LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - For more than 20 years, young women at Pixar Animation Studios have been warned about the behavior of John Lasseter, who just disclosed that he is taking a leave due to inappropriate conduct with women. The company's co-founder is known as a hugger. Around Pixar's Emeryville, Calif., offices, a hug from Lasseter is seen as a mark of approval.
But among female employees, there has long been widespread discomfort about Lasseter's hugs and about the other ways he showers attention on young women. On Tuesday, that history caught up with him, as Lasseter became the latest prominent person to be accused of inappropriate behaviour. This comes in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse and harassment scandal that brought down the movie mogul and has also tarnished other powerful men such as Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Amazon's Roy Price.
In a memo to Pixar employees, Lasseter apologised for unwanted hugs and said he would take a six-month leave.
For the last decade, Lasseter has served as Disney's chief creative officer, overseeing operations at both Pixar and the Walt Disney Animation Studios. The position made him the most powerful person in the field and perhaps the most influential animator since Walt Disney.
Disney had no comment.
Few in animation are willing to cross him. "He is a beloved figure, so I'm scared to speak out," said one of numerous former employees who spoke to Variety over the last several weeks, all of whom refused to be identified by name for fear of career repercussions. Many described the culture at Pixar as toxic for women. "It's sexist and misogynistic," said a former employee.
Many former female Pixar employees said there was a classic whisper network at the animation company, where young women were advised to keep their distance from the co-founder.
"He would walk up to women in the office and kiss them on the lips."
Another former employee told Variety that she was cautioned about Lasseter soon after she started work there, in the late 1990s.
"Just be warned, he likes to hug the pretty girls," she said she was told. "He might try to kiss you on the mouth."
The employee said she was alarmed by how routine the whole thing seemed. "There was kind of a big cult around John," she says.
Other employees noted that Lasseter's drinking was also an issue. Several employees described wrap parties where Lasseter would take big swigs from a jug of vodka and pass it around.
Lasseter's drinking featured prominently in an Esquire profile in 2011, in which he was described getting drunk in the office to celebrate the completion of "Cars 2."
A number of ex-employees described Lasseter as an overgrown boy, with a limited sense of boundaries.
Some told Variety that he would make inappropriate comments about women, or touch them on their legs or backs. Some described receiving hugs that went on a few seconds too long.
"There is a currency there -- the currency is touch, and being touched by this person who is always in charge," said another former Pixar employee. "It's personal and intimate and probably not appropriate."
Another former employee said that after Pixar grew out of its Point Richmond office and moved to Emeryville in 2000, Lasseter's behaviour became more brazen. She said he would walk up to women in the office and kiss them on the lips.
"I found it shocking," she said. "That's not a normal way of greeting a colleague."
She said she also heard from co-workers who told her that they had to hide from Lasseter at wrap parties. She said she never reported these issues because the systems were not in place to address the problem.
Another ex-employee said she was told that Lasseter had been spoken to about his behaviour, and was assured that it had improved. Nevertheless, Lasseter's comportment around women has continued to be an issue in recent years.
Another former Pixar worker said that when she first started at the company a few years ago, a co-worker cautioned her, "Oh, John's gonna love you."
"The consensus was that he was a hugger," she said. "Male and female employees warned me that he could be touchy-feely. He could make comments that were uncomfortable or awkward or embarrassing for women. And it was all, 'Oh ha ha, that's just our John.'"
She said her manager kept her out of meetings where Lasseter would be present, telling her it would be best for her not to attend the intimate weekly reviews because "John has a hard time controlling himself around young pretty girls."
Nevertheless, she would sometimes see Lasseter in the hallways, and felt uncomfortable when it appeared he was looking her up and down.
"It was almost comical how obvious he was about it," she said.
She said that being excluded from meetings with Lasseter meant that she was not able to pitch or articulate her ideas or discuss her work with the director. She also felt left out of important conversations that went on in the review room. The experience made her feel undervalued and stifled in her career at the company, and she said it contributed to her decision to leave.
She said managers chose to thwart her career rather than "have difficult conversations with the most important, high-ranking and powerful man in the company."
Pixar has often been described as a "boys' club."
In its early days, there very few women at the company at all. That imbalance showed in the company's films -- it took 13 films before the company produced one with a female lead: "Brave," in 2012. That film was not an unalloyed triumph for feminism, however. Halfway through the film, Pixar fired the director, Brenda Chapman, and replaced her with a man.
As the company has grown to thousands of employees, it has publicly championed female employees. Some employees say that the "boys club" environment has abated, with numerous women in top positions. And several others say they never experienced any form of sexual harassment at Pixar, and described it as a wonderful place to work.
Since Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, Lasseter has split his time between Emeryville and Burbank. He has less day-to-day contact with lower-level employees. Still, he is known for over-the-top behavior at wrap parties, and the whispers about him persist.
The former employee who witnessed co-workers being kissed on the mouth said she hoped Lasseter would seek treatment.
"I don't see taking a six-month vacation, which I'm sure he'll be paid for, is really gonna be a solution," she said. "I would hope he would individually apologise to people and get some help."
Disney did not respond to an email request for comment about whether Lasseter was taking a paid leave.