Disney faces daunting questions in wake of John Lasseter, Harvey Weinstein scandals

For nearly two months, the Walt Disney Co. evaded the sexual misconduct scandals that have afflicted some of its rivals. While Amazon (Roy Price), Warner Bros. (Brett Ratner) and Netflix (Kevin Spacey) were forced to face the public spotlight over their respective controversies, Disney managed to stay above the fray.

Until last week, that is, when John Lasseter — the creative force behind Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios — announced he would take a six-month leave after stories surfaced with allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women.

Disney declined to answer inquiries by Variety as to whether the company was paying for Lasseter’s leave of absence and whether the entertainment giant intended to launch a formal investigation into the accusations.

Lasseter admitted in an email to his staff Nov. 21 to vague “missteps” while journalists supplied the details: touching, kissing, inappropriate comments and drunken carousing at wrap parties. Lasseter said he needed some time to reflect and “take better care of myself,” and added that he hoped to return with fresh inspiration in the new year.

Disney clearly seconds the sentiment. Since the studio bought Pixar, in 2006, Lasseter has been essential to Disney’s core animation business, overseeing 21 films that have collectively grossed about $13 billion. In its statement on the matter, Disney said it “fully supports” Lasseter’s sabbatical.

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John Lasseter
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John Lasseter
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 08: John Lasseter attends the premiere of 'Coco' at El Capitan Theatre on November 8, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 07: Jim Morris, John Lasseter, and Ed Catmull pose for a photo during The Walt Disney Family Museum's 3rd Annual Fundraising Gala at the Golden Gate Club on November 7, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for The Walt Disney Family Museum)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 07: John Lasseter poses for photos on the red carpet during The Walt Disney Family Museum's 3rd Annual Fundraising Gala at the Golden Gate Club on November 7, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for The Walt Disney Family Museum)
ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 14: Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios John Lasseter took part today in the Walt Disney Studios animation presentation at Disney's D23 EXPO 2017 in Anaheim, Calif. (name of film) will be released in U.S. theaters on (release date). (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 10: John Lasseter and Nancy Lasseter arrive at the premiere of Disney And Pixar's 'Cars 3' at Anaheim Convention Center on June 10, 2017 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Nancy Lasseter and John Lasseter attend the 2017 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 26, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Presley Ann Slack/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
John Lasseter attending the EE British Academy Film Awards held at the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, Kensington, London. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Chief creative officer of Pixar John Lasseter arrives at the AFI FEST 2016 presented by Audi premiere of Disney's 'Moana' held at the El Capitan Theatre on November 14, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Chief Creative Officer Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, John Lasseter attends The Walt Disney Family Museum's 2nd Annual Gala at Disney�s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa at The Disneyland Resort on November 1, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for The Walt Disney Family Museum)
ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Master of Ceremonies, Neil Patrick Harris (L) and Presenter John Lasseter speak onstage at The Walt Disney Family Museum's 2nd Annual Gala at Disney�s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa at The Disneyland Resort on November 1, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for The Walt Disney Family Museum)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 19: President at Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, (L) and CCO at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, John Lasseter, speak onstage during 'Inside the House of Disney' at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 19, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 08: (L-R) Actress Ellen DeGeneres, Executive producer John Lasseter and actor Albert Brooks attend The World Premiere of Disney-Pixar�s FINDING DORY on Wednesday, June 8, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Disney Toon Studios Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter (L) and Bennett Lasseter attend the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
ONCE UPON A TIME - The cast and crew of Once Upon a Time celebrated the series' 100th episode on location in Storybrooke. The 100th episode, entitled 'Souls of the Departed, airs SUNDAY, MARCH 6 (8:00-9:00 p.m. EST) , on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Jack Rowand/ABC via Getty Images) JOHN LASSETER (CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER, WALT DISNEY AND PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS), NANCY LASSETER
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 17: John Lasseter arrvies at the Walt Disney Animation Studios' 'Zootopia' Premiere at the El Capitan Theatre on February 17, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 17: Executive producer John Lasseter attends the Los Angeles premiere of Walt Disney Animation Studios' 'Zootopia' on February 17, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)
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But the company could face difficult questions nonetheless about its handling of Lasseter’s conduct. Sources told Variety that the executive’s behavior around young women has been known within the company since the 1990s. Whatever steps were taken to address it — which sources suggested included Disney having confronted Lasseter about the allegations — did not stop the complaints, which have continued until quite recently.

“This is not one guy going around acting inappropriately,” said Amid Amidi, the publisher of Cartoon Brew, a site that covers the animation industry. “This is one guy enabled by a massive corporate structure to act inappropriately.”

