Sony's Uphill Climb to Build Bankable Film Franchises

Tom Rothman's film division has turned "bits and pieces" of IP into hits to grow studio revenue to $1.5 billion — despite a few flops.
Sony, which nabbed rights for a 'Masters of the Universe' movie, also is planning new 'Ghostbusters' and 'Men in Black' films.   |   Courtesy of Everett Collection; Courtesy of Photofest
Tom Rothman's film division has turned "bits and pieces" of IP into hits to grow studio revenue to $1.5 billion — despite a few flops.

Late last year, Sony's leadership team of chairman Tom Rothman and Columbia Pictures president Sanford Panitch was under the blade of He-Man's Power Sword. After having ceded the big-brand IP of Barbie to Warner Bros., Sony was facing the loss of a second Mattel property, Masters of the Universe.

Despite spending what insiders say was about $15 million since 2007 developing a much-needed franchise, the studio never pulled the trigger, mainly due to previous regimes' trigger shy approach to the material. Mattel was ready to take the rights elsewhere before intense talks ended, with Sony keeping He-Man at the studio. In fact, to keep the momentum and happy new vibes of a renewed partnership going, Sony hired new writers to work on the script.

The battle served to underscore Sony's re-energized commitment to building branded franchises. Facing a dearth of IP to call its own, the studio has managed to manufacture its own franchises to grow its theatrical division revenue 50 percent in 2018 to $1.5 billion. But Sony Corp. CEO Kenichiro Yoshida, who described the tech conglomerate as a "creative entertainment company" during his Jan. 7 CES keynote in Las Vegas, may be expecting more.

"Earnings, lineup, titles, box office results were almost all better than guidance and better than we expected, but I'm not sure if this met Sony management's expectations," says Masahiro Ono, an analyst who covers Tokyo-based Sony for Morgan Stanley. "The line-up of franchises for this year looks very good."

Big branded franchises are, for better or worse, what drives the modern theatrical business and Sony up until a few years ago was mostly sitting on the sidelines, instead focusing on star vehicles, prestige plays or pricey comedies. Putting aside Spider-Man and the James Bond movies, producers and rival execs note that the studio did not have a deep library of material it owned and could develop.

Thanks to a flurry of dealmaking, there's a lot of activity on the Culver City lot. The Sony team has been able to make deals to reunite casts for Zombieland 2 and a third Bad Boys movie, Bad Boys For Life. And video game adaptation project Uncharted, already with a track record of losing filmmakers, lost director Shawn Levy late last year, but earlier in January the studio quickly put 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Dan Trachtenberg in the seat, keeping the Tom Holland-starrer on track for a summer start.

Sony will unveil its new Men in Black movie in June and has found itself with three new franchises thanks to surprises at the box office. Jumanji 2 begins production in early February. So too does a sequel to Peter Rabbit, which grossed $351 million worldwide last year. As for Venom, the studio's top global earner in 2018 with $855 million, Sony has put scribe Kelly Marcel to work on a sequel, with antihero Morbius next on the list of Spider-Man villains to head to the big screen.

Even Ghostbusters is back. After the divisive all-female reboot in 2016 lost money, Sony said Jan. 15 that a new movie, helmed by Jason Reitman, son of one of the architects of the original 1980s movies, will shoot this summer for a 2020 release.

But that doesn't mean headwinds aren't blowing. A hoped-for reboot of the Dragon Tattoo series was a washout, with Girl in the Spider's Web grossing just $34.9 million worldwide. Will Ferrell's Holmes & Watson will lose the studio at least $20 million, sources say. And while the live-action Spider-Man movies have been rejuvenated thanks to Marvel Studios, some wonder what happens when that 2015 deal with Disney expires. (That pact doesn't impact plans for spinoffs of the animated hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.)

Still, the outlook for Sony's film division is brighter than it was a couple of years ago. Says an agency partner who does business with Sony, "Tom has been able to build franchises for the studio with the bits and pieces that Sony has and launch them out of thin air."

This story also appears in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.