Hurry. Somebody call Spider-Man

Times Staff Writer

Light romantic comedies are not supposed to be expensive, grueling endeavors, but the filming of "Fun With Dick and Jane" was anything but fun for Sony Pictures.

Months over schedule and millions over budget, the remake of the 1977 caper comedy had a revolving door of top-dollar screenwriters constantly reworking its script. A year after the Jim Carrey movie began filming, director Dean Parisot had to go back behind the cameras, reshooting some 30 pages of new dialogue. The movie missed its planned summer release and will now come out in December.

Sony has a long -- and, until recently, successful -- history of making big bets on and indulging the creative visions of top filmmakers and actors like Carrey. That strategy has yielded blockbusters with director Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies and solid hits with director McG's "Charlie's Angels" films, as well as Adam Sandler's "50 First Dates" and Will Smith's "Hitch." But over much of the past year, Sony's strategy has stopped working.

Outside of "Hitch," the studio hasn't seen one of its films gross more than $100 million in domestic theaters since October 2004's "The Grudge." In that span, the tally of Sony's high-profile washouts includes writer-director James L. Brooks' "Spanglish," writer-director Nora Ephron's "Bewitched" and director Rob Cohen's "Stealth." Other disappointments include "XXX: State of the Union," "Lords of Dogtown, "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" and "Oliver Twist."

The combined flops led Sony Pictures Entertainment, which includes flagship Columbia Pictures and sister units Screen Gems, TriStar Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics, to report a loss of $57.2 million in the quarter ending Sept. 30.

In the midst of this slump, Sony over the weekend released the $65-million "Zathura," a family-friendly fantasy based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, the author of "Jumanji." With pre-release audience surveys indicating scant interest in the film, "Zathura" opened unimpressively, with $14 million in ticket sales, well below Sony's hopes. The film finished in second place, trailing Disney's "Chicken Little," which held on to the top spot in its second weekend, bringing in $32 million, more than double "Zathura's" take.

But well before "Zathura" debuted, Sony began to examine and evaluate its decision-making procedures. "Nobody wants to be where we are today," says Amy Pascal, head of the motion picture group for Sony Pictures Entertainment. "And we've got to figure out how it happened." The studio now aims to make fewer movies, wants to increase the international appeal for its future productions, will cut back on midlevel productions that are neither pricey potential blockbusters nor low-budget genre movies, and is looking for more outside investors for its slate.

Sony recently sought out a financial partner for the upcoming, $85-million adaptation of "Memoirs of a Geisha" directed by Rob Marshall, the filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning "Chicago."

Bob Osher, the motion picture group's chief operating officer, also worked to reduce the combined gross profits Sony will pay to actor Tom Hanks, director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer, the creative team making Sony's 2006 adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code."

In another risk-reducing move, the studio pulled the plug on "The 8th Voyage of Sinbad," a planned expensive spectacle that was to pair "Matrix" star Keanu Reeves with director Cohen. While Cohen's "The Fast and the Furious" and the first "XXX" movie were global smashes, his $135-million "Stealth" was a summer flop, grossing just $32.1 million in domestic theaters and generating a Sony loss of almost $50 million.

"It didn't seem like a good idea for us to make that movie after 'Stealth,' " Pascal says of "Sinbad." Cohen declined to comment.

Sony says its recent underperformance has been exacerbated by 2005's nearly yearlong trend of fewer movie admissions.

"We started off the year with a couple of titles -- 'Are We There Yet?' and 'Guess Who' -- and people came in surprising numbers," says Jeff Blake, Sony's chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution. "And that hasn't happened in the second half of the year. We are all looking at what we can do differently."

Sony is quick to point out that its market share, as measured by the combined gross of the movies all Sony labels release, trails only 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. this year. The studio also notes that some movies that performed poorly in theaters, including "Bewitched" and "XXX: State of the Union," sold strongly on DVD. And even though Sony's sequel "The Legend of Zorro" was trounced at theaters by the much less expensive sequel "Saw II," the swashbuckling follow-up is playing well in overseas theaters.

