Fox News remains the most watched cable news network despite the loss of Bill O’Reilly. PBS and CBS ratings seem little affected by the abrupt ouster of Charlie Rose. And at the “Today” show, ratings have gone up since NBC fired Matt Lauer last week.
So far, the wave of high-profile, scandal-tarred departures of celebrated media personalities over allegations of sexual abuse has had scant impact on investors.
But there may end up being one major exception: John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation and principal creative adviser for Walt Disney Imagineering, which conceives and executes Disney’s theme park attractions.
Last month, in the midst of other high-profile firings for sexual harassment and misconduct, Mr. Lasseter said he was taking a six-month sabbatical from Disney because of unspecified “missteps,” after a series of what he described as painful discussions with top management.
It’s hard to overstate Mr. Lasseter’s importance to Disney’s studio entertainment division, which last year generated $9.4 billion in revenue and $2.7 billion in profit. The director of the seminal animated hit “Toy Story,” Mr. Lasseter “is the father of modern animation,” said Doug Creutz, senior media and entertainment analyst for Cowen & Company.
He added that, for Disney, the importance of animation “goes way beyond the earnings at the studio.”
“It stokes the engine for consumer products and theme parks and getting kids into the Disney fold.” Mr. Creutz said. “If there’s anything at the core of Disney, it’s animation.”
When Mr. Lasseter took creative control of Walt Disney Animation in 2006, after Disney’s acquisition of Pixar, the venerable studio was essentially moribund, its animators demoralized by flops like “Home on the Range.” He “brought Disney animation back from the dead,” said Michael Nathanson, senior research analyst at MoffettNathanson.
Under Mr. Lasseter’s leadership, the Disney studio has churned out a remarkable series of critical and financial hits: “Tangled,” “Zootopia,” Moana” and 2013’s “Frozen,” the biggest grossing animated film ever, soon to be a Broadway musical.
Just a month ago, Mr. Lasseter was feted at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco with its lifetime achievement award, and the songwriters and stars of “Frozen” serenaded him with a tribute in song. Sporting one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts, he was on the red carpet the next night for the premiere of “Coco,” the latest Pixar release, which dominated the Thanksgiving weekend box office and drew rapturous reviews.
No one has publicly accused Mr. Lasseter of sexual assault or anything close to it. People at Disney (who were told not to speak to the press) described Mr. Lasseter’s effusive and often theatrical personality, and said he sometimes subjected women to prolonged bear hugs, inappropriate touching and kissing on the lips, incidents they said were usually fueled by alcohol.
In an email to employees in Disney’s animation division, Mr. Lasseter, 60, apologized “to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape or form.”
While Disney executives said they hoped and expected that Mr. Lasseter would return rejuvenated after his six months away, that is by no means assured, especially if new complaints surface. In a statement accompanying Mr. Lasseter’s departure, Disney stressed that it was committed to an “environment in which all employees are respected and empowered to do their best work.” (A Disney spokesman declined to comment further and said Mr. Lasseter wasn’t available to talk.)
Disney is losing Mr. Lasseter’s talents, even if only for six months, at a critical time. The company is simultaneously contending with an ominous decline in revenue from its hugely profitable ESPN cable network; an ambitious attempt to start its own over-the-top subscriber service to compete with Netflix; and renewed talks with 21st Century Fox to acquire a major portion of its entertainment assets, which could be a $40 billion deal. The last thing Disney needs now is turmoil at its animation units, which have, for the most part, been firing on all cylinders.
Nonetheless, there has been growing disenchantment inside Disney with Mr. Lasseter, his unchecked behavior and the cult of celebrity that surrounds him, the people at Disney told me. Pixar has long been criticized for a Silicon Valley-style fraternity house atmosphere dominated by a close-knit group of white men. The director Brenda Chapman was fired in 2011, midway through production of Pixar’s “Brave,” after clashing with Mr. Lasseter. The actress and writer Rashida Jones left a screenwriting assignment on “Toy Story 4” and recently told The New York Times that “women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice” at Pixar.
While Pixar has been extraordinarily successful, its track record isn’t entirely unblemished. “Cars 2,” the last Pixar film for which Mr. Lasseter served as director, as opposed to executive producer, was widely panned by critics, and “Cars 3,” released last spring, was a box office disappointment. “The Good Dinosaur,” released in 2015, was an even bigger flop. Disney scrapped “Gigantic,” an animated take on “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and took a $98 million write-off in October.
For all his achievements, Mr. Creutz said, “some of the best films Pixar has made weren’t necessarily done by John Lasseter, especially over the past 10 years.”
Mr. Lasseter has been the face of Disney animation for so long that few others in the division have become well known on Wall Street. “We don’t have much insight into the people below him,” Mr. Nathanson said.
But there is a group of talented animators and directors that goes back to “Toy Story,” which opened in 1995, and includes Pete Docter (director of “Monsters, Inc.” and “Inside Out”) and Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”). A longtime Pixar executive, Ed Catmull, remains president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation. Disney hasn’t named a replacement for Mr. Lasseter during his absence, and finding a strong permanent replacement for him, if that becomes necessary, will be crucial not just for continuity but for maintaining the confidence of investors.
In addition, animated films are multiyear projects, and Mr. Lasseter has already put his stamp on those in development. “Frozen 2,” expected to be a box office juggernaut, isn’t due for two years. Disney has no animated releases scheduled for the next six months.
Over the near term, Mr. Creutz said, he expects little impact at Disney. “No one stays forever,” he said. “They have a very strong culture that has produced a lot of great entertainment. John leaving doesn’t suddenly change that.”
Longer term, he said, the situation bears watching. “We may not know for a long time how this affected the culture of Pixar, and whether it’s for better or worse,” he said.
Mr. Nathanson, noting that Disney stock barely moved on the news of Mr. Lasseter’s sabbatical, said, “It’s easy for people on Wall Street to shrug and say these people are all fungible.”
“Pixar is an amazing company with an amazing track record,’’ he added. “It’s really unlike anything we’ve ever seen. You have to believe Lasseter has something special — taste, editorial judgment, whatever you choose to call it — to have created so much great product. If he’s at risk of not coming back, I don’t think that’s something Wall Street has focused on.”