Sony shifts tower of power

Exec trio to build on momentum

The disclosure last week that Sony Corp. of America would soon be shaking up the pecking order of executives at its Sony Pictures Entertainment division has produced more questions than answers.

Sony Corp. of America chairman-CEO Howard Stringer made it clear a year ago that he wanted an exec who understood both the digital and film worlds to run the company.

Now, he’s done just that with three execs, upping Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment prexy Yair Landau along with Columbia Pictures chair Amy Pascal and marketing and distribbing capo Jeff Blake to co-equal corporate level positions reporting to SPE chairman-CEO Calley.

But that’s where the questions start. For instance:

  • The upcoming move begs the related question of how newly upped execs will interact with Calley — and for how long.

  • It also raises questions about how and under what criteria the studio will greenlight movies going forward.

  • And with changes at the top, it raises questions about a ripple effect on senior management of Columbia Pictures — after all, Amy Pascal isn’t the only exec seeking a reward for the B.O. prowess of “Spider-Man” and “Men in Black II.”

Some insiders at Sony are wondering, ‘Does any of this really matter?’ Despite a fuzzy executive lineup, the studio has formidable momentum from a hit-heavy summer slate that has broken studio records. Plus, Revolution Studios in 2003 will uncork a star-laden lineup including Julia Roberts (“Mona Lisa Smile”), Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson (“Anger Management”) that complements upcoming Col franchises like “Bad Boys 2” with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and “Charlie’s Angels 2” with Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore.

Maybe fuzz isn’t bad for buzz?

To start, the 72-year-old Calley has requested a two-year extension on his current contract, which expires in March (Daily Variety, May 15). But insiders say there’s been no action on the matter and may not be until September or later, when current chief operating officer Mel Harris is expected to depart.

These insiders also say that Sony corporate brass want to maintain largely operational status quo for the time being, and this could prompt at least a one-year Calley extension. Few people seriously expect Sony-based Joe Roth to ankle his Revolution Studios given the roiling stock market and the richness and freedom of his current deal.

Landau will get first-time inclusion in green-lighting talks — Pascal and Blake already enjoy that — and will take over many of the day-to-day management chores Harris has performed. His arrival in the troika supercedes the previous influence of Harris and homevid chief Ben Feingold on the greenlight process.

Landau’s addition isn’t much of a surprise.

As the head of SPDE, he oversaw the studio’s inhouse f/x facility Sony Pictures Imageworks (“Spider-Man,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and the “Stuart Little” pics), as well as its Internet and other post-production endeavors.

Sony is in the midst of building an animation studio through Imageworks and will rely on Landau to shepherd the development and production of the animated projects that emerge.

With Col continuing to add big budget, f/x-driven pics to its slate, it also needs someone with Landau’s expertise who can advise whether or not the pics can be produced with workable budgets.

In all, it may be too early to tell what effect this will have on Col’s movie-making process: While production, homevid, marketing and distribbing chiefs have all offered insight into the prospects for a given film up for a greenlight until now, it’s been Calley who ultimately gave his approval. And for the next seven months, it will still be Calley.

It would be wrong to place too much emphasis, Sony insiders point out, on Landau’s supplanting Feingold as any sort of independent voice in previous greenlight process. He primarily articulated the Mel Harris/COO view point. The big change, these insiders say, is the elimination of the COO, which “is very liberating for Amy” because the Col chairwoman will no longer need to defend every business aspect of her slate before turning to Calley.

” ‘Men in Black 2’ was a big test,” said one insider. “It was a big project with a lot of accompanying profit participations. But it’s turned out to be a picture that — honest to God — could turn a [huge] profit for the studio.” So, this well-placed insider says, corporate higher-ups are now comfortable freeing Pascal of the need to defend the business wisdom of projects as much as she’s had to in the greenlighting process.

Their newfound comfort may have a lot to do with the relative honeymoon Sony is experiencing with the press. While other multinationals are getting clobbered for accounting irregularities and ballooning debt both in print and on Wall Street, Sony is getting love letters and a stable share price.

Below Calley, the three upped execs will have an array of managers reporting to them who formerly reported to Harris. But Pascal’s elevation also gives rise to the possibility of promotions to come further below, at Columbia Pictures, where three executive VPs of production are all jostling for advancement at a company that is already title-heavy.

Col production prexy Peter Schlessel is known to be in line for additional duties, raising questions about whether he’ll hold on to day-to-day production supervision or be launched ever higher into the corporate strata. More, Col execs like exec VPs Matt Tolmach and Doug Belgrad, responsible for overseeing “Spider-Man” and “Men in Black II” respectively, are clamoring for larger roles, should the opportunity arise.

What will happen? Col and Sony spokespeople have no comment, and counsel patience on such matters.Stringer was in Tokyo last week for a regularly skedded board meeting. It’s possible any number of personnel matters were addressed with Tokyo bosses during the visit, but there remains one key reason the Calley piece of the exec puzzle isn’t likely to fall into place just yet: For top Sony execs, as for Hollywood, August is for vacations, not proclamations.

(Marc Graser contributed to this report.)

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