A former Pixar employee agreed, saying that CEO Bob Iger knew about a 2010 Oscar party where Lasseter was seen making out with a junior staffer.

“They’ve known for a long time,” the source said. “It has gone all the way to the top. I know personally that Bob was aware. … Everybody was aware. They just didn’t do anything about it.”

Disney had no comment.

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Disney Live-Action Movies in Production
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Disney Live-Action Movies in Production

Donald Glover will play Simba in the upcoming live-action adaption of "The Lion King," and James Earl Jones will reprise his role as Mufasa (!!!). According to Disney, the film is on the "fast track" through production and may arrive sooner rather than later. Jon Favreau will direct -- he also directed 2016's "The Jungle Book," so he's sure to crush it!

Credit: Disney

Now this is interesting: Disney is developing a story centered on Prince Charming (either from "Cinderella" or "Snow White"). There's a lot of work to be done there since the original men weren't exactly riveting characters.

Credit: Disney

In perfect casting news, Reese Witherspoon has signed on to play the sassy Neverland fairy in "Tink."

Credit: Disney

Your childhood crush is coming to life. The new "Aladdin" will reportedly be a brand-new take on the beloved story and is expected to seriously deviate from the original plot. In March 2017, Disney announced open casting calls to find their perfect Aladdin and Jasmine. They're looking for Middle Eastern actors, and shooting begins this summer.

Credit: Disney

We've seen remakes of "Peter Pan" before, but the magical story is slated for another upcoming live-action reboot. It's difficult to cast because not too many actors have pointed elf ears.

Credit: Disney

What's Christopher Robin up to now? The upcoming "Winnie the Pooh" adaption will show us: In this version, he'll be all grown up.

Credit: Disney

The live-action "Mulan" is currently in pre-production, and the actress taking on the title role hasn't yet been announced. It's scheduled for a 2018 release.

Credit: Disney

Disney is working on a real-life "Little Mermaid," and she better still be a redhead.

Credit: Disney

Emma Stone will play the evil Cruella in the 2018 flick. You've gotta assume she received offers for "The Little Mermaid," too, and she was like, nah, I know what I'm about.

Credit: Disney

Disney announced an "Aladdin" prequel that reveals Genie's backstory, but the plan was tabled (or maybe entirely scrapped) in favor of an Aladdin-focused story. We'll see if it moves back into development.

Credit: Disney

"The Sword in the Stone," released in 1963, is making its return! The story features King Arthur before he reigned supreme: He was an orphan who received special lessons from Merlin the wizard.

Credit: Disney

Tim Burton is directing the live-action "Dumbo," which means it may not be quite so cheery as the original.

Credit: Disney

The new adaption of "Pinocchio" will reportedly be only loosely based on the original story.

Credit: Disney

After the smash success of 2016's "The Jungle Book," it was no surprise that Disney decided to move forward with a sequel.

Credit: Disney

Angelina Jolie will return as Maleficent in a sequel to the 2014 film.

Credit: Disney

"Snow White," originally released in 1938, is getting a much-deserved remake. 

Credit: Disney

Did you know Snow White has a sister? Neither did we, but apparently her name is "Rose Red" and she's getting her own live-action movie. She hangs out with the dwarves after her Snow White meets her poisonous (temporary) end.

Credit: Disney

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When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last month, Disney denied any knowledge of misconduct or settlements with victims during Weinstein’s run at Miramax from 1993 to 2005. Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner tweeted that he had no knowledge of Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment during those years.

According to The New Yorker, Weinstein enlisted his brother Bob Weinstein in the 1990s to put up the funds out of his own bank account for one harassment settlement so as to avoid involving Disney.

The Lasseter case, however, strikes much closer at Disney’s current management.

“If this were one of those open secrets, as was alleged with Weinstein, they’re really much more culpable,” said Benjamin Hermalin, a UC Berkeley professor and expert on corporate governance. “Executives need to be held to a fairly high standard. It’s increasingly clear that corporations need to pay attention to power dynamics.”

The company could also face lawsuits from employees whom Lasseter never touched inappropriately, but who could allege that their careers suffered due to a discriminatory environment.

Rashida Jones emphasized that aspect in commenting on her own experience at Pixar. Jones departed as a writer on “Toy Story 4,” and last week was compelled to deny a report elsewhere that it had to do with an unwanted advance from Lasseter. But in her statement, she criticized the company for fostering “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”

Disney has said nothing yet on that.

