John Lasseter has a new 7-figure salary and animation studio to run. Louis CK has a new stand-up act. And Kevin Spacey has…well, Kevin Spacey seems to have lost his damn mind and just mind end up in prison. However, in recent weeks all three have at least made overtures at career comebacks, presenting us with the always inevitable next stage of the #MeToo movement: What happens when the credibly accused try to return to work?
First, the details: Lasseter – disgraced Disney/Pixar animation guru, noted lover of Hawaiian shirts, and man accused by multiple women of unwanted sexual advances – is the new head of Skydance’s animation unit.
“But, Kelly, Skydance doesn’t have an animation unit,” you might be saying. “We do now!” would be the enthusiastic response from CEO David Ellison, aka, man who took his billionaire oil tycoon father’s money and used it to finance a bunch of Mission Impossible, G.I. Joe, Star Trek, and Terminator movies for Paramount, some of them really good, others not so much.
In truth, though, Skydance first formed its animation unit in early 2017 and currently has two projects in advanced stages of development, as per this 2018 Deadline report:
Skydance’s first two animated features are Luck, which comes to theaters on March 19, 2021, and Split. Luck, directed by Alessandro Carloni and written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, is a comedy about the ongoing battles between the organizations of good luck and bad luck that secretly affects our daily lives. Split, directed by Vicky Jenson and written by Linda Woolverton, tells the story of Elian, a teenager who comes of age using her magical powers to defend her family when the opposing forces of light and darkness threaten to divide her kingdom.
Since Skydance has an exclusive distribution deal with Paramount which runs for another 4 years, these films are guaranteed a release. Keep that in mind. It looms large over what’s about to come next.
Once Lasseter’s contract with Disney quietly expired at the end of last year – they never stopped paying him, btw, instead putting him on a fully paid sabbatical for 7 months – Ellison jumped at the chance to hire the man he now calls “a singular creative and executive talent.” Anyone who’s ever read any behind the stories about the making of the various Pixar or recent Disney Animation classics recognizes the truth in that assessment. While some reports have since come out to dispute the mystique of John Lasseter’s creative genius, claiming instead that he stole many of his ideas from uncredited underlings, the legend persists.
So, like a troubled athlete with unmistakable talent Lasseter is getting a second chance, though Ellison isn’t flying blind on this. In his press released, he stated, “John has acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes and, during the past year away from the workplace, has endeavored to address and reform them.”
Ok. That’s pretty much just PR bullshit. The real proof of Ellison’s cover-my-own-ass strategy here comes from Variety’s exclusive reporting about the exact details of Lasseter’s contract. Yes, it pays him handsomely and gives him the keys to Skydance animation kingdom, likely meaning current Skydance animation chief Bill Damaschke is out of a job and the animation studio’s 60-70 North American employees now work for John Lasseter. But, Lasseter is pretty much entirely on his own should any legal challenges arise since neither Disney nor Lasseter never actually settled any of the harassment claims brought against him over the past 20+ years. Plus, he can be fired about as quickly as it takes Luxo Jr. to stomp out the “i” in the “Pixar” logo before every Pixar film.
To get the job, he first had to first meet with an outside legal team and discuss in exhaustive detail all of the public allegations brought against him as well as others which might arise should any further past victims come forward.
“The legal team conducted interviews with more than 20 people as they pieced together a report on Lasseter’s behavior, according to knowledgeable insiders,” Variety explained. “If Lasseter is found to have lied to lawyers, he will be fired. ‘David has been clear with John about what is expected in terms of his behavior,’ said an insider. ‘If there is any daylight between them in terms of that, there will obviously be severe repercussions.’”
While all of that was enough to satisfy Ellison and his team, it has outraged #MeToo and #TimesUp advocates and almost completely blindsided Paramount. According to THR, “Paramount Pictures was not informed of the decision to hire Lasseter until shortly before the announcement Wednesday […] The move has been particularly poorly received on the Paramount lot, with some wishing the studio could refuse to distribute films made by Skydance’s Lasseter-led animation division. It is unclear if Paramount could extricate itself from its deal, even if studio chairman Jim Gianopulos wanted to.”
In the aftermath of the announcement, Skydance quickly held a town hall meeting to allow its employees to voice their concerns, and Lasseter is expected to address them soon as well.
Today, Deadline has a very thorough breakdown of the complicated steps which await Lasseter. For example, this is a man who works best when surrounded by a brain trust, but can he build a new one given both his tarnished reputation and Disney’s unshakable non-compete clause preventing him from poaching Pixar talent away? Should he, as a PR act of contrition or genuine expression of best practices or a combination of the two, try to surround himself with female executives and filmmakers they’ll all end up accused of being complicit, but the opposite – that he just hires a bunch of dudes – is hardly desirable either, especially given the already woeful state of gender parity in animation.
It’s an obviously messy situation, one many Hollywood insiders view as being inevitable (Lasseter is too talented to be kept away forever) but perhaps arriving too soon (has he even done the requisite apology tour yet?). “I believe in second chances, and I believe we should push the dialogue forward,” said a rival animation exec about Lasseter’s situation in the #MeToo era, “but this is challenging for anyone, not just women.”
However, this has always been the awkward second half of #MeToo. A wide array of powerful men (and a few women) were wiped out by Hollywood’s righteous reckoning. Some of them, like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, are now mired in criminal trials and might lose far more than just their careers. What of those men, however, whose offenses didn’t officially rise to the level of legal criminality? If they appear to be contrite and sincere in their desire to atone and hopefully someday work again, what happens then? Shouldn’t there be a way back for these people?
Well, yes, but only under the right conditions – conditions which aren’t being met to advocate’s satisfaction, obviously. Some of them, like Bryan Singer scoring a lucrative gig to direct a Red Sonja remake after his Bohemian Rhapsody firing and looming sexual abuse accusations, get to come back without admitting any wrongdoing. Others, like Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey, would really like us to believe they are the true victim of their story, with C.K. taking to random comedy club stages to rail against millennials and social media mobs while Spacey talked to the world in character as Frank Underwood in one of the most self-deluded videos I’ve ever seen:
The only thing standing in their way is public shame and industry pushback. Will people in the industry now refuse or at least think twice about working with Paramount so long as they distribute John Lasseter’s Skydance films? Can Louis C.K. and his embittered old man act find enough purchase on the comedy club circuit to pay the bills? (One female-owned Denver comedy club just turned him down.)
History suggests the accused will be able to sit all of this out long enough and come back, sometimes justifiably so, other times not at all. After all, why else did Hollywood keep giving Charlie Sheen so many chances? However, things seem different thanks to social media now. This has to be done in just the right way. Suddenly springing John Lasseter on 60-70 direct employees as well as an entire sister studio now charged with distributing his movies is probably not the right way to do it, but it hardly seems like it will be the last time someone in Hollywood messes this up.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.