Columbia hits indicate savvy topper's smart choices

A record-busting year at the box office is usually a good thing. But in 1997, when Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman John Calley and Columbia Pictures production president Amy Pascal first came to the studio, outgoing SPE chairman Mark Canton left them an unexpected legacy: a slate of box office juggernauts, from “My Best Friend’s Wedding” to “Air Force One” and “Men in Black,” which tallied up a record $1.26 billion box office.

It took a few years for Calley and Pascal (who took the reins as Columbia Pictures chairman in 1999) to find their rhythm. In 2002, Columbia’s relentless onslaught on the North American box office — from the $400 million B.O. champ “Spider-Man” to “Men in Black II,” “Mr. Deeds” and “Stuart Little 2″ — finally could break that record.

“It feels good,” says Pascal, Variety’s Showman of the Year, her lean frame folded into a large armchair in her all-white office in the Sony Thalberg building.

“You have to figure out how to make a team work together so that they can consistently win and to make the divisions have a common goal. It took a couple of years to put together an apparatus that will keep on giving, where you don’t have just one hit or one sequel, but a franchise.”

Calley and Pascal planted the seeds for 2002′s box office harvest at the start of their Sony tenure. After years of trying to extricate “Spider-Man” from a legal morass, Calley finally liberated the movie rights from MGM/UA as part of a settlement of a James Bond suit. Pascal eventually hammered out an innovatively structured deal that would make it possible for a “Men in Black” sequel to generate profits for all the participants. When “Stuart Little” hit it big with the family audience, she wasted no time greenlighting part two.

And her long-term investments in stars Will Smith (“Ali”) and Adam Sandler (“Big Daddy”) eventually paid off with “Men in Black II” and “Mr. Deeds,” respectively.

Adds Pascal, “That’s not something you can do overnight.”

The Pascal touch

One secret to Pascal’s success is her nonstop work ethic. “I’m in the process all the time,” she admits as she sips back-to-back coffees. “I love working with filmmakers, reading scripts, seeing the movies. There are days when I want to jump off a cliff, but never so I don’t want to go to work. My end game isn’t the corporate ladder, it’s the movies.”

Pascal landed her first job while still in junior high school, wrapping books at a Los Angeles bookstore. She worked her way through an international relations degree at UCLA as a bookkeeper at Crossroads school.

“Work is where I got my self-esteem,” she says. “I learned that really early.”

Pascal had always wanted a job in the film business. After graduation, she answered a trade paper ad and joined BBC producer Tony Garnett’s Kestrel Films as his secretary, a position she kept for six years. Although she was later hired as a production executive, first by 20th Century Fox’s Scott Rudin and then Columbia’s Dawn Steel, Pascal still considers Garnett her mentor.

“He is the one I emulate,” she says. “He taught me how to work with writers and how to get the best out of people.”

Like all studio executives, Pascal had to learn how to balance her taste with her instincts about what would play in the marketplace. During her first stint as an executive vice president of production at Columbia, she delivered the hits “Single White Female,” “Wolf,” “Awakenings” and “Groundhog Day.” And she correctly identified an underserved female audience for the sleepers “Little Women” and “A League of Their Own.”

“Spider-Man” producer Laura Ziskin remembers Pascal championing the challenging 1995 satire “To Die For,” which was not an easy movie to get made. As usual, Pascal exhibited her trademark perfectionism.

“I was having a difficult time casting a supporting role,” says Ziskin. “I thought I’d found someone pretty good, and went to Amy’s office. She said she wasn’t good enough. It was what I needed to hear. It was a small part, but her job was to make me do better.”

Believing that she could run production at a studio, Pascal persuaded Turner executive Scott Sassa to let her run Turner Pictures. When Turner pulled the plug two years later, after the Time Warner merger, Pascal had already assembled a strong slate, including Nora Ephron’s “Michael,” starring John Travolta. (Warner Bros. eventually released many of the movies Pascal developed: “You’ve Got Mail,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Scooby-Doo” and “City of Angels.”)

After being wooed by several studios, Pascal took Calley’s offer to run Columbia. “She’s always been extraordinary,” says Calley. “Even when I was at United Artists I tried to hire her. She’s very gifted, endlessly energetic, extremely bright and eccentric in the best way.”

Feminine mystique

Pascal has always embraced her feminine side. More than most of her studio colleagues, Pascal has bet on female directors, including Betty Thomas, Ephron, Amy Heckerling, Diane Keaton and Nancy Meyers (whose first picture under her new Columbia pact will star Jack Nicholson). “I don’t choose women over men,” Pascal says. “But I don’t exclude them. I’m not afraid to bet on them because it’s not popular.”