In the absence of an internal investigation of Lasseter, much depends on whether Pixar employees come forward with on-the-record allegations. Either way, the company will have to weigh the risks of hanging on to Lasseter against the benefits of allowing him to continue to shepherd films onto the screen.

“This is not one guy going around acting inappropriately. This is one guy enabled by a massive corporate structure to act inappropriately.”
Amid Amidi, Cartoon Brew publisher

“The consequences need to fit the transgressions,” said Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University. Otherwise, she said, “you’re sending a message that you don’t value your employees when you say someone is so talented that we don’t fire him or her.”

Debra Katz, an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in employment law, said that if Lasseter’s alleged misconduct proves to be pervasive, “termination may very well be the appropriate remedy.”

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Walt Disney over the years
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Walt Disney over the years
UNSPECIFIED - NOVEMBER 27: Walt Disney's father and mother late 19th century (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
Actor Leslie Howard and producer Walt Disney shake hands after playing in a polo match together.
(Original Caption) Walt Disney (1901-1966), famed orignator of full-length animated motion pictures, at work at his drawing board.
(Original Caption) Portrait of Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966), originator of the vast Disney empire consisting of theme parks, cartoons, and movies. Disney is waving and smiling for the camera in this 3/4 length photograph.
Walt Disney with kittens.
(Original Caption) 2/1942: Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Walt Disney, Assistant Secretary of Treasury, John L. Sullivan, Assistant to the Secretary George Buffington, Disney Artist Joseph Grant, and Disney writer Richard Huemer look over Disney's sketches for 'The New Spirit,' Disney cartoon for the Treasury Department.
(Original Caption) Walt Disney takes an imaginary spin high on an old Eagle racing bike while his daughter, Diane, paces him on an 1870 model tricycle. The bikes are part of a collection in Ford's Edison Museum. Undated photograph.
(Original Caption) Walter E. Disney, famous producer of animated cartoons, is shown with doll replicas of his most famous characters which were responsible for his being conferred an honorary degree of Bachelor of Arts at Harvard University Commencement. President James Bryant Conant made the presentation before 5,800 special guests, alumni, students, faculty and members of the graduating class.
(Original Caption) Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse, with Louis Lumiere, French Grand old man of films, during the former's visit to Paris.
American film producer and creator of Disney World, Walt Disney, holds sheet music with actor Eddy Nelson.
(Original Caption) 1939-Los Angeles, CA- Shirley Temple presents an Academy Award to Walt Disney for his outstanding cartoon, 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,' one big statue and seven little ones, at the 11th Annual Academy of Motion picture Arts & Sciences dinner.
(Original Caption) Arriving on the Rex is Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse is the animated cartoon character who cavorts his way over the silver sheet much to the delight of America's younger generation.
(Original Caption) Walt Disney learns to do El Gato, one of the colorful and traditional dances of the Argentine countryside. During the survey trip which Disney and a group of his artists made to South America, they spent many hours studying and recording through sketches and photography, the ins and outs of numerous dances and costumes.
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But Disney’s initial move of endorsing Lasseter’s six-month leave may signal to employees that the company is not interested in a full airing of allegations.

“I hope Disney is a leader on this and sets the example for other companies, but I’m worried about a six-month sabbatical,” Drobac said, calling it essentially a “time-out.”

Some, however, worry that Lasseter’s boundless enthusiasm — which sets the tone at Pixar — will now be inhibited. Bill Capodagli, co-author of “Innovate the Pixar Way,” has written that Pixar’s culture of fun is essential to its success, and urged other companies to adopt it.

“I don’t think John ever grew out of his childlike enthusiasm — that’s probably what got him into trouble,” Capodagli said. “John didn’t have any boundaries. With the hugging and kissing and things like that, you have to know your audience and be aware of when people are uncomfortable with that kind of behavior.”

Capodagli said he wishes the best for Lasseter. “I hope this isn’t the end of his career,” he said. “I’m sure he looks at it and says I should have been more appropriate.”

Amidi wrote two books on Pixar, “The Art of Pixar Short Films” and “The Art of Pixar: 25th Anniversary,” both of which have forewords written by Lasseter. He argues the most responsible course is for Disney to do a full investigation.

“From a corporate standpoint, you understand why they want to keep him,” he said. “From an ethical and moral standpoint, I think it’s very sketchy. To try to sweep everything under the rug because the guy does a lot of good for your company isn’t right.”

“I’m not sure at this point Disney wants to do the right thing,” he added. “They may be forced to do the right thing.”

Brent Lang contributed to this report.

