Sony’s new strategy: Families are valued

Eller is a Times staff writer.

Sony Pictures could begin to look more like Disney.

The studio most identified as the home of high-testosterone action flicks aimed at young male audiences -- think “Spider-Man,” “Men in Black” and most recently, James Bond -- has aggressive plans to tap into one of the few rising segments of the filmgoing public.

As part of a new strategy quietly underway at the Culver City-based studio, Sony is committing substantial financial and creative resources to build what it hopes will be a lucrative business around family-friendly movies. Among the many decidedly softer-edge projects the studio is developing are adaptations of “Goosebumps” and “Smurfs” and remakes of “The Karate Kid,” “Ghostbusters” and the 1968 musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

The shift comes as Sony grapples with the need to embrace one of the few bright spots in the slow-to-no-growth movie business. In recent years, family pictures have dominated the box office.

Executives say they don’t plan to abandon their strategy of producing franchises such as “Spider-Man,” adult-oriented comedies and low-cost horror pictures, all signature products of the studio. But they believe adding movies that appeal to parents and their kids could help counter the long-term trend of declining attendance.

“We definitely have a strategy to break into the family market and have those films complement our slate,” said Sony’s movie chief and co-chairperson, Amy Pascal. “It’s a huge market that’s growing and one that we have not had enormous success in so far.”


Like other Hollywood studios, Sony has cut back on the number of films it makes. This year it will release about 20, compared with more than 30 in recent years. Among the genres audiences will see less of, Sony executives say, are adult dramas such as “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Marie Antoinette,” which tend to draw too narrow an audience to justify their costs.

Sony’s game plan for the family addition is a response to shifts in the market that have rewarded films that draw parents and their kids into theaters while a large segment of the moviegoing audience -- young males -- would sometimes rather stay at home glued to the Internet, video game consoles and big-screen TVs.

An economy in free fall is also making it harder to lure consumers out of their homes to spend their hard-earned dollars on movie tickets, pricey popcorn and baby-sitters.

“In a world where kids are increasingly ensconced with some device and they disappear into their Facebooks and text messages, a family movie is a great way to share something together,” said James Steyer, founder and chief executive of Common Sense Media, an online media guide for parents.

And the box-office activity those films generate is not lost on Hollywood. Over the last five years, more than half of the top 10 annual highest-grossing movies were directed at the family audience, according to Media by Numbers.

The definition of “family movie” has broadened in recent years beyond the traditional G-rated picture to include edgier fare such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Harry Potter.” At the same time, what parents consider an appropriate movie for their kids can be highly variable.

“ ‘Family movies’ is a broad term,” said Ted Baehr, founder of Movieguide, which reviews movies according to “Christian and traditional family values.” “It’s good that studios are aiming to make more family movies, but parents have to take the responsibility” to know what’s in them because official movie ratings are not always indicative, he said.

Baehr’s organization has tracked the growth in family movies since it was launched in 1985. At that time, only 6% of the films released could be categorized as “aimed at families.” Today, Movieguide estimates, it is 40%. “It’s the biggest audience,” Baehr said.

Sony, however, despite its box-office success and pioneering digital animation in “Stuart Little” nearly a decade ago, has largely ceded the family market to such rivals as Disney, 20th Century Fox, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.

“Are we a little late to the party? Yes,” said Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton. “But does that preclude us from participating? No. We don’t want to be the Walt Disney Co., but this is another area of focus for us, and we’ve allocated significant resources to it.”

An I-could-have-had-a-V-8 moment for Sony occurred last year with “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” which cost $70 million to make and grossed $360.5 million in worldwide ticket sales. Pascal said the Fox hit prompted her to think Sony should take fuller advantage of two in-house divisions, Sony Imageworks and Sony Animation, to produce similar hybrids of live action and animation.

Given the length of time required to go from concept to cinema, it will be a couple of years before Sony’s family strategy becomes apparent on screen. One of the first family pictures, set for a December 2010 release, will be an adaptation of the popular 1980s cartoon show “Smurfs” and will combine live action with computer animation.

And although Sony will not continue as MGM’s financial partner and distributor of the James Bond movies -- the most recent, “Quantum of Solace,” opened this weekend in the U.S. -- the studio is working with Bond producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli on a remake of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” based on a novel by Bond creator Ian Fleming.

The word on family pictures is going out to producers who have close ties to the studio. Pascal’s chief deputies, Matt Tolmach and Doug Belgrad, have been soliciting ideas. Neal Moritz, who produced such hits for Sony as the comedy “Click,” said he was given a mandate to “identify movies that can become brands,” including those that appeal to families.

So far, he’s found more than one. Among them are “Goosebumps,” based on R.L. Stine’s popular series of horror tales aimed at tweens. “Problem Child” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are adapting the material to appeal not only to the book’s core fans -- 10-to-12-year-olds -- but their parents and younger siblings as well.

“We’re trying to make this a big family movie,” Moritz said. “Young kids will find it fun-scary versus scary-scary, and it’ll also have an adult component.”

He is also developing “Christian the Lion,” based on the popular YouTube video of the real-life story of two young men joyfully reuniting in Africa with the grown-up lion they had bought from Harrods department store in London in 1969 when it was a cub.

And megastar Will Smith is developing “Monster Hunter,” a comedy in which he will star as a child psychologist who works with kids who dream of monsters, and a remake of 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” with his son Jaden in the lead role.

Common Sense Media’s Steyer expects the family film trend will continue, given the “deep hunger” among parents for movies they can enjoy with their kids.

“More and more studios have headed in that direction, and there are enormous opportunities for the Sonys of the world,” he said. “Particularly in these tough economic times, they’re looking at these family films from a hard-nosed business perspective. They’re good for their bottom lines.”