This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Doug Belgrad, 46, is presiding over what is likely to be Sony’s most successful year at the worldwide box office in history, fueled by The Amazing Spider-Man (which has grossed $521 million and counting), Men in Black 3 and 21 Jump Street. And there are big commercial hopes for August’s Total Recall. The drama-free executive is coming up on his second year as sole president of Columbia Pictures, a post he had shared with Matt Tolmach (the two were named to the top gig in 2008 after serving as co-presidents of production) until Tolmach left to become a producer.
Belgrad is a curiosity: He studied history at the University of Pennsylvania and dreamed of running a network news division, even taking a year off to work as an intern for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. But upon graduation — and facing the prospect of a journalist’s lowly salary — he was sucked in by Wall Street and became a securities analyst covering entertainment and media companies. He joined Columbia as a management associate in 1989 and was sent to Los Angeles, where he worked on the business side under Jonathan Dolgen, known as a difficult taskmaster. Two years later, as a reward, Belgrad was rotated to the creative side of the studio, where he’s been ever since. Sitting down with THR in his spacious, light-filled office on the Sony lot, Belgrad — who lives in Beverly Hills with his wife, Christine, a former entertainment lawyer, and two sons, Daniel, 17, and Nicky, 11 (daughter Katherine, 19, is a sophomore at his alma mater) — reveals he’s pushing ahead with the Dragon Tattoo sequel and the Steve Jobs biopic as well as another Jumanji.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Did you ever think you’d end up working at a Hollywood film studio?
Doug Belgrad: If anything, I wanted to do television, especially news. I was really focused on being a journalist, although journalism isn’t that far afield from what I do now, which is a combination of storytelling and writing. It’s funny what happens on the way to pursuing your goals.
THR: Was your family in the entertainment business?
Belgrad: No. I grew up in Highland Park, a northern Chicago suburb, and my grandfather owned a pretty decently sized furniture manufacturing business that my dad took over. I often compare the furniture business to the movie business — it has a manufacturing side to it, a marketing side to it and a sales side. There’s also a regular cycle of product introductions; you’re creating something new that will hopefully connect with the audience.
THR: What were some of the defining moments of your early career at Columbia?
Belgrad: I developed two very important relationships — Will Smith and Adam Sandler. Amy [Pascal] convinced Adam to do Big Daddy in the late 1990s, and I worked on the movie. I’ve been the Adam guy since. I met Will during Men in Black and Bad Boys and became close with both him and his partner James Lassiter.
THR: Are you concerned that there is Adam Sandler fatigue at the box office? His summer comedy That’s My Boy fared poorly, while last year’s comedy Jack and Jill underperformed.
Belgrad: It’s hard when any movie doesn’t work. And certainly when you’ve built a very successful business with a partner, you want that partner to do well. Clearly, his last two movies haven’t lived up to everyone’s hopes and expectations, but Adam has had an unbelievable track record and connection to the audience. We’re very excited about Hotel Transylvania and Grown Ups 2. Adam’s never done a sequel.
THR: Were there any problem areas with Amazing Spider-Man?
Belgrad: Yes. The section where Rhys Ifans‘ character turns irrevocably into the Lizard. It took several months to figure out, and the filmmakers cut a bunch of scenes. In software parlance, it required a patch.
THR: Will Marc Webb return to direct the sequel?
Belgrad: We’d really like him back, but there are obstacles. He has an obligation to Fox. [Webb owes Fox a post-(500) Days of Summer film.]
THR: How do you engage a younger generation of moviegoers who ingest product in constantly evolving ways? Is there any fear that they won’t respond to remakes/reboots of properties like Total Recall, which they might never have heard of?
Belgrad: The moviegoing audience is aging, and one of our challenges is how to excite our younger demographics who don’t see moviegoing as part of their social habits like baby boomers did. You have to think about it as you are building franchises, extending franchises or trying to find ways to be original. A lot of the titles from the ’80s are being made [or remade]; young people don’t know the original, older people have a nostalgia for it — the job is to differentiate the film enough and make it fresh. It has created some mantras for us: Good is more important than it’s been in a really long time.
