The news that Amy Pascal will step down as chairwoman of Sony Pictures is not shocking. In fact, it was expected.* This is how Hollywood works. You spend years running a studio or acting as president of production and then something goes wrong and you segue to a “producing” deal. That”s the way it”s been for almost 30 years and that”s the way it will be for the foreseeable future. Surviving any controversy, even one outside of your own control, is simply impossible.
*Although forgive our surprise this wasn”t left to a late Friday afternoon announcement to quell reaction from the cable news talking heads.
Pascal”s fate was sealed when numerous E-mail conversations she was a part of were leaked after a massive security breach credited to North Korean hackers took place on Nov. 24. Her E-mail exchange with producer Scott Rudin about the President of the United States' film tastes created a media firestorm nationally, but the revelations about current and past projects arguably were more damaging. Private E-mails that ripped upcoming films such as Cameron Crowe”s “Aloha” and the creative fights over “Jobs” (now at Universal) and a “Cleopatra” remake with Angelina Jolie (now likely dead) made many top creatives hesitant to continue working with the studio or Pascal”s team. It didn”t help that her efforts to make up for the leaks, which included a conversation with Al Sharpton and a now iconic moment with Jolie at a Hollywood event, came across as PR blunders both inside and outside of the industry.
Things got worse when Sony mishandled the release of “The Interview” in theaters last month. After receiving threats from the hackers not to release the film, the studio and theater owners became involved in a he said/she said, which found the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy pulled from theaters just days before its scheduled opening. This led to a rare moment of bipartisanship in Washington with President Obama saying the studio “made a mistake” and Republican lawmakers joining in pushing the industry to put the movie back in theaters. Sony changed their tune and found 581 mostly independent theaters to play the film on Christmas Day. Pascal”s co-chairman, Michael Lynton, took the brunt of this particular debacle, making appearances on news shows, standing by the studio”s original decision, but it was just another example of how the overall leadership of the Culver City powerhouse was failing. Now, Pascal, the more public face of the studio, is taking the fall for it all.*
*Why Lynton is not suffering the same fate is an excellent question.
The 56-year-old industry veteran had worked continuously for Sony since 1996, when she was named the studio”s President. In 2006, she was named co-chairman of the studio alongside Lynton. She had tremendous success helping shepherd the reboot of James Bond in “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall.” There was a breakthrough run of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow comedies including “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.” Will Ferrell became an established star with smashes such as “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Will Smith delivered hits such as “Hancock” and “The Pursuit of Happyness” and produced “The Karate Kid” remake staring his son, Jaden. And, for better or worse, there was a consistent run of “mostly” hit comedies from Adam Sandler.
Under Pascal's watch Clint Culpepper”s Screen Gems division knocked one profitable genre picture out of the park after another. And to balance out the less creative works, Pascal had refocused the studio on prestige pics, bringing Sony back into the awards season game. Before 2010″s nomination for “District 9,” the studio hadn”t landed a Best Picture nomination since the company”s art house division Sony Classics released “Capote” in 2005. The last time the big studio had a player in the Best Picture race was when “Jerry Maguire” was nominated in 1997. Since “District 9,” the studio has impressed with nominees such as “The Social Network,” “Moneyball,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips.”
It”s the creative failures along with the hack, however, that likely sealed Pascal”s fate. The studio”s “Spider-Man” reboot has turned into a creative disaster potentially damaging a superhero franchise that was once king of the box office of all superhero franchises. The modern day version of “Annie” earned worse reviews than the original 1982 movie adaptation (a cult classic now that wasn”t well liked at the time) and is nowhere near profitable. Outside of smaller franchises at Screen Gems such as “Underworld” and “Resident Evil,” big Sony hasn”t been able to generate the tentpole players their competitors thrive on outside of Bond (a partnership with MGM) and the aforementioned, sinking “Spider-Man.” Those are results that make stockholders nervous.
If 2014's mixed bag is one of the key reasons for her departure, it must be a tough pill for Pascal to swallow. The upcoming year features potential new blockbuster franchises in “Pixels” and “Goosebumps,” the return of 007 in “Spectre” and potential Oscar players in Robert Zemeckis” “The Walk” and Will Smith”s “Concussion.” A new Robert Langdon thriller, “Inferno,” is set for 2016 and Paul Feig”s new “Ghostbusters” looks like it could be a monster. And yet, like other studio heads that have fallen before her, Pascal won”t get any real credit for their success.
There will be a lot of speculation as to who will replace Pascal in the coming days. Former 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman is already running a reinvigorated Tri-Star Pictures at Sony and former New Line and DreamWorks president of production Michael De Luca seems like a strong candidate as well. Forgive us if we”re disheartened by the lack of female candidates to succeed her.
In an age where the diversity microscope is pointed at Hollywood more than ever, Pascal”s departure nearly finds every one of the world”s movie studios being run by men for the first time this century (Donna Langley at Universal saves it). Fifteen years ago, Stacey Snider was the chairman of Universal Pictures, Sherry Lansing was the co-chairman of Paramount Pictures,* Nina Jacobson was president of Walt Disney Pictures and Pascal was then president of Sony Pictures. Today, only Snider survives as co-chairman of 20th Century Fox, a position significantly junior to longstanding Chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos.
*Full disclosure, I worked for Paramount during Lansing”s reign.
In a world where FOX is now co-run by Dana Walden and Nina Tassler is now the chairman of CBS, Jennifer Salke is NBC Entertainment president and Bonnie Hammer is chairman of NBCUniversal Cable, something”s not quite right in the movie industry, is it? But, hey, let”s ignore the obvious, right? At least Pascal”s departure means they”ll finally figure out what to do with Spidey, because for too many people on the inside and outside of the industry, that”s all that matters.