For much of last year, Amy Pascal was under fire.
The co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment presided over two of last year’s big-budget bombs, “After Earth” and “White House Down.” Her studio reported losses of $181 million for the summer months.
Activist investor Daniel Loeb hammered Pascal’s division, demanding an end to the “free passes” Sony studio executives got when their films disappointed and calling on parent company Sony Corp. to spin off part of its entertainment business.
But speculation that Pascal’s days may be numbered has been nearly silenced by an impressive roster of commercially successful awards-season films, including “American Hustle,” “Blue Jasmine” and “Captain Phillips” — all of which are likely to be among the biggest recipients of Academy Award nominations when they are announced Thursday.
Sony walked away with seven Golden Globes on Sunday — more than any other studio — and the expected Academy nominations are likely to further boost box-office receipts and burnish the reputation of Pascal, who is perhaps Hollywood’s most powerful female film executive.
“Amy has always been nimble about change,” said Doug Wick, who produced “Memoirs of a Geisha” for Sony and has known Pascal for more than 20 years. “She is tough on herself and always asks the hard questions, but she has never lost connection to her most valuable asset — which is a remarkable instinct for talent and storytelling.”
Pascal, 55, has a reputation for good relations with talent and a hands-on approach. In 2009, she scrubbed production on the baseball film “Moneyball” days before it was to begin filming, and hired Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin to rewrite the screenplay. The film went on to earn six Oscar nominations.
With strong ties to film powerhouses including Will Smith and Adam Sandler, Pascal is seen by her movie industry peers as the studio’s main creative decision maker.
Because of this, Pascal — and not her boss, Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton — has been the main target of criticism when Sony films have underperformed.
Pascal, whom colleagues and friends describe as warm and unpretentious, is a film lover who lists “All About Eve,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Chinatown” among her favorite movies.
“She is very disarming [and] a fun person to be around,” said Bradley Cooper, who stars in and executive produced “American Hustle” and will appear in an upcoming Sony film for director Cameron Crowe. “I’ve been over the moon with how hands-on she is, and how director- and actor-friendly she is.”
Pascal, who attended Crossroads School in Santa Monica and graduated from UCLA with a degree in international relations, is married to former New York Times film business reporter Bernard Weinraub, and they have a teenage son.
Pascal has shepherded some of the industry’s top movies, including “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “A League of Their Own,” and “Charlie’s Angels.”
But she and the studio also have had a reputation for spending lavishly — a characterization that Sony insiders say is unfair, because the studio, like its competitors, has been trimming costs in recent years.
Pascal, who declined to comment through a company spokesman, took the stage at a November investors’ conference to explain the state of the studio’s affairs.
“In 2013 we had some movies in the summer that didn’t meet our expectations,” Pascal said. “That has led us to take a hard look at what we are doing.”
The studio said it was lowering overhead by at least $250 million and would concentrate more on television, where recent productions included “Breaking Bad.” Sony will also reduce the number of films it releases.
Sony Pictures, which includes Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics and other entities, also has reshuffled its executive ranks in recent months, shedding several veteran officers and hiring two key executives.
In August, Sony partnered with former Fox Filmed Entertainment Co-Chairman Tom Rothman to restart its TriStar Productions banner.
In December, the studio named producer Michael De Luca, whose credits include “Captain Phillips” and the forthcoming “Fifty Shades of Grey” adaptation, president of production for its Columbia Pictures unit.
Those hires helped fuel talk that Pascal, who has worked at Sony since 1996 and has a contract that expires in 2015, might become the next studio head to depart. Warner Bros. film head Jeff Robinov had stepped down in June, and Universal Pictures’ Adam Fogelson was let go in September.
Lynton said he fully supports Pascal.
“In no uncertain terms, it never occurred to me to replace Amy,” said Lynton, chairman of the studio and chief executive of Sony’s entertainment arm, which includes the studio, Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Sony Music Entertainment.
“I think she is doing a terrific job in the role she is playing in the company,” he said.
Added Rothman: “Amy is an exceptional, first-rank studio head and I can’t imagine that she is going anywhere. I certainly hope not.”
Scott Rudin, who produced “Captain Phillips,” “The Social Network,” “Moneyball” and other films with Sony, said that Pascal remains squarely in charge.
“Tom and Mike are fantastic hires,” Rudin said. “But they are hires.”
Loeb, whose hedge fund Third Point owns about 7% of Sony, said in a July letter to his company’s investors that the company’s entertainment arm was “poorly managed.”
But a source with knowledge of Loeb’s current thinking on Sony Pictures said the recent changes at the studio — from the budget cuts to a new emphasis on television production — have left the hedge fund investor “hopeful.”
The business side of Hollywood always wants executives who can drive hard bargains.
Pascal’s fans, however, say that it’s her film smarts that make her so valuable to Sony.
Barbara Broccoli, who produces the James Bond films, said that Pascal was instrumental in rebooting the franchise, which took a darker turn with 2006’s “Casino Royale.” Pascal supported the controversial casting of Daniel Craig as 007 in that film, Broccoli said.
“It would be hard to find anyone other than Amy who would have … been so supportive with us,” Broccoli said.
The most recent Bond picture, 2012’s “Skyfall,” grossed more than $1.1 billion worldwide. That film helped Sony Pictures finish No.1 in box-office market share in 2012, but it was fourth last year.
Sony has a handful of high-profile upcoming releases that could keep up its current momentum, among them the World War II thriller “The Monuments Men,” a “Robocop” remake and a new “Spider-Man” film.
Despite the Golden Globe wins and a slew of Oscars over the years, Sony Pictures Entertainment has never released a film that won the Academy Award for best picture. This year, a handful of Sony’s films could be nominated in that category.
A win would be massive. But even the nominations mean something, Rudin said.
“If they come out of Thursday with three of the 10 best picture nominations, that’s an astonishing level of success — but all of them were in the works before there was a Daniel Loeb conversation,” Rudin said.