John Lasseter Hired To Run Skydance Animation; David Ellison Explains Move

John Lasseter
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Pixar co-founder and former Disney animation guru John Lasseter has been hired to run Skydance Animation. Skydance CEO David Ellison made the announcement via memo (read it in full below) about the move, which comes after Disney decided to part ways with the award-winning animation exec last year after putting him on a six-month leave of absence amid accusations of repeated misconduct and his admission of “missteps.”

The move puts back into circulation one of the animation industry’s most successful creative executives of all time. His films under the Pixar banner and at Walt Disney Animation — his title when he left at year’s end was Chief Creative Officer, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and Principal Creative Advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering — began with 1995’s Toy Story (which he directed). He later directed A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011), and he executive produced all Pixar features since Monsters, Inc. (2001). He also exec produced all of WDAS’ output since 2006, which included the monster hit Frozen.

His Pixar movies have grossed more than $13 billion at the box office.

Lasseter, who will report directly to Ellison, will be based in Los Angeles and start later this month. He takes over for Bill Damaschke, who held the title of President of Animation and Family Entertainment. Ellison said he hopes Damaschke will stay on.

“John is a singular creative and executive talent whose impact on the animation industry cannot be overstated,” Ellison said in a press release. “He was responsible for leading animation into the digital age, while telling incomparable stories that continue to inspire and entertain audiences around the globe.”

He added: “And yet we did not enter into this decision lightly. John has acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes and, during the past year away from the workplace, has endeavored to address and reform them.”

In his new role, Lasseter will be tasked with setting the overall strategy and creative direction for Skydance’s animation division, He will oversee production and operations to “ensure a robust slate of animated entertainment across all media.”

“I’m grateful to David and the Skydance team and know that I have been entrusted with an enormous responsibility,” Lasseter said. “It is a distinct privilege that I will relish.”

Lasseter had been accused of unwanted physical contact with female subordinates during his time at Disney — from the “hugs” he acknowledged in a statement of contrition last fall to darker accounts of unsolicited kisses and groping that sources confided to Deadline. Disney placed Lasseter on sabbatical in November 2017 after he admitting to vague “missteps.”

After a period where Disney brass weighed whether to bring Lasseter back into the fold, it announced that he would leave the company officially at the end of 2018. One well-placed source told Deadline there was a gathering sense that employees didn’t really want Lasseter to return. Some even threatened to quit, according to another person familiar with the matter.

In addition to Ellison’s memo to staff, Lasseter addressed his past in today’s announcement.

“I have spent the last year away from the industry in deep reflection, learning how my actions unintentionally made colleagues uncomfortable, which I deeply regret and apologize for. It has been humbling, but I believe it will make me a better leader.”

He continued: “I want nothing more than the opportunity to return to my creative and entrepreneurial roots, to build and invent again. I join Skydance with the same enthusiasm that drove me to help build Pixar, with a firm desire to tell original and diverse stories for audiences everywhere. With what I have learned and how I have grown in the past year, I am resolute in my commitment to build an animation studio upon a foundation of quality, safety, trust and mutual respect.”

Skydance Animation was founded in 2017 and has its first two feature-length films in the pipeline: Luck, directed by Alessandro Carloni and written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, and an untitled action fantasy penned by Linda Woolverton and directed by Vicky Jenson. The unit has a multi-year partnership with Madrid-based Ilion Animation Studios to develop and produce a slate of high-end animated films and TV series.

Damaschke was hired to run the division in October 2017, coming from DreamWorks Animation where he was chief creative officer.

Here’s Ellison’s full memo on Lasseter’s hire:

Dear Colleagues:

I wanted to share with you first some news that we are announcing today.

Industry visionary John Lasseter is joining us to lead Skydance Animation. John will be based in Los Angeles and will report directly to me.

Bill Damaschke will be transitioning from his current role, and we are hopeful he will choose to remain within the Skydance family.

The attached press release outlines the news more fully, but I wanted to share a few things that have informed our decision to bring John on board.

First, no one can dispute John’s legacy building Pixar and Walt Disney Animation into the leadership position they now enjoy. His creative vision and forward-looking approach to animation has transformed the entire industry. At his heart, John is a storyteller – with a unique ability to tell beautiful and emotionally-driven tales that resonate and inspire audiences around the globe.

Second, I know many of you are aware of John’s admitted mistakes in his prior role helming those
studios. John has been forthright in taking ownership of his behavior, apologized for his actions and has spent the past year on sabbatical analyzing and improving his workplace behavior.

Third, we employed outside counsel to thoroughly investigate the allegations, which we considered serious and have warranted our full attention as we made this important decision. The senior leadership team and I have all carefully evaluated the findings of this extensive investigation.

Let me be clear: we have not entered into this decision lightly.

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. 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.

We are very hopeful and excited about what the coming years will bring, as John’s art transcends generations and cultures, while deeply resonating on a fundamental level with what makes us uniquely human.

The senior leadership team and I will be hosting a town hall for all Skydance Animation colleagues shortly to speak with you directly about this transition. Additional town halls at SDM and SDI will take place today and tomorrow.

Skydance Animation colleagues, please be on the lookout for a call-to-gather email. I look forward to speaking with you in person.


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