As Sony made the decision Wednesday to scrap the Dec. 25 release of “The Interview,” casual observers found themselves asking some logical how-could-this-happen questions. A broad and benign Seth Rogen comedy causes an international incident that threatens to bring down one of the world’s biggest entertainment conglomerates, and throws Hollywood into crisis besides? It’s a turn of events you’d almost expect in....a Seth Rogen comedy.
But those who’ve been following the studio and its films had a slightly different reaction: Things like this seem to happen a little more often to Sony.
This is not the first time the studio has been caught in a political firestorm over a holiday release. Two years ago, Sony seemed to be on a smooth Oscar course with its Osama bin Laden assassination story “Zero Dark Thirty” — critical love, awards nominations — when a host of Democratic politicians led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) seized the opportunity to decry “Zero Dark’s” suggestion that torture yielded critical intelligence. Sony soon found itself embroiled in a debate over CIA interrogations it neither expected nor wanted.
Many of Sony’s provocative movies and their provocations are the result of Pascal’s leadership. There’s been a lot of talk about whether the longtime studio chief will survive this latest flap. After an up-and-down 18 months — the studio seemed to crank out bomb after bomb for a period of 2013 — the prospect of intimate emails splashed across the Internet in Pascal’s casual, from-the-hip style didn’t exactly scream long-term job security.
But to the agents, managers and producers I’ve spoken to around town over the past week, there is only one reaction to the prospect of a Pascal ouster: deep sadness.
Perhaps more than any studio chief, they point out, Pascal has been willing to roll the dice on difficult films, the kinds of films that make so many want to be a part of this hair-raising world in the first place.
From its Culver City lot, Sony has long conducted business differently than many companies around town. That starts with its co-chair executive structure — the yin and yang of Pascal and the more corporate-minded Michael Lynton, in many respects unique among major studios--and is aided by their conglomerate bosses sittingan ocean away.
These differences are also reflected in the films: In the last few years alone the company has released Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark,” David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” David Ayers’ “Fury,” Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” and Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball.” That’s a list that would make the prestige-minded Harvey Weinstein jealous, and looks a lot more like a the renegade slate of a Hollywood studio circa 1974 than the franchise slate of a studio circa 2014.
True, Sony is hardly shouldering the financial risk it once might have — “Zero Dark” and “Hustle,” for instance, were bankrolled by the independent scion Megan Ellison. And it was notable reading the Sony email leaks that for the recent Steve Jobs biopic, the studio was unwilling to give Danny Boyle a relatively paltry $33 million to make the movie unless it featured a major star, a dictum that led to producers exiting for Universal.
And let’s not sugarcoat it. Sony still trades in plenty of the interchangeable tent poles that inspire many of the justifiable eye rolls toward modern Hollywood; this is still the home, after all, of “Smurfs,” “Spider-Man” and Sandler. Corporate realities must be faced, and Sony gets its hands dirty in the sandbox with the best of ‘em. For the past year or so it’s been on the hunt for Spidey spinoffs the way most of us go on the hunt for Christmas presents.
But the company’s unusually high enthusiasm for risky films (you once just called them good films) and Pascal’s more gut-based approach to making those films are part of what might be called the Amy Anomaly.
This was perhaps best encapsulated by “Moneyball.” A decade ago, Michael Lewis’ bestseller seemed almost unfilmable, a numbers-based look at baseball stats with just one narrative through-line, if that. Pascal was willing to take a stab, and when she didn’t like Steven Soderbergh’s approach she fired him--three days before filmmakers were ready to decamp from Los Angeles and New York for the Louisiana set.
At the time, many in the industry thought this was a strange move — improvisational at best, misguided at worst. Yet Sony went back to the drawing board with Miller, and the finished product proved vindicating, the kind of polished and smart grown-up entertainment most of us came of age thinking studios were supposed to make all the time.
Even when Sony takes commercial swings, it can do so with a bit more style and verve. The upcoming “Goosebumps” falls onto this category, with the movie aiming for a more subtle, “E.T.”-like take on R.L. Stine’s classic series. A-list relationships are with the likes of Pitt and George Clooney; the latter moved his production company from Warner Bros. to Sony believing he’d found a more hospitable home.
And a few years back Pascal and her team put Marc Webb — a hipster hero who had done exactly one movie, “(500) Days of Summer” — on one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood when it hired him for “The Amazing Spider-Man." Whatever you thought of the final product, it was hardly the conventional choice for a huge summer release.
These bold moves of course come with big backlashes, especially where charged fact-based stories are concerned. Pascal herself is aware of this. After Jobs fell apart, she wrote to her staff:
“Let’s make sure we learn every lesson here, but believe me, it won’t be the last mistake we ever make. ... And between us, how would we like to be at the screening with Kaz and Yoshida-san [top Sony Corp. executives] when they see the movie for the first time ... iPads and North Korea and even Dian [sic] Feinstein will seem like child’s play.” It’s hard to imagine too many major studio heads — to say nothing of Hollywood’s real cash-generator these days, Marvel — ever having a need to write those words.
When these backlashes do come, Sony doesn’t necessarily appear fully prepared for them. Throughout the “Interview” controversy the studio has seemed genuinely blindsided by the North Korean response and been late to react. Ditto for “Zero Dark,” which was cruising to a big night at the Oscars until the lawmaker criticism started, and a lockdown, say-nothing approach by the studio allowed Feinstein and point-scoring pols to get the upper hand. By the time Sony mobilized, it was too late.
You can argue that if “The Interview” had been a sly satire instead of a broad comedy, it might have earned more of a pass, and that going so broad with such a controversial idea was a misstep from the outset. But the very idea of using a real-life villain in today’s safe climate also projects a certain boldness — the kind that gives Wall Street fits, sure, but should hearten anyone worried that the suits have snuffed out all artistic vision.
It remains to be seen whether Pascal, even if she stays, will feel so emboldened in the future. But for a Hollywood so habitually unwilling to take big swings, it’s nice to find a studio that sometimes still trains its eye on the outfield fences.