THR: The original approach you took in making 21 Jump Street more than paid off. Will you make another? Channing Tatum certainly has turned into the star of the moment.
Belgrad: Yes, we plan to start shooting in the fall of 2013. There are very few actors — I’m going to quote Amy — who can do romance, action and comedy. We’re in business with two of them, Channing Tatum and Will Smith.
THR: Smith’s Men in Black 3 has grossed north of $611 million worldwide, but is that enough to put the film in the black? Will there be a fourth installment?
Belgrad: We’re very pleased with the financial performance of Men in Black 3, and we believe it is an ongoing franchise. We’re going to do [another one], but we don’t have clarity yet on how it should be done.
THR: With awards season approaching, what are Sony’s prospects?
Belgrad: We’re releasing Kathryn Bigelow‘s movie domestically, and we’re The Weinstein Co.’s partner on Django Unchained. As part of our overall mix, we like to have high-quality movies that connect with the audience, as both The Social Network and Moneyball did.
THR: Are you concerned about the conservative charge that Bigelow’s movie, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, could help President Obama’s re-election?
Belgrad: We’re cognizant that this is a bit of a hot potato, but the truth is, I don’t think there’s anything there.
THR: What is the status of the Steve Jobs biopic? Have you brought aboard a director?
Belgrad: No, Aaron Sorkin will adapt it first, and we’ve been waiting for him to start. He’s been very busy with his HBO show, The Newsroom. We feel that there’s nobody better for this job than Aaron. It won’t be a traditional birth-to-death biopic, and Aaron is looking for an idea that is more akin to how Social Network unfolded.
THR: Are there areas of your slate that you — as well as your bosses, Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton — would like to strengthen?
Belgrad: Michael has created a bit of a mandate to do more in the family space. It involves animation [which Belgrad doesn’t oversee], hybrid and live action. Michael’s impact on the studio is great; he helped reel in The Smurfs property. We’re going to try and reimagine Jumanji and update it for the present.
THR: How has it been running the president’s office solo?
Belgrad: Matt was a great partner, and I miss him. The obvious changes have been the additional workload and increased volume of decisions. But Hannah Minghella has done a great job since joining as head of production. Movie studios are like sports franchises: There’s an overall culture, and it’s never about just one person.
FROM HIGHLAND PARK, ILL. TO HOLLYWOOD: Doug Belgrad and John Hughes aren’t the only entertainment notables this affluent northern Chicago suburb has turned out.
Paul Brickman: The writer-director is best known for Risky Business, one of a slew of famous movies shot (or partially shot) in Highland Park, including the John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
William Goldman: The screenwriter, novelist and playwright’s credits include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride and All the President’s Men. “He’s truly one of the greatest screenwriters of our time,” says Belgrad.
Adam Goodman: As president of Paramount Motion Pictures Group, Goodman has the same job as Belgrad. And like Belgrad, his father also was in the furniture business (Belgrad was friendly with Goodman’s older brother growing up).
F. Gary Gray: The director’s credits include The Italian Job and Law Abiding Citizen.
Allan Loeb: Belgrad knew of the younger Loeb from the ‘hood, but they never connected — until Sony bought Loeb’s script The Only Living Boy in New York in 2005. Loeb would work on several Sony projects, including Just Go With It and the upcoming Kevin James comedy Here Comes the Boom.
Jeff Melvoin: The acclaimed showrunner’s credits include Army Wives, Alias and Picket Fences.
David Seltzer: The writer-director’s roster of films includes The Omen, Bird on a Wire and Dragonfly.
David Semel: Belgrad’s second cousin, Semel is a prolific television director whose credits include the Heroes pilot, CSI, No Ordinary Family and House M.D. He’s presently working on Fox’s Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey.
Mitch Semel: David Semel‘s older brother is a television programming executive who now runs his own company. He was the oldest of the three cousins and inspired Belgrad.