What's Really Behind Sony Pictures' Hiring of Michael De Luca

Pascal and De Luca

Is he simply a strong production executive, or is he being groomed for more? This "puts everybody who has been there a long time on notice."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Michael De Luca is the rare busy producer in Hollywood, so observers were surprised, to put it mildly, by the Dec. 6 announcement that the 48-year-old veteran will join Sony Pictures as co-president of production, sharing duties with 34-year-old Hannah Minghella. "I took it as, 'This is how much I don't want to produce Fifty Shades of Grey,' " joked one top film executive, alluding to the De Luca production shooting in Vancouver.

There are many reasons — personal and professional — De Luca would take a job many consider small for a person who was president of production at New Line during the 1990s and then at DreamWorks, not to mention a producer on such hits as The Social Network, Moneyball and Captain Phillips. But politics (and another big producer) might be a factor: Specifically, the ground at Sony is shifting, and the studio can be seen as a place offering upward mobility.

PHOTOS: On Board With 'Captain Phillips': Exclusive Portraits of Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi

Associates say De Luca has reasons for wanting a steady gig: to be near his children in Los Angeles and, as one puts it, "He's scared to death of flying." A studio insider says the move also makes sense for a producer who lacks a Hunger Games-type franchise. "If you're a producer who doesn't have financing, that is almost a nonexistent job," says this insider. "A creatively driven executive is the equivalent of what a producer used to be."

De Luca's return to a studio job strikes many industry veterans as more proof that "the good days are over," as one producer puts it. A leading agent concurs: "Even if you're doing well, you have no guarantee of any kind of sustainability. On every movie, you get crushed on the front and back end."

Often, a producer has to take reduced fees to get a movie made then gets pushed into a profit-sharing pool that might include top talent and even another producer who wants in. Consider that Social Network, Moneyball and Captain Phillips caught the fancy of the gifted but far-from-reticent Scott Rudin.

In an industry largely devoted to comic book movies, sequels and remakes, Rudin is the busiest producer of prestige adult dramas. Given how limited the market is for such fare, it seems fair to say Sony, under co-chairman Amy Pascal, is the only studio where Rudin consistently finds a home for his projects. So, if Rudin were to have an interest in preserving the status quo there, it makes sense that he would be nervous about retrenchments at the studio, which has been under pressure to improve profit margins. In August, former Fox film studio cochairman Tom Rothman arrived to revive Sony's TriStar label. Considering Rothman's reputation for fiscal discipline, Rudin might imagine — as others in the industry do — that Rothman would be a compelling candidate to run the Sony studio. Would Rothman pull the purse strings tight and be somewhat less receptive to Rudin's ideas?

STORY: Michael De Luca Joins Sony's Columbia as President of Production

Maybe. So Rudin might have more than one motive in being an enthusiastic supporter of De Luca taking the Sony job and possibly ascending. Rudin did not respond to inquiries, but a De Luca associate says Rudin "is masterful at the game of chess that is Hollywood."

Maybe De Luca simply is what Sony says: another executive who can come up with strong material. But many don't seem to buy it. They believe change is in the wind, even if it's not necessarily at the highest levels. Says an executive familiar with all players: The De Luca hire "puts everybody who has been there a long time on notice."