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.