Sony remains confident in its upcoming 2005 releases: "Rent," "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Fun With Dick and Jane." With several new jokes and a revised third act, "Fun With Dick and Jane" has proved very popular in audience previews, Sony says. In addition to "The Da Vinci Code," next year's Sony lineup includes the new James Bond movie "Casino Royale," the Sandler comedy "Click," a Will Ferrell comedy about a NASCAR driver, and the sequel "Underworld: Evolution."

"I feel good about the future," Pascal says, noting the studio's executives are by and large the same people who enjoyed good years in the past.

"We spend a lot of time saying, 'Guys, we were No. 1 in 2002, we were No. 2 in 2003 and No. 1 in 2004,' " Pascal says. "I remember a time where we were sixth and seventh."

All the same, interviews with more than a dozen agents, managers and producers who do regular business with Sony suggest that the studio has become almost paralyzed by its struggles, unable to clearly articulate a consistent creative philosophy and unable (or unwilling) to rein in untamed productions such as "Spanglish" or "Fun With Dick and Jane."

In another example of what several people say is Sony's indecisiveness, the studio has not been able to settle on a specific point of view or lead actress for its reworking of "I Dream of Jeannie," considering the very different choices of Jennifer Garner, Lindsay Lohan or Kate Hudson in the starring role.

Pascal says the studio's philosophy hasn't changed. "It's always in the end about good stories and telling them well," she says. When the current crop of underachievers were green-lighted 18 months ago, she says, they "all sounded like really good ideas."

Pascal says that although "Fun With Dick and Jane" was "not an easy process," she is nevertheless proud of the movie and believes it will play well with audiences when it opens Dec. 21. Eric Gold, one of Carrey's managers, says that although the production had its creative challenges, Sony steadfastly backed Carrey (who also served as a producer on the film) and Carrey's vision for the film. "They've been great partners," Gold says.

Despite the poor performance of the last films from Brooks and Ephron, Pascal says she will not vary from her strategy of hiring the town's most distinctive filmmakers. "I want to be in business with Sam Raimi," she says. "And David Fincher ['Panic Room'], and Spike Jonze ['Being John Malkovich'] and Nancy Meyers ['Something's Gotta Give'] and Jim Brooks. You know, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't."

Unlike other studio chiefs, Pascal adds, she will not fire directors from movies when they run into trouble. "Do I stand by my talent and believe in them? Yes," Pascal says.

Nevertheless, Pascal adds, "Our movies weren't good enough, period. They weren't fresh enough."

Roger Birnbaum, co-chairman of Spyglass Entertainment, an investor and overseas distributor of Sony's "Legend of Zorro" and "Memoirs of a Geisha," says Sony's slump, like so many others over time in Hollywood, will be short-lived.

"It happens to every studio -- it comes and goes," Birnbaum says. " 'Geisha' has a very good chance at winning the Oscar [for best picture], and then no one will remember this period. It took a lot of courage and insight to get that movie made."

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Box Office

Preliminary results (in millions) based on studio projections.

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Chicken Little $32.0 $80.8

Zathura 14.0 14.0

Derailed 12.8 12.8

Get Rich or Die Tryin' 12.5 18.2

Jarhead 12.3 47.1

Saw II 9.4 74.2

The Legend of Zorro 6.6 39.5

Prime 4.0 19.0

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story 3.8 28.9

Pride & Prejudice 2.8 2.8

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Source: Nielsen EDI Inc.

Los Angeles Times

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Slump at Sony

*--* Opening date Film Total domestic gross (In millions) 2/13/04 "50 First Dates" $120.7 6/30/04 "Spider-Man 2" 373.3 9/10/04 "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" 50.1 10/22/04 "The Grudge" 110.2 12/3/04 "Closer" 33.9 12/17/04 "Spanglish" 42.6 1/21/05 "Are We There Yet?" 82.6 2/4/05 "Boogeyman" 46.7 2/11/05 "Hitch" 177.5 3/25/05 "Guess Who" 68.8 4/29/05 "XXX: State of the 26.8 Union" 6/3/05 "Lords of Dogtown" 11.2 6/24/05 "Bewitched" 63.1 7/29/05 "Stealth" 32.1 8/12/05 "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" 22.2 9/9/05 "The Exorcism of Emily 75.0 Rose" 9/23/05 "Oliver Twist" 1.9 10/14/05 "The Fog" 28.0*

*--*

*As of Nov. 9

Source: Nielsen EDI Inc.

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