To judge from its roster of upcoming films, Hollywood's hottest studio has seen the future. And it is wearing a badge.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, last year's runaway leader at the movie box office, is staking much of its crucial summer season this year on an unusual convergence of police-themed pictures.
The lineup, whether the result of strategy or an accident in film scheduling, represents a heavy bet on a genre that hasn't reliably minted blockbusters since the 1980s. It also diverges sharply from the effects-driven fantasies -- "Spider-Man," "Men in Black II" and "Stuart Little 2" -- that dominated the company's summer of 2002.
In mid-June, Sony Corp.'s Culver City-based Columbia Pictures is expected to release "Hollywood Homicide," a big-budget, hip-hop crime comedy produced by its affiliate, Revolution Studios. The picture is built around star Harrison Ford and a group of rappers, including Master P and Kurupt.
Columbia returns a month later with "Bad Boys 2," an action sequel to its 1995 surprise hit in which Will Smith and Martin Lawrence played a pair of Miami drug cops.
A few weeks after that, the studio is behind the shield again, this time with the Los Angeles-based police drama "S.W.A.T.," starring Samuel L. Jackson in a role adapted from the '70s television series of the same name.
Those pictures follow Columbia's planned release this month of "National Security," in which Martin Lawrence stars as a Los Angeles Police Department wannabe. (Sony's big bet for the high-stakes July Fourth weekend is "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," which is built not around cops but high-kicking private investigators played by Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu.)
Sony's police films may prove sufficiently different to avoid marketing confusion, or the audience perception of blue deja vu. But the heavy reliance on similarly themed pictures flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which counsels a healthy mix on any major studio schedule. And it is already raising some eyebrows among film industry observers.
"I don't think they thought this through. I think it just happened," said Peter Sealey, a marketing consultant and adjunct professor at UC Berkeley.
Sealey, who headed marketing at Columbia in the 1980s, added: "The odds will be that Sony can't replicate last summer again, back to back. Can they have a good year? Probably. Is it a risk to put three cop movies out? If the premise is there and the buzz is there, they have a shot."
Representatives of Columbia and Revolution declined to discuss their schedules.
The Sony film unit underwrites marketing costs and distributes for Revolution, which is headed by industry veteran Joe Roth. But it doesn't control the affiliate's movie choices.
In another unusual cluster involving the two entities, Columbia is releasing four films featuring star Adam Sandler over a 12-month period that began in June. They include "Mr. Deeds" and "Eight Crazy Nights" from Columbia, and "Punch Drunk Love" and next summer's "Anger Management" from Revolution.
In 2002, Sony's films collected $1.55 billion at the U.S. box office, 24% more than its nearest competitor, Walt Disney Co., with about $1.18 billion in ticket sales. Sony was powered by the success of "Spider-Man," a comic book fantasy that took in $403.7 million at the box office domestically.
One conceivable explanation for Sony's shift toward police pictures is cost. Although none of the summer cop films falls in the low-budget category -- "Bad Boys 2," for instance, has a reported price tag of $75 million -- they each cost far less than the $100-million-plus "Spider-Man," "Men in Black II" and "Stuart Little 2."
The poor performance of the "Stuart Little" sequel was especially stinging for the studio, despite its other successes. After Sony spent a reported $120 million to make the mouse fantasy, and an additional $50 million to market it, the studio saw it bring in just $64 million at the U.S. box office.
Some industry insiders wonder whether the studio may be setting itself up for another disappointment.
Only four police-themed pictures appear on Nielsen EDI's list of the 100 all-time box-office hits. Those include "Lethal Weapon 2," "Beverly Hills Cop 2," "Rush Hour 2" and the highest-grossing police film, Paramount's "Beverly Hills Cop," which took in $234.8 million after its release in 1984.
But more recently, men and women of the badge have found it tough going with big-screen audiences -- despite the popularity of cop shows on TV.
Last year, for instance, AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. released at least five police-themed pictures (though the studio avoided the kind of summer cluster that Sony now faces). The best performer among them, "Insomnia," starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, had just $67.3 million in ticket sales.
Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., called Sony's police lineup "a gamble," but added: "If the movies are good and have solid marketing behind them, they can all be hits. That's the bottom line."
The police genre appears to have performed best lately when it is barely recognizable as such. Thus, "Minority Report," a science fiction thriller in which Tom Cruise played a cop far in the future for 20th Century Fox, collected $132 million at the box office. A year earlier, the sleeper hit "The Fast and the Furious" took in more than $144 million domestically, although the scenes of illegal street racing upstaged the movie's undercover police theme.
Analysts warn that consumer attitudes may add to the risk of releasing more-realistic films.
"If I had to characterize the U.S. in 2003, I'd say there's a high level of anxiety," Sealey said. "We're sitting here worried about smallpox in the shopping mall. When you have that kind of anxiety overhanging things, people are going to want to escape."