32 PHOTOS
Coolest Disney World and Disneyland snacks
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Coolest Disney World and Disneyland snacks
Killer shot!!!! #thisisdisney 📷: @the_little_pixie. ••• (#DisneyFoodBlog to see your pic featured)
Owl isn't sure about this rose cake pop 😂🌹#Disneyland
#GROOT BREAD!!! Find it in #disneycaliforniaadventure! Thanks for the pic, @sandyruns26.2!! #Disneyland
Well this is gorgeous!!! #Ghirardelli Strawberry Soda Float 🍓🍦Find it in #disneycaliforniaadventure and #disneysprings! 📷: @dolewhipdollies_ (#disneyfoodblog to see your pic featured)
These mini Mickey waffles are pretty much everything right now. #gottagettotokyo #tokyodisneyland 📷: @tableforlily 🙌🏻 (#disneyfoodblog to see your pic featured)
#mickeymouse shave ice from #Disney's Aulani in #Hawaii!!! My life is complete. 📷: @aly_sf #disneyfood #aloha #obsession . (#DisneyFoodBlog to see your pic featured)
Haha! Love this pic by @thejentravels!! #disneyfoodblog to see your shot featured! #Disney #disneyfood #ComeAndGetIt
Waffle bowl pattern at Clarabelle's in #disneycaliforniaadventure ❤️ 📷: @diningindisney #disneyland #disneyfood
No Way Jose from Beaches & Cream at Disney's Beach Club Resort!
#Breakfast at #TokyoDisneyland: PERFECT #Mickeymouse waffles with chocolate and whipped cream 😍 📷: @diningindisney #disney #disneyfood
Raspberry lime macaron from Les Halles in #Epcot's France. #Disney #disneyfood
Mickey #Pizza Bread at #tokyodisneyland!!!! 📷: @tokyodisneylorien (<-- Follow! She's super cool!)
Still loving this lotus blossom glow cube! Now available at several #Disney's #AnimalKingdom locations including Thirsty River Bar and Snacks.
Apple --> Caramel --> Chocolate --> #MickeyMouse!! #Disney #DisneyFood Here's a TIP: Ask the cast member to cut up the apple for you for easier eating!
Meanwhile, in #AnimalKingdom 😍 #dolewhip #whynot #cantstayaway #justsayyes
Loving this #MickeyMouse cinnamon-sugar #donut from #disneylandshanghai! 📷: @snowflakespalmtreesandpretzels. (#DisneyFoodBlog to see your pic featured) #shanghaidisneyland #disneyfood #disney #breakfast
Berry Brickle at the #epcotflowerandgardenfestival is still a winner
#Pandora Night Blossom from Pongu Pongu #disney #disneyfood The "light up cup" is a souvenir cup with a glow pod that clips on. I like it since previous light up cups just break when you wash them.
Hello, old friend. I haven't had one of these cuties in a loooooong time. It's classic; soft and sweet with a touch of almond flavor. Don't overlook this one. #cookie #mickeymouse #disney #disneyfood #eatthis
The sparkles. Na'vi blueberry cheesecake at Satu'li Canteen in #Pandora #diseyworld #disneyfood
Finally tried this #limoncello #mule at Via Napoli last night! Soooo good, even if you're not a #gingerbeer person. #Disney #booze #waltdisneyworld #vianapoli #epcot
#TokyoDisneyland goodies!! 📷: @hungryhugh (who I'm totally meeting someday). #Disney #disneyfood (#DisneyFoodBlog to see your pic featured)
#MinnieMouse cupcake at Gasparilla Grill in #Disney's Grand Floridian Resort has forgettable cake but dense and delicious cookies and cream frosting on top and as filling! Plus #cutebow
Chili Mac and Cheese -- secret menu item from Refreshment Corner in #Disneyland! #yum #sourdough #boudinbakery #macncheese
This #peanutbutter pie is still my second favorite dessert in #disneyworld! (After #Ohana bread pudding!) Get this at Contempo Cafe ❤️
Who's tried this crazy-town Seven Seas Lagoon cocktail at The Wave Lounge in #Disney's Contemporary Resort?? #booze #yum #sharingiscaring
Best Krispie ever @lynleesmmt!!!!! #mainstreetelectricalparade #disneyland
We're talking #Disneyland #icecream in an upcoming YouTube video! What's your favorite??? This one is a #hotfudge #sundae at Golden Horseshoe! #disneyfood #disney
Lapu Lapu at Tambu Lounge in Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort!
Beautiful shot of the #icecream #martini from @artisandesglace!! Get yours with one of three alcohol toppers! 📷: @caitlinmcaninch (#DisneyFoodBlog to see your pic featured)
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