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Amy Pascal's exit hints at new script for Sony

Amy Pascal was known as a risk taker. Studio's next head may not be so bold.

Amy Pascal, long considered one of the most powerful women in Hollywood — and a throwback to old-school moviemaking — is stepping down from her co-chair job at Sony Pictures Entertainment in the wake of the devastating cyberattack that crippled the studio.

Pascal's exit had been predicted by some analysts after hackers released embarrassing private emails she had written, including racially insensitive banter she exchanged with producer Scott Rudin about President Obama.

"The town was waiting for it to happen, because someone had to fall on their sword," said Peter Sealey, a consultant and former Columbia Pictures executive who called Pascal an executive who "took risks head on." "It was inevitable," he added. "After those emails got out, you don't recover from that."

FULL COVERAGE: Sony Pictures hacked

Even so, Pascal's departure for a new job leading a production company at Sony casts a cloud over the kinds of films the studio will be making in the future. The executive was an anomaly in modern corporate Hollywood, known for following her hunches and taking a chance on films such as "Moneyball" that other studio chiefs labeled too risky.

Several producers and managers said that Pascal's departure meant upscale dramas would now be a harder sell and less likely to get made.

Pascal "could be the last of the real movie moguls," said movie producer Bill Gerber. "Who else grew up in a business where the job definition was to make great movies and the profits would follow?"

The ouster caps a political firestorm that began when a cyberattack last November exposed the Pascal messages. Hackers cited Sony's release of "The Interview," Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's comedy imagining the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as motivation. President Obama has blamed the attack on North Korea.

Pascal did not mention the scandal as a reason for her departure. In a statement, Sony said she would assume a new role leading a film and TV production company based on the Sony lot in Culver City.

Pascal's emails revealed an executive with a frank and freewheeling approach — particularly in her exchanges with top-tier producer Rudin, who outdueled her in a negotiation over a planned Steve Jobs biopic.

But the coup de grace were emails in which she and Rudin kidded about what movies Obama might like, with titles such as "Django Unchained" and "12 Years a Slave" surfacing. The exchanges caused a furor among black leaders, and led to an apology from Pascal and a meeting with Al Sharpton.

On Thursday, the activist group Color of Change applauded the Sony developments.

"Amy Pascal stepping down from her position as co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment is the right decision," the group's executive director, Rashad Robinson, said in a statement. "In addition to being highly offensive, the contents of her leaked emails speak to a larger marginalization of black entertainers and exploitation of black audiences in Hollywood that must end."

But many also rallied to Pascal's defense. Producer and Los Angeles Film Festival director Stephanie Allain, who is black, sent out on Thursday a message expressing fondness for the outgoing executive. Noting Pascal's presence at the African American Film Critics Assn. awards, where Pascal presented Allain with an award Wednesday night, the latter tweeted "remembering the old days, celebrating the now."

Pascal joined Sony subsidiary Columbia Pictures as president in 1996 and was promoted to her current position a decade later. Her tenure was marked by a number of profitable franchises. The first three "Spider-Man" pictures grossed $2.5 billion worldwide and helped usher in the era of the modern superhero movie; the trio of "Men in Black" movies topped $1.6 billion worldwide.

She also found success with lower-cost comedies, including the "21 Jump Street" franchise, a little-regarded vintage TV show that nonetheless turned into a multifilm juggernaut for the studio.

But there have been pricey missteps too, particularly of late, including the 2013 bombs "Another Earth" and "White House Down." The revived "Spider-Man" franchise appeared to be losing momentum when the second installment was released last spring. The duds prompted pressure from activist shareholder Daniel Loeb long before the first Sony email was hacked.

Still, Pascal had become a hero to many creatives in Hollywood for her willingness to take a flyer on difficult dramas such as "The Social Network," "Moneyball" and other movies that bucked Big Hollywood's trend toward branded entertainment and movies with clear balance-sheet advantages.

"Moneyball" was a particular badge of pride for the studio chief, who made a controversial 11th-hour decision to replace filmmaker Steven Soderbergh with Bennett Miller, only to watch the film go on to take in $76 million domestically and notch six Academy Award nominations.

But the filmmaker-friendliness also may have contributed to Pascal's demise. The executive allowed Rogen and Goldberg wide berth not only in making "The Interview" but in depicting a graphic Kim Jong Un death scene, despite objections from Sony Corp. brass in Japan.

In noting the departure, Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment and a close professional and personal ally, noted that "Amy's creativity, drive and bold choices helped define SPE as a studio where talented individuals could take chances and push boundaries in order to deliver outstanding entertainment."

Lynton also noted: "In recent months, SPE faced some unprecedented challenges, and I am grateful for Amy's resilience and grace during this period."

Still, the hacking remains a sore spot. Current and former employees have filed class-action lawsuits, saying the company didn't do enough to prevent the cyberterrorists from penetrating the studio's networks and accessing personal records, including Social Security numbers, addresses and salaries.

And the frenzy over the emails did not play well at Sony's Tokyo headquarters, which is less familiar with the tabloid headlines common in the U.S.

Kazuo Hirai, president and CEO of Sony Corp., offered a more terse send-off than Lynton. He said Pascal had a "truly extraordinary career" and noted she worked with strong talent, before winding down with "I want to thank her for her years of dedication. I am pleased that she will continue to work closely with SPE in her new venture."

Meanwhile, speculation heated up over who might replace Pascal. Many experts believe the most likely successor will come from within the Culver City studio.

Among the leading contenders is Tom Rothman, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Fox Filmed Entertainment who has been charged with reviving the TriStar label at Sony. Rothman was responsible for a number of hits at Fox, including James Cameron's "Avatar" and "Titanic," but is considered less filmmaker-oriented than Pascal.

Other names include deputies such as Michael De Luca and Doug Belgrad, both currently on the lot.

Whoever lands the job might have a harder time making the kind of bold decisions the creative community favors; Pascal's personality and long tenure emboldened her in a way that a new hire might not be.

As for Pascal, while she will shift into a role with different challenges, there is precedent for such a move. Bigwigs such as Peter Chernin have found success as a producer, and Pascal's hands-on approach lends itself to the producer's chair.

"As long as you've got a good track record green-lighting films, you've got a job in Hollywood," said Sealey, the consultant and former Columbia executive. "She'll have a job, and she'll survive. Hollywood forgets anything short of mass murder."

Times staff writer Richard Verrrier contributed to this report.

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