EmptyDoug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach were named presidents of Columbia Pictures in March but have been shepherding some of Sony Pictures Entertainment's biggest projects to the big screen since 2003. Together, they've overseen some of Sony's most valuable franchises — James Bond, "Spider-Man" and "The Da Vinci Code," to name a few. They also are charged with keeping happy some of the A-list talent who produce for the studio, from Will Smith to Adam Sandler. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Belgrad and Tolmach to discuss how best to navigate the studio through tough times, launch franchises and keep an eye on the competition.Matt Tolmach: Perhaps you didn't notice we are wearing very similar outfits. So it's the style first and foremost.
Doug Belgrad: There's several different things that allow us to work together well. Number one, we have pretty similar tastes in clothes and other things, in material and the kinds of movies we like to work on and see. At the same time, we're complementary in terms of how we approach material and our relationships with talent, producers and writers. So we appreciate what that other person is doing day to day, but we don't really step on each other's toes all that much. I think that was especially helpful early in the partnership.
Belgrad: Having worked on a bunch of movies with Will as the star and those guys as producers, I've rarely seen anyone with the kind of commitment to excellence that Will has, questioning every aspect of the production: the casting, the script, the cut, the music. Not in an overbearing way, but in a way that is best for the movie and will satisfy and entertain the audience in the biggest possible way. I am inspired by that kind of behavior. It forces you to really do the best work at all times.
Belgrad: Like many other businesses in the country at this moment, we're painfully aware of the financial crisis we're in the midst of. To be responsible to the company and to all the people who work at this company, we have to be selective. We're trying to make somewhere between 10-14 movies a year at Columbia Pictures. So we're trying to be smart about how we align who's on the lot as producers, how many movies we're making and how many deals we need to make to fill that pipeline. Sometimes we're forced to make difficult choices. We've cut a few deals; we haven't cut a large number of deals. You need to be able to show you're being effective and you're making money for the company and for the shareholders in order to justify your existence as executives; by extension, the deals on the lot have to be profitable.
Tolmach: You have to give people a reason to come back. You can't just rest on your laurels and say, "We made a couple of good ones, so let's just keep cranking them out." It doesn't work that way. The audience tells you pretty quickly that they're done. But ideally, with the right group of filmmakers, there's a long line for franchises. And there's many different ways in which they can be built and re-built. We're always going to be making "Spider-Man." If we know very few things, we know that is one of them. It's on us to keep making them as good as we can.
Belgrad: There have been 22 installments of Bond. We were fortunate to be part of the last two. It doesn't look like we're going to be part of the franchise going forward. But there are other franchises that we feel very strongly about that have more life in them. "Men in Black" is something very important to us. We're trying to relaunch "Ghostbusters." We think that's a potential franchise. We think $600 million-plus on "Hancock" is an indication that people have an appetite for another installment of that movie. There are very few franchises in the industry that have the vibrancy and the life that "Spider-Man" does or been as successful as each of the first three installments. We do have a number of properties that we hope to continue to capitalize on or to breathe new life into.
Tolmach: We've got new ones. We have "The Green Hornet."
Belgrad: And we're excited about "The Smurfs," which is being done with Sony Pictures Animation as a live-action/animation hybrid. Another point I want to make is that part of our strategy has been, over the last three years especially, to look at our slate as two big chunks: the star-driven and franchise-type pictures that we make for quite a bit of money and then the movies we're making in the $20 million-$40 million range, where probably half or even more of our slate are coming from. Movies like "Pineapple Express," "Superbad," "Vantage Point" and "Mall Cop" and many others that I'm not including. We're really focused on making movies at a price where we can work with filmmakers that are collaborative, where the risks aren't extraordinarily great, where we have a sense that we know how to market these movies. Then, if they work, they will break out and be highly profitable as well as creatively gratifying.
Belgrad: We haven't quantified it in terms of specific numbers. I think the reality is family movies do disproportionately well at the boxoffice and especially in home video. When we looked at the overall mix of our slate, we felt we could add a few titles per year. For us, though, a family movie isn't just a movie that kids insist they go to and mom and dad begrudgingly bring their kids to. "Spider-Man," you could argue, was a family movie. All-audience movies, like "Men in Black," those are the kinds of family movies we'd love to have. There are other more specifically targeted movies, and we've made a few of them in the past. We were involved in both of the last two "Pink Panther" movies, and we made the upcoming movie with Kevin James called "Mall Cop"; we have two movies down the pipeline with Sony Pictures Animation; we have "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" coming out next fall. It's not something where we're planting a flag and you're going to see a sea change in the way we do business.
Tolmach: There's no brilliant magical formula other than we try to see as many movies as we can. We say it to our executives: You've got to see all the movies. You've got to see them to know what other people are doing. You've got to see them to know what's working and what's not working. You have to know who the talent are and who the great filmmakers are and all of that. It's what we do. It's our bread and butter. I don't know if people naturally assume there are such bitter rivalries between film studios that we don't talk to one another. But the truth is we've all grown up in the business, and people tend to migrate from job to job, so we have friends who work at other studios. I talk to other presidents of studios all the time. So does Doug.
Tolmach: Cycling or intensive psychotherapy. I do not have time for both, so cycling makes me look better.
Belgrad: I run and I do yoga — that's my physical therapy.
Tolmach: Here's what Doug is too humble to tell you: Doug can crush a driver, a 3-iron, whatever you have, beautifully on a straight line like nobody I've ever been with. Actually, it's embarrassing. I once played golf and I belonged to a country club. And we were relatively new in our partnership and I took him out, and I thought I'd take Doug to my club and show him around. And he just ran me all over the course. He has a beautiful swing. … Now say something nice about me.
Belgrad: Matt has beautiful legs. (partialdiff)