Pascal also has placed big bets on female movie stars, including Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock and Cameron Diaz. Accused of single-handedly driving Diaz’s asking price from $4 million to $12 million for the first “Charlie’s Angels” and then to $20 million for the “Charlie’s Angels” sequel, Pascal asserts: “I believe in her: She’s unique, essential.”

The publicity arena has been Pascal’s Achilles’ heel as a female executive. The press has often played up her disarming flightiness and feminine taste. Flops like the rehab dramas “28 Days” and “Girl, Interrupted,” the strident sister comedy “Hanging Up” and Penny Marshall’s “Riding in Cars With Boys” fueled the press’s superficial perception of Pascal as queen of the chick pics.

“She’s not afraid to project vulnerability, which is attractive to talent,” says DreamWorks marketing executive Terry Press. “She didn’t realize the media’s chick-flick label would stick to her.”

Pascal defends her right not only to make the occasional women’s picture, but the inevitable flop. “Male studio heads can’t categorize their failures,” she says. ” ‘Charlie’s Angels’ is the biggest chick flick of all time. ‘Panic Room’ is a movie about a female protagonist who wins.”

Calley recalls feeling nervous about letting Pascal make “Charlie’s Angels.” “But I backed her instinct,” he says. “She’s a fearless packager, inexhaustible. And when the time comes to make the movie, she’s right there. Even when we were rolling she was on it. She never stops.” “Charlie’s Angels” grossed $264 million worldwide.

Others see Pascal’s feminine side as a protective dodge. “She plays woman but she is tough,” says Joe Roth, who is Pascal’s key supplier at Revolution Studios. “It’s dramatic subterfuge: ‘Even though I look like I am about to combust, I can suffer through this.’ She’s a brilliant woman with a strong center.”

Office politics

1999 marked a turning point for Pascal. The flops were mounting and the hits were few. At a time when she needed carefully to navigate the office politics at Sony, where lines of command under Calley were vague, she adopted a child with her husband, New York Times writer Bernard Weinraub. As she filled a nursery next to her office with toys, she realized that among all the voices in the room, she was the one who bore ultimate responsibility.

In the end, her voice had to call the tune. “I became the boss,” she says. “I realized that the way to succeed was to be honest with myself, see what was working and realize that the way to do the job may not be the way everybody else does the job.”

The post-1999 departures from Sony management ranks included vice chairman Lucy Fisher (who joined her husband, Doug Wick, as a producer at Sony-based Red Wagon Prods.), marketing chief Robert Levin, TV topper Mel Harris and business affairs bean-counter Ken Lemberger. Calley added production president Peter Schlessel to Pascal’s staff; he brought a business-affairs perspective to packaging projects.

Leading the streamlined Sony executive suite, now only Pascal and her co-equal colleagues Yair Landau (new technology and animation) and Jeff Blake (worldwide distribution and marketing) discuss greenlight decisions and report to Calley (whose contract, along with Pascal’s, expires in March).

Finally, Sony Corp. of America chairman-CEO Howard Stringer and Calley gave Pascal the time to get to where she is now. “She’s the best, she’s brave and she doesn’t go for convention,” says Calley.

Pascal checks in with her boss eight to 10 times a day, nights and weekends. They discuss everything and pass each other books and scripts. Pascal leans on Blake for his marketing and distribution savvy.

Building a blockbuster

One of Pascal’s assets is the ability to listen. “She has strong opinions,” says “Spider-Man” producer Ziskin, who asked Pascal to give her “the biggest mother you’ve got” for her new producing deal at Columbia. “If she’s convinced she has the best idea, she’ll fight for that, but if there’s a better idea in the room, she’ll take it. You can’t persuade her strictly with passion. You have to have evidence.”

“She fights a good fight,” adds “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi. “She’s hard to sway, but she listens, she’s alive, she’s funny and she keeps an incredibly tough eye on everything.”

With “Spider-Man,” Pascal bypassed a line of directors with impressive box office stats in favor of Raimi, whose biggest hit to date was 1990′s “Darkman,” which grossed $34 million. “I was so surprised she picked me,” says Raimi (who is already prepping “Spider-Man 2,” which will start in February with stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst and new villain, Dr. Octavius). “Amy sensed how much I loved the character and the material. I’m glad she took a risk with her heart.”

Pascal would have preferred a more conventional leading man to play the title role, but Heath Ledger passed, and Maguire’s screen test won her over.

“Then I knew what Sam knew and what Tobey himself knew,” she