New Columbia Pictures Chief on International Push: "We Don't Just Make Movies for the U.S." (Exclusive)

Tom Rothman_Doug Belgrad_Sanford Panitch - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Tom Rothman_Doug Belgrad_Sanford Panitch - Getty - H 2016

"Given that Asia right now is almost 50 percent of the box office on big event titles, it would be foolish not to have Asia in mind,” says Sanford Panitch, who takes over the studio from Doug Belgrad.

It has been 15 months since Tom Rothman took the film chairman job at the troubled Sony Pictures, and now he has firmly put his stamp on the studio. On June 3, Rothman appointed Sanford Panitch, 48, to run the main Columbia Pictures label, succeeding Doug Belgrad, who says he's stepping down to set up a yet-to-be-funded production company.

Rothman and Panitch have known each other for 15 years: Panitch worked at Rothman's former studio, Fox, and at New Regency before following Rothman to Sony to oversee local-language production as president of international film and television. Panitch tells THR the seven years he has spent working in foreign markets — recently he helped set up Attraction, a sci-fi movie from Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk (Stalingrad), which is headed to Imax theaters — will inform Columbia's strategy. "The primary goal for Columbia Pictures, the flagship label of the company, is to make global pictures," he says. "Given that Asia right now is almost 50 percent of the box office on big event titles, it would be foolish not to have Asia in mind when you are making a big visual-effects event movie or casting those kinds of movies. This is now the way the movie business has to evolve. We don't just make movies for the U.S. and hope they work for the rest of the world."

That syncs with the global emphasis Rothman has begun by buying international rights to such movies as the Blade Runner sequel (to be released domestically by Warner Bros.) and 2015's Insidious Chapter 3 (which Focus released in the U.S.).

Earlier in his career, Panitch worked with such filmmakers as James Cameron, David Fincher and Doug Liman, but his recent efforts have been overseas — he got Sony rights to Stephen Chow's Chinese hit The Mermaid in nine territories, where it grossed $16.8 million this year — and that has raised eyebrows among skeptics. "He comes from a world of microbudgeted movies. Now he's in charge of the big fish and eating with talent and agents that he's probably never dealt with," says one rival exec. But Panitch's response is that given the heightened interest in the international market, he has remained in touch with Hollywood agents representing filmmakers interested in foreign remakes or Chinese co-productions. Notes J.J. Abrams, a longtime friend who's known Panitch since they worked together on John Dahl's 2001 Joy Ride, "It's incredibly impressive to have watched him blaze trails in every direction, learning about different countries' approaches to local production and distributing films made in the U.S."

While Panitch inherits a 2016 slate from Belgrad that includes the Western remake The Magnificent Seven and the sci-fi romance Passengers, with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, Sony, which ranks last among major studios in 2016 domestic market share, is under pressure to perform. For Sony's most recent fiscal year, operating profit for the film unit was down 34 percent, and Sony Corp. CFO Kenichiro Yoshida recently said, "We regard 2016 as a transition period as the new team works to turn around the business." Although he says he hasn't seen the new Ghostbusters (July 15), Panitch, who has two teenagers with his wife, interior designer Kristen Panitch, predicts big things: "It isn't a sequel, it's a reboot, so you have to look at it through a different filter, as something new. My kids have never seen the original Ghostbusters. They like [this cast], and they are really excited to see the movie."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.