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Inside Disney And Pixar: The Debate Over John Lasseter’s Return

The chief creative officer has been off the grid since claims of inappropriate conduct surfaced in November. With his leave nearly over, the companies contemplate his future.

Inside Disney And Pixar: The Debate Over John Lasseter’s Return
[Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson/Wikimedia Commons]

For decades John Lasseter was the P.T. Barnum of Pixar. He was the jovial, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, public face and creative genius behind the beloved animation company that’s given the world Toy Story, Up, and, most recently, the Oscar-winning Coco.  But since late November, the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation has been the invisible man. That’s when Lasseter announced he was taking a six-month hiatus from his work duties due to a series of “missteps” that made staffers feel “disrespected and uncomfortable,” as he wrote in an email to employees.

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Lasseter’s announcement came just before The Hollywood Reporter published an article alleging lingering hugs and on-the-lips kisses from the Lasseter, as well as comments about women’s physical attributes.

In his email, Lasseter apologized to anyone who’d received gestures that “they felt crossed the line,” adding that his time away would “give me the opportunity to start taking better care of myself, to recharge and be inspired.”

And that’s the last anyone has heard from him. The once larger-than-life presence who tinkered with scripts, reviewed film footage and helped design theme park rides, like the upcoming Incredicoaster at Disney’s California Adventure park, has been completely off the grid since Thanksgiving. Rumor is that he has been in Europe since the story broke, and didn’t return to the U.S. even when his home and vineyard property in Northern California were badly damaged by the wildfires around the same time. Even friends and colleagues who typically have regular contact with him say he has not responded to texts or calls.

But with Lasseter’s six-month hiatus about to come to an end in May, there are more rumblings about his fate. At Disney, says one source, “Everyone is watching the clock.”

What Is Bob Iger Thinking?

What Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger thinks about Lasseter’s future is a mystery. Indeed, the only thing that anyone at Disney or Pixar can say with certainty is that no one knows what Iger is thinking.

The situation is even more complicated, given that in recent months Iger—who already has his hands full with the $52 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox—has had to deal with highly publicized charges against other top Disney brass. In December, ESPN’s top exec John Skipper stepped down after coming under fire for substance abuse claims. And in February, Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions and the force behind Broadway hits such as The Lion King and an upcoming stage version of Frozen, was accused of using inappropriate language and lewd language with employees.

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Given Disney’s already vulnerable position in the public eye, how the Lasseter situation plays out will be closely monitored both by observers and Wall Street. Disney is, of course, more sensitive than most companies to public perception, given its position as the world’s leading family entertainment brand.

Not to mention that letting Lasseter go could mean opening up an opportunity for him to start another studio that would directly compete with Disney and Pixar. Even if Lasseter has a non-compete clause in his contract it will likely only last a year or so.

Disney had no comment for this story.

“The question is, Where is Bob’s head?,” says one former Pixar employee. “How much of John is important to the cash cow that is Pixar?”

Bob Iger [Photo: hyku/Wikimedia Commons]

The Trouble With Lasseter’s Cross-Platform Role

For years the answer to that question was incredibly important. Since the release of its first film, Toy Story, in 1995, Pixar has been an indomitable force in animation, launching a steady stream of films—Monsters, Inc., Wall-E, The Incredibles—that combine soulful artistry with wide commercial appeal. Lasseter and fellow Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull applied that same formula to Disney Animation, when they took it over in 2006, following Disney’s acquisition of Pixar. The pair swiftly recharged the ailing studio, which has once again become a blockbuster (and Oscar-winning) machine with billion-dollar grossing films like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana. Lasseter is also the principal creative adviser for Walt Disney Imagineering, which dreams up and creates theme park attractions.

Given his multiple roles, and the degree to which his DNA is baked into Pixar and, now Disney Animation, Lasseter is not someone who can be dismissed without significant ramifications, something that surely must be weighing on Iger.

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“John loves (designing) toys, consumer products, parks. He’s as involved in the minutiae of selling movies as well as making them,” says one Pixar source. “I mean, good luck trying to replace him.”

