sony lot

Today we turn to the inner workings of the Sony/Columbia/TriStar executive team; those responsible for actually getting the movies into theaters.

Sony’s film division, purchased from Coca-Cola in the 1980s, is part of a much larger operation that includes electronics and music. Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai (and Howard Stringer before him) has let CEO of Sony Entertainment and Chairman and CEO of SPE Michael Lynton and his partner in crime, SPE Co-Chair Amy Pascal, run their division for years; and for years it has run well. But with the likes of investor Daniel Loeb shaking the corporate tree, things have become a wee bit more complicated.

Daniel LoebLoeb, who runs the Third Point hedge fund and owns between six-and-a-half and seven percent of Sony, has been extremely critical of the entertainment division as of late, going so far as to suggest is that it be spun-off from the parent company or at least listed separately; perhaps spinning off just 15 to 20 percent. While Hirai has dismissed any chance of the former happening, he recently claimed he would at least consider the latter, though the chances of that now happening are remote.

Loeb’s frustration isn’t surprising, considering the summer Sony’s had, and he’s far from alone in questioning how the studio is run. Loeb is not shy in referring to White House Down and After Earth as “2013’s Waterworld and Ishtar,” a comparison no studio wants to hear. He considers the future bleak, the current development roster uninspiring, and feels the entertainment division has missed numerous golden opportunities and lacks the discipline needed to elevate it to a level of profitability that would satisfy investors.

amy pascal sonyWhat does this mean for Lynton, Pascal, and their team of executives that’s remained largely unchanged for the last ten years? There is alot of speculation surrounding the future of Sony, but truth be told, Lynton and Pascal are one of the most stable studio leadership teams in town and up until recently have laid out a winning strategy at their studio which consists of emphasis on cutting production, marketing and overhead costs and growing returns.  But Tom Rothman, recently hired to run new shingle TriStar Productions, would be an ideal candidate to fill a vacated spot, should the studio’s poor showing continue. Of course, everyone involved dismisses this notion. Rothman has his detractors, and may not be the most popular man in town, but he is by all accounts an outstanding executive.

Before Rothman’s hiring, TriStar had solely been a distribution arm, but the creation of this new entity indicates a sea change in strategy. Rothman will be producing and releasing up to four movies a year for TriStar, which is a bit of a thinker when framed in context. On the one hand, turning TriStar into a production wing is a strange move for a company looking to cut costs. On the other, it further diversifies a corporation that already has several distribution channels, thereby giving Sony a Fox 2000 equivalent that allows for edgier, artier fare that might not otherwise fit on their slate.

Truth be told, Lynton and Pascal are one of the
most stable studio leadership teams in town.

michael lynton sonyExpanding TriStar when Sony has had to share costs for some movies (George Clooney’s upcoming Monuments Men is a co-production with Fox), makes one wonder about their overall strategy. But Lynton and Pascal are still interested in the kind of prestige films that not everyone is willing to release anymore; and even though 2012 was the best year of the film division’s history, memories are short enough that 2013’s poor showing still has people ansty. Toss in the fact that the closest thing the corporation has to a family division is Sony Pictures Animation, whose slate is still too small to completely fit the label, and the question about lack of diversification starts to get a better answer—adding another production/distribution arm broadens the brand; pretty straightforward.

Since marketing champ Josh Goldstine defected to Universal in 2011, that studio’s fortunes have flourished while Sony’s have not. That puts Jeff Blake, Chairman of Sony Pictures Worldwide Marketing and Distribution, in a position both precarious and powerful. Same with his key execs Rory Bruer, President of Worldwide Distribution and Sony Pictures Releasing, and Marc Weinstock, President of Worldwide Theatrical Marketing. Considering the monster year that was 2012, the effect of Goldstine’s depature were not immediate; and while it’s possible that better ad campaigns may have led to bigger box office for the likes of White House Down, After Earth, or Smurfs 2, some movies just don’t attract audiences. Either way, Blake, Bruer, and Weinstock now control the distribution and marketing of a company that could use a few hits and a definite change in fortune, so the pressure is on.

amazing spiderman 2It helps that several interesting films are on the horizon. A new Spider-Man movie is set to arrive next spring, plus there are several good franchise possibilities in the years to come. Riding a series like Fast & Furious, Universal has done an excellent job capitalizing on its franchise growth, and Columbia is doing its darnedest to replicate that success. Their strategy might not match Universal’s exactly, but anyone making movies these days has to recognize that while the tentpole approach had a big chink put into its armor this summer, franchises are still as solid a bet as they’ve ever been. As we’ve mentioned before, it’s far easier to sell a movie with a built-in audience than an entirely new property.

Even Sony’s recent failures can be understood in the grand scheme of things. After Earth was a chance to partner with Will Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, whose Overbrook Entertainment has a first-look deal at the studio. Hot spec purchase White House Down teamed Jamie Foxx and rising star Channing Tatum with one of the studio’s favorite directors, Roland Emmerich, whose other Sony pictures have grossed close to two billion dollars. That the film was good was far less important than the timing of its release, three months after the similary-themed Olympus Has Fallen. Would moving White House Down’s release to the spring, before Olympus Has Fallen, made a difference? We won’t ever know, but such is how victories are won; a cast with better name recognition (Tatum and Foxx versus Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart) lost out to more advantageous scheduling.

doug belgrad sonyPascal and her two presidents, studio mainstay Doug Belgrad, President of Columbia Pictures, and Pascal protégé Hannah Minghella, President of Production, all have reputations as being brilliant and eminently likeable; loved by execs and talent alike. The greenlighting process is spearheaded by Pascal and Lynton, with help from key execs who form a sort of budgetary sign-off. Belgrad and Minghella tee up prospective projects for sign-off to Pascal, who is known for her creative flair and passionate storytelling, and Lynton, who oversees all global business aspects of the corporation. The budget gets passed around to various divisions, including those run by Blake, Bruer and, Weinstock; President of Production Administration Andrew Z. Davis; the head of the home entertainment division, David Bishop; and the lucrative TV division, Steve Mosko. Once everyone has signed off, the greenlight is officially given.

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Neil Turitz

Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and a senior editor at SSN Insider.

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