Sony faces creative uncertainty as Pascal prepares to exit

Amy Pascal's departure will leave Sony in creative flux

Amy Pascal's exit from Sony Pictures comes as the studio faces one of its biggest creative crossroads.

The film studio has been trailing its Hollywood rivals when it comes to big, reliable franchises — the kind of blockbusters that drive the box office. These films are considered an essential part of a modern Hollywood that has to answer to Wall Street investors.

Sony Pictures finished 2014 ranked fourth among the six major Hollywood studios, bested by 20th Century Fox, Disney and Warner Bros. The $1.26 billion in U.S. and Canada ticket sales was well behind Fox's $1.94 billion last year, according to entertainment data firm Rentrak.

Whoever takes over for Pascal will be left with a studio at a point of uncertainty. This year, there's little in the way of expected tent poles other than the new James Bond film "Spectre." Sony's slate largely consists of unproven, stand-alone movies that lack the built-in appeal of brand-name releases.

"There isn't that much in the pipeline," said veteran entertainment industry analyst Harold Vogel, "and they're going to have to rebuild that."

The studio has been grappling with the health of its key "Spider-Man" franchise for some time. Ambitious plans to re-launch the series with director Marc Webb at the helm ran into trouble last year when "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" took in less money than Webb's first installment.

To address the issue, the studio has turned to "Spider-Man" spin-offs, including Drew Goddard's "Sinister Six," which will focus on a number of villains in the Spidey pantheon when it hits theaters in 2016. "The Amazing Spider-Man 3," meanwhile, has been tentatively pushed back two years to 2018, and its fate is uncertain.

The latest James Bond movie, coming this fall, marks a welcome entry given the success of 2012's "Skyfall," which took in more than $1.1 billion worldwide. But the 007 titles are made at arm's length from Sony, produced by the Broccolis, the family that controls the iconic spy property.

"Other than Bond and Spider-Man, they have not built their studio on a tremendous number of tent poles in the way that Disney-Marvel or Fox or Warner Bros. have," said Daniel Ernst, an analyst in New York who follows Sony. "They have not really played that game."

Instead, Sony hopes to hit with a number of one-off genre or drama movies in the coming months. They include this March's "Chappie," the latest sci-fi effort from "District 9" director Neill Blomkamp; plus "The Walk," the dramatization of Philippe Petit's high-wire act across the Twin Towers by director Robert Zemeckis.

Although sequels are a long shot for some of the properties, "Goosebumps," starring Jack Black and based on R.L. Stine's bestselling book series, could provide some heat given the voluminous amount of literary material available on which to base future films.

Some analysts, including Ernst, support the studio's willingness to release mid-budget films along with the bigger summer action movies.

"They're not reliant on these massive franchise movies that sometimes flop," he said.

But these stand-alone films don't always work. Sony had a number of misfires that included 2013's "After Earth" and "White House Down."

One of the studio's most promising comedies — the long-discussed "Ghostbusters" reboot — has finally started taking shape, with Paul Feig directing and Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig costarring. That won't hit theaters until next year.

Talent relationships could be an issue after Pascal leaves her top post.

The Will Smith relationship, long a linchpin of the Sony business, is in a trickier spot than it's been in years given "After Earth" and the underperformance of last year's holiday musical remake "Annie," produced by Smith's Overbrook Entertainment.

And the relationship between Sony and a number of Scott Rudin collaborators, including writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, could be imperiled. Personal emails between them, many embarrassing and confrontational, about a potential Steve Jobs movie were released as part of the massive hack of Sony's computer system in November.

The film is now with Universal Pictures.

On Thursday, Sony said Pascal will step down from her co-chair position to become a producer on the studio's lot in May. Her departure comes after her emails, which included some racially insensitive remarks about President Obama, were leaked in the wake of the cyberattack.

Analysts believe Sony will choose a replacement for Pascal from within its own ranks. Possible candidates mentioned include Sony's TriStar boss Tom Rothman, longtime Pascal deputy Doug Belgrad, and producer Michael De Luca.

Sony could undergo a significant shift in direction if Rothman is elevated to Pascal's position. Though a longtime Pascal confidant, Rothman, the former head of Fox Filmed Entertainment, has a very different sensibility from Pascal and could alter the creative trajectory of the studio.

But a number of the people who work under Pascal share her approach to film, especially Belgrad, one of the most senior figures on the lot.

Not all analysts think the company should turn its focus to the expensive tent pole films that have delivered huge box-office tallies for its rivals.

It may be wiser to look to new, fresh filmmakers with lower budgets to generate new hits, said film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon.

"Sony really has to develop a new identity, and the best way to do that is to give people with interesting ideas small budgets and see what they do," Dixon said. "Only new ideas, new concepts — from the margins — will rejuvenate Sony."

Times staff writer Josh Rottenberg contributed to this report.

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