Sony in Transition: Big Changes Could Be Next
Insiders outline several areas of the studio that seem most primed for change.
Now that Tom Rothman has been named to succeed Amy Pascal as chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, speculation turns to the executive’s next moves.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, on Feb. 25 Rothman said, “I prize stability.” Perhaps — but most observers think that’s exec-speak for, “Hang in until I’m settled, folks, and then run for the hills.”
Rothman likely will keep the executives he favors, and bid a hasty farewell to the rest — on his own schedule, not theirs. The last thing he (or Sony) needs is anything to indicate more turmoil.
Even if Rothman spoke sincerely, he got egg on his face just a day after his stability speech when his boss Michael Lynton eased out Bob Osher, the longtime head of Sony Pictures Digital and an 11-year Sony veteran — not the best sign of stability, nor the most encouraging news for executives hoping to keep their jobs.
When Rothman’s appointment was made official, Sony announced that Lynton had re-upped for an unspecified number of years, an attempt to increase signs of stability.
But the timing was Public Relations 101, coming right after Lynton, CEO of Sony Corp of America, had fired his deputy, Amy Pascal; revealed plans to move to New York; and dealt with the fall-out from hacked emails showing he had held conversations about a job with Time Warner and was eyeing a post at New York University.
Stability? Not entirely.
Like the medieval monarchs whom studio heads so often resemble, each new king wants his own court, with his own courtiers, and most incoming studio chiefs move quickly and effectively to bring in ones they can trust.
When Brad Grey took over at Paramount, a host of seasoned executives was shown the door — not because they lacked skill, but because Grey wanted his own team in place (a team that has been remade with somewhat startling frequency). Many of those who left did so well he may have regretted not keeping them: The studio’s vice chair, Rob Friedman, launched a new mini-major in Summit, and oversaw the Twilight saga that former Paramount executive vp Karen Rosenfelt took with her when she left the studio.
Few top execs follow the strategy of an Alan Horn at Disney (who stunned insiders by retaining top executives, including production chief Sean Bailey and marketing head Ricky Strauss, when he ascended the Disney throne, following his exile from Warner Bros.) or a Sherry Lansing at Paramount (who kept all the key executives who’d toiled for her predecessor, Brandon Tartikoff).
So what areas of Sony seem most primed for change? Insiders point to the following:
1. TRISTAR PRODUCTIONS
Rothman’s new role leaves a gaping hole at the top of TriStar, the revitalized and somewhat renamed version of TriStar Pictures that he was hired to run in August 2013. Rothman has said he’ll continue overseeing the division for now, but that’s not realistic in the long-term, with high-profile movies from the likes of Ang Lee and Robert Zemeckis in the works.
Rothman has two options: fold the label into sister Columbia Pictures, or name someone else to head it. His history as chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment indicates he’ll likely keep TriStar in place. First, along with the other studios divisions, it gives him multiple, separate fiefdoms on the lot, each developing its own slate of movies — just like the main Fox, Fox 2000 and Fox Searchlight did at his old roost. That’s a perfect strategy to diffuse critiques that Rothman will stamp his tastes too heavily on future films.
Second, it allows him to build his own version of Searchlight (the place where he made his reputation, after all) without having to shunt aside Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the co-chairs of Sony Pictures Classics, whose strategy has been successful but on a much smaller scale.
So who might run TriStar? Insiders are looking at current Columbia production co-president Michael De Luca, who served for years as an executive at the independent-minded New Line Cinema, before proving his mettle as a film producer with TriStar-style films such as Captain Phillips and The Social Network.
Those movies are precisely the kind that would have worked well at Fox 2000 or Searchlight, and that he might be encouraged to develop here, leaving Columbia Pictures and Sony-based Studio 8 under Jeff Robinov to develop more youth-oriented, tent-pole fare.
That, of course, is if De Luca wants to make any such move. Thanks to his back-end on Fifty Shades of Grey (he was one of the producers), he hardly needs the money. Rothman may have to sweet-talk De Luca even more than De Luca has to sweet-talk Rothman.
2. COLUMBIA PICTURES
Columbia has some of the nicest people in the world working for it, like president Doug Belgrad and production co-president Hannah Minghella. But nice doesn’t mean diddlysquat in Hollywood.
Both execs cut their teeth under Pascal (well, Minghella started out working with Harvey Weinstein, but didn’t stay long enough to get imprinted with his DNA). Their careers largely have been associated with their mentor’s, and that means they’re both especially vulnerable.
Minghella’s soft-spoken style will likely go down well with Rothman, and not just because opposites attract: Rothman was a big proponent of her father Anthony’s film The English Patient, before Fox pulled the plug and left the Oscar-winning movie in Miramax’s care. He also has a long history of surrounding himself with high-ranking women (think Nancy Utley at Searchlight, Elizabeth Gabler at 2000 and Emma Watts at main Fox).
Belgrad, on the other hand, shares some of the responsibility for Sony’s sluggishness over the past couple of years. Besides, insiders see him as leaning more toward the business side than the creative side, at a time when it’s crucial for Rothman to shift gears creatively.
Look for Belgrad to be the first top-level casualty, either moving into a production deal or taking a different job at a restructured Sony.
Rothman knows Fox made a huge mistake when it allowed Chris Meledandri, the founder of Fox Animation, to leave in 2007, after which he set up Illumination Entertainment. That animation company has given Universal some of its biggest hits in years, such as Despicable Me and its sequel.
He almost certainly can’t hire Meledandri, but he can learn from his success. Even if there’s a perception that the animated field is over-crowded (helped by DreamWorks Animation’s floundering performance), Rothman will look to beef up Sony’s own division.
The question is, will Rothman keep the recently appointed Kristine Belson, who was brought in from DreamWorks Animation just last month to replace Michelle Raimo Kouyate, and who remains untested in the job? Or will he bring in someone else? He may not have much choice: Top-tier candidates such as DWA’s Bonnie Arnold and Fox Animation’s Vanessa Morrison are locked into binding contracts and will be hard to hire.
4. EXECUTIVE SHUFFLE
Before Rothman’s appointment, the industry was awash with speculation about what would happen to Fox production president Emma Watts, following Stacey Snider’s move to the studio as co-chairman in November.
Nothing has happened yet. But it’s still early days since Snider left DreamWorks, effectively replacing Rothman in a somewhat less powerful role. The shake-up at Sony could lead to another shake-up at Fox, if Rothman makes moves to bring his protégée over to Culver City.
Equally uncertain is the fate of marketing chief Josh Greenstein, who was closely connected to Pascal and was only named president of worldwide marketing in September. Marketing execs are often the most endangered and the first to go when a studio hits choppy waters; but he’s new enough in the job that Rothman may wait to see how he performs. Greenstein had been poached from Paramount, and part of the draw was the chance to work with Pascal. He worked with Rothman on TriStar’s upcoming The Walk before the latter ascended to the top film post, and one source says the interactions were strained — but that could always change.
Tatiana Siegel contributed to this article.