figures like Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of severe sexual misconduct going back decades, and Bill Cosby, who was found guilty in April of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman.

But Lasseter’s sabbatical revealed other areas of concern. Disney conducted what it called a “day of listening” in February as part of an effort to improve the culture at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation. Multiple staff members told managers that Lasseter had become increasingly domineering, according to two people who work at the company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process was private.

The decision to part ways with Lasseter was a complicated one.

People in Lasseter’s camp contended that he had been unfairly swept up in the Time’s Up movement and that his behavior did not warrant his ouster. Allowing him to return to his old job, or at least a similar one, would prevent Wall Street from worrying about the health of Disney’s animation engines. It would also prevent Lasseter, an executive widely heralded as a creative genius, from going to work for a competitor.

But retaining Lasseter would have divided employees, leaving some women particularly unhappy. The tension was palpable at the “Incredibles 2” premiere. The insiders in attendance raucously cheered as credits for the principal creative team appeared on the screen. But the theater became noticeably quieter when Lasseter’s name appeared as an executive producer. In recent weeks, a #LoseLasseter campaign had appeared on Twitter.

Pixar has been criticized over the years as a boy’s club. Women have produced Pixar hits, but only one of Pixar’s 20 feature films, “Brave,” has a credited female director. That woman, Brenda Chapman, was fired halfway through production after she clashed with Lasseter. Chapman subsequently joined DreamWorks Animation, telling The New York Times in 2013 that “you can butt heads here and not be punished for it, unlike at another place I could name.”

Lasseter’s supporters have pointed out that he hired Lee as a director of “Frozen,” which was praised for its departure from Disney’s romantic “princess” formula. She is now working on “Frozen 2,” which is set for release in November 2019. Pixar has also started to focus more on female lead characters, including Joy in “Inside Out” and Dory the forgetful fish in “Finding Dory.”

But Rashida Jones, the actress and writer, said in November that she left a Pixar assignment early because of the way the studio treated female and minority employees.

“There is so much talent at Pixar, and we remain enormous fans of their films,” Jones and her writing partner, Will McCormack, said in a statement at the time. “However, it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”

Ed Catmull, 73, a Pixar co-founder, remains president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. Disney also has a deep bench of animation superstars, including the directors Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”), Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”), Byron Howard (“Zootopia”) and Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”).

Disney could gain animation leaders from its pending acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets, which include Blue Sky Studios. Blue Sky, founded by a group of animation innovators including Chris Wedge, is known for the “Ice Age” franchise.

Because of his enormous creative input across the entertainment conglomerate, Lasseter has been heralded in the news media as a latter-day Walt Disney. And the company held Lasseter up as a celebrity. At a D23 Expo fan event in 2015, for instance, there was a museum-style exhibit of 20 of his most prized Hawaiian shirts. (He has more than 1,000.)

In recent years, however, Lasseter has stumbled at times. Disney was forced to scrap “Gigantic,” an animated take on “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and took a $98 million write-down. “The Good Dinosaur” in 2015 was a box office failure, and “Cars 2” in 2011 was Pixar’s first critical dud.

Lasseter, who also operates a winery in Sonoma County with his wife, Nancy, nonetheless pushed forward “Cars 3,” which received improved reviews but stalled at the box office. Sales of related toys were also disappointing.

Lasseter’s association with Disney started while he was a teenager. He worked at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, where he skippered a Jungle Cruise boat. He grew up in nearby Whittier, where his mother was an art teacher and father worked as a parts manager at a car dealership.

After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, Lasseter started his animation career at Disney in 1978 but was fired a few years later. Disney was still clinging to hand-drawn animation, and Lasseter insisted that the future of animation involved computer graphics. He went on to help found Pixar, which is based near San Francisco.

Pixar became famous for its noncorporate atmosphere — encouraging artists to combine work with play as a way to spark creativity.

Walt Disney Animation, struggling after years of cost-cutting and box office misfires like “Treasure Planet,” paid $7.4 billion for Pixar in 2006, or $9.4 billion in today’s money. Iger put Lasseter and Catmull in charge of turning around the Burbank-based Walt Disney Animation studio.

Lasseter, shuttling endlessly by jet between Northern and Southern California, was also given a role at Imagineering, Disney’s theme-park research and design division, where he advised on popular, Pixar-based attractions like Cars Land and Toy Story Mania.

After a few stops and starts, Lasseter and Catmull resuscitated Disney’s well-known cartoon studio, delivering one of the biggest hits in the company’s history: “Frozen,” which has spawned theme park attractions, a Broadway musical, touring ice-skating shows and toys galore.