The news that Disney executives have discussed bringing back John Lasseter, the Pixar and Disney Animation chief creative officer who took a leave of absence last November over allegations that he had inappropriately hugged and kissed employees, was met with surprise and head-shaking earlier this week when it was reported by the Wall Street Journal.
One former Pixar executive told Fast Company that many Pixar employees were “incredulous” at the news that they might again be working with Lasseter, who became known amongst staff for alcohol-infused, sloppy behavior at movie premieres and unwanted advances in the workplace.
Lasseter announced his leave in an email to staff in which he apologized for “missteps” that made staffers feel “disrespected and uncomfortable.” He said that time away would give him “the opportunity to start taking better care of myself, to recharge and be inspired.” Ever since, a debate has raged within Disney about whether Lasseter would come back, as Fast Company reported in April.
One entertainment executive called the possibility of Lasseter returning “a dumb move” for Disney, saying it appears the company is putting more value on one “bad senior guy” than many low-level employees.
Sources spoke with Fast Company on the condition of anonymity out of fear for retribution from within the industry.
“He should not be allowed to return,” said one high-level publicist who has no connection to either Disney or Pixar. “He has a years-long problem touching and being aggressive with women. That’s a pattern and it’s called sexual harassment. I don’t know how you turn that sow’s ear into a silk purse, from a communications or any other standpoint.”
But there are some who wonder if perhaps we are entering new phase of the #MeToo era, a phase where highly visible companies like Disney can find a middle ground when it comes to handling employees who have been caught up in a sexual harassment scandal. That at least seems to be under consideration for offenders whose actions are not on the “Harvey level,” as one person put it, referring to Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul who’s been accused of multiple rapes and whose name has come to define the #MeToo movement. The accusations against Lasseter are limited to inappropriate touching and kissing.
Even in a post-Weinstein world, not everyone accused of bad behavior has been thrown to the curb—HBO did not fire The Deuce‘s James Franco, for instance. But companies in Hollywood have largely embraced a sweeping, zero-tolerance approach when accusations surface. As IAC chairman Barry Diller told The New York Times: “Are we really going to have only capital punishment? Because right now, that’s what we have. You get accused, you’re obliterated.”
Disney seems to be suggesting that there is an alternative. The company is reportedly having discussions about bringing Lasseter back in a reduced role that would limit his managerial duties but allow him to still have creative influence at Pixar and Disney. Beyond writing and directing films at Pixar, and providing all-around creative input on films there and at Disney Animation, such as Frozen and Moana, Lasseter dreams up and works on theme park attractions.
Disney declined to comment for this story.
One publicist who is not affiliated with Disney says that the company “is trying to create a solution that protects their workers and their staff while also recognizing that everything isn’t a 10. Everything doesn’t require banishment. That’s like saying a shoplifter should get life imprisonment.
“If Disney can pull this off,” the publicist continued, “it shows that they’re looking to figure out a smart business decision and also do the right thing and protect their employees.”
But Disney itself appears wary of this maneuver and how it will be received. The WSJ story was rife with caveats, saying that Lasseter’s return is being “discussed” at Disney, and that “It is still possible (Lasseter) could leave altogether or come back with his old job unchanged.”
One source says that Disney overall has been “indecisive” in the way it’s handled Lasseter. “When you look at NBC and the way they’ve dealt with Matt Lauer and others (accused of sexual harassment), they’ve been very concise and public. But the language around this, the way it’s been handled, is so squishy.”
Although Disney CEO Bob Iger visited Pixar recently, according to a source, he did not address staff, who, like their colleagues at Disney Animation, have been in the dark about future leadership at the company.
Lasseter, too, has been quiet. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since he announced his leave of absence last fall, though a source says it’s believed he is in Italy with his son P.J.
Either way, a bigger question remains: Even if Disney is able to pull off a more nuanced solution to someone who’s been publicly tarred and feathered, will it work? Would someone like Lasseter, who has long been known for embracing the showman role, really accept a diminished role?
“There’s no way John would be able to exist in a scaled-back role,” says one source who has worked with Lasseter. “It’s not in his DNA. What are they going to do, take away his jet? His bungalow? And expect him to give them a few creative ideas? That might work for two weeks.”
Then there’s the question of whether employees would accept his return, and whether Disney, which is highly sensitive to its perception in the media and on Wall Street, would come out of it all unscathed.
For now, the company seems to be testing the waters. But there is only so much time to keep experimenting: The deadline for Lasseter’s six-month leave is Monday. Then again, the Journal story had more squishiness on that front, reporting, “It is also possible that Monday will pass with no decision.”