But perhaps the challenge isn’t to find an actual replacement for Lasseter, but to simply keep the company’s spirit intact, given that Pixar has a well-oiled management and creative system in place that makes Lasseter’s presence less crucial. Catmull still oversees broader business matters, even though he’s been talking for years about quietly retiring, according to Pixar sources. And the Brain Trust directors—including Pete Docter, Brad Bird, and Lee Unkrich— have all been groomed to make movies with the Pixar touch.

“I don’t know if there’s any one person there that would want to be John Lasseter,” says Craig Good, a camera artist who worked on several Pixar films, including Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. “But I don’t know if Pixar actually needs a John Lasseter. I think as long as management doesn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a creative-driven studio, I don’t know whether it makes a difference” who’s in charge.

Pixar did not immediately respond to request for comment.

But How Do His Colleagues Feel?

According to staff, Disney has also been monitoring how people within the company feel. In January, the company organized a Day of Listening–the first of its kind at Disney Animation–where employees were gathered together and encouraged to air their feelings about Lasseter.  But if Disney thought the session would prove to be a catharsis that would clear the air and pave a way for Lasseter’s return, the company was mistaken.

“The message that was sent was that there are still a lot of raw feelings,” says one source. “The climate of the dialogue was not one where you leave thinking, okay, John is coming back.”

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Meanwhile, at Pixar, discussion groups have been organized amongst the staff as the company tries to reset its culture. Pixar has held such meetings in the past when it has felt that its business or culture was veering off course. Beyond the turmoil over Lasseter, Pixar has long been criticized for being boy’s club that only serves the interests of the small group of white, male directors who make up its famed Brain Trust. Last fall, actress Rashida Jones said that she stepped down as a writer on Toy Story 4 due to Pixar’s unwelcoming attitude toward the voices of women and minorities. In the discussion groups, Pixar employees are being encouraged to speak up about the company’s work environment and the ways it can be improved. (It’s unclear, however, if any of the women who made the accusations about Lasseter were part of these groups. )

What If There Isn’t A Replacement?

But otherwise, life at Pixar is “business as usual,” says one filmmaker who recently visited the campus. Projects are humming along smoothly even without Lasseter, who split his work weeks between the Disney lot in Burbank, and Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters.

This reality makes Pixar’s leadership challenge less acute should Lasseter not return.

“It’s not like when Steve Jobs left Apple,” says one former Pixar employee. “There was truly a leadership vacuum when Steve left. Because I don’t think there was anyone really groomed to come up after Steve. That was the problem. But there are so many people at Pixar—you’ve got a lot of people who can fill that vacuum if John doesn’t come back. These are disciples of John. Their points of view are so deeply informed by his. I think you can take John Lasseter out of the equation, but you can’t fully take him out of the equation.”

“The quality of Pixar films is the result of the talent and vision and direction of hundreds of top-notch artists and technicians,” adds Stephan Bugaj, who was a technical director on Cars and The Good Dinosaur.  “One person may mean a lot to the investment marketplace and the media, but in terms of making really great films, any guy is just one guy. There are hundreds of people who all come together to make that happen.”

As for who might step in and fill the potential vacuum, Docter’s name has been most frequently mentioned within Pixar, either to run things solo or be shored up with other filmmakers. But it’s not clear if the Inside Out director, who’s described as a beloved Renaissance Man who used to make his own clothes (he’s exceptionally tall), bakes, and composes music, would want to step up, given that he’s an artist, not a business person at heart.  As one former Pixar artist notes, “There’s a big difference between being part of a Brain Trust and running a studio.”

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At Disney Animation, Lasseter’s void is a bigger issue, given that there’s no established Brain Trust and that the creative team there is still relatively young. “They have less structure to fall back on,” says the former Pixar artist. “And the people who are seen as the thought leaders are all in Emeryville.”

There, too, a combination of names have been reported as a possible new leadership team, namely Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Zootopia co-directors Rich Moore and Byron Howard.

In the meantime, there are more immediate questions, such as who from Pixar will be present at the upcoming Pixar Fest that is coming to the Disneyland and California Adventure parks on April 13. Will Catmull be the master of ceremonies? Docter? Lasseter?

For everyone watching this parlor game, it will certainly be telling.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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