On Tuesday, the actress Emma Thompson penned a letter that sharply criticized former Disney-Pixar chief John Lasseter and the new company that hired him, Skydance Media, after she dropped out of a film called “Luck” following his hiring.
Lasseter, who has been accused of sexual misconduct, had found himself in a vastly diminished role at Disney-Pixar, and he requested a meeting at the agency WME. He wasn’t a WME client. He simply wanted to talk to people skilled in rehabilitating some of the biggest stars in Hollywood as he contemplated his own return, according to two people at the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about it publicly.
That ambition is now the source of one of the bigger Hollywood controversies since the early chapters of the #MeToo era. Barely a week after Disney cut ties with him last month, Lasseter took a head animation job at the Hollywood financier-producer Skydance Media, spurring industry criticism.
Thompson’s letter, to Skydance chief executive and Oracle scion David Ellison, explained in strong language why she was leaving the project.“It feels very odd to me that you and your company would consider hiring someone with Mr. Lasseter’s pattern of misconduct given the present climate,” Thompson wrote in the letter, which was published in the Los Angeles Times.
She continued, “If a man has made women at his companies feel undervalued and disrespected for decades, why should the women at his new company think that any respect he shows them is anything other than an act that he’s required to perform by his coach, his therapist and his employment agreement?”
Neither a Skydance representative nor Lasseter would comment for this story. Thompson’s publicist told The Post the star did not have further comment.
At heart in Lasseter’s appointment is the question of what happens when accused #MeToo offenders attempt to re-enter the business from which they’ve been seemingly exiled.
And at heart in Thompson’s comments is what happens when a woman with power to stop that comeback decides to wield it.
As the #MeToo movement gained steam in fall 2017, Lasseter was accused by numerous female colleagues and collaborators of making unwanted physical contact with them over a period of years. Lasseter acknowledged unspecified “missteps” in response.
At the time, a number of accused #MeToo violators in Hollywood were quickly removed from their positions. But Lasseter, the longtime leader of Pixar and later Disney’s animation studio, was responsible for billions of dollars in revenue for a massive media corporation, Smash hits such as “”Frozen,” “Toy Story,” “Up” and “Moana” all came under his leadership; even recent hits like “Incredibles 2” were largely developed on his watch.
In a closely scrutinized move, Disney put him on a six-month leave. In June, at the end of that period, the company said he would serve as a consultant through the end of the year, when he would leave the company. At the time, Lasseter said that “the last six months have provided an opportunity to reflect on my life, career and personal priorities. While I remain dedicated to the art of animation and inspired by the creative talent at Pixar and Disney, I have decided the end of this year is the right time to begin focusing on new creative challenges."
But Lasseter was eager to return to the animation business, and even during his consultancy he regularly took meetings with animation filmmakers and executives, according to two people familiar with those discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Skydance, for its part, was keen to make an impact. The company has done well with some big-budget live-action movies such as films in the “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” franchises but was a newbie in the clubby world of animation, founding the division only in 2017.
Ellison hired an executive he would normally have had no business landing, making a calculated gamble that his employees could overlook Lasseter’s significant baggage.
“Let me be clear: we have not entered into this decision lightly,” Ellison wrote in a note to staff. “While we would never minimize anyone’s subjective views on behavior, we are confident after many substantive conversations with John, and as the investigation has affirmed, that his mistakes have been recognized. We are certain that John has learned valuable lessons and is ready to prove his capabilities as a leader and a colleague.”
He added, “And he has given his assurance that he will comport himself in a wholly professional manner that is the expectation of every Skydance colleague and partner.”
But winning over the staff, it turned out, was not the only constituency Ellison needed to worry about. More so than other industries, Hollywood thrives not just on relationships but on optics. And that’s where the move crashed.
The announcement immediately drew a backlash from an important player. Mireille Soria, the head of Paramount’s revived animation division, was “furious,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Soria’s words carry weight: Skydance has a business partnership with Paramount, and Soria had been giving notes on “Luck.” The executive, a longtime deputy of animation pioneer Jeffrey Katzenberg, told employees she would no longer do that, and that they were under no obligation to do so either.
Some in Hollywood quietly wondered how talent could now be attracted to Skydance if a respected executive with which it had a corporate relationship was already expressing discomfort publicly. Soria did not immediately reply to a request for comment on this story.
That was the first blow. The second blow landed Tuesday.
Activists greeted the Thompson news with a note of celebration. “The minute I read it I thought it was a game-changer,” said Melissa Silverstein, head of the influential feminist entertainment organization Women and Hollywood.
“This is someone who says the things everyone is afraid to say," she said. “It dropped like a bomb. And that bomb exploded across the world.”
The shrapnel had yet to reach principals on “Luck” or other Skydance projects, none of whom have publicly dropped out because of Lasseter’s arrival. But thanks to Thompson’s vocal response, it soon might.
One longtime animation-industry executive The Post talked to Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity, noted that if voice actors like Thompson, who likely would have little actual interaction with Lasseter, would not want to work at Skydance, then what chance did the company have for attracting executives and filmmakers who’d be meeting with him regularly? The person said that they don’t see how Skydance could continue to employ Lasseter.
The scandal has also raised a broader question.
Louis C.K. recently sought to get back on the stand-up circuit, with a set that was sharply criticized in many media quarters. Others are sure to follow.
Silverstein said that, if anyone did attempt a return, she believes they’re required to do a lot more than Lasseter. "You need to acknowledge what you’ve done. You need to show contrition. You have to perform restitution. And that’s just the baseline,” she said.
But she also said that she thinks the discussion could focus on the wrong subject.
“This shouldn’t be about whether John Lasseter gets a second chance but about all the people whose careers he derailed,” she said. "It’s about all the people who went to work every day and had to walk the other way when they saw him coming because he created an unsafe workspace.”
That feeling infused Thompson’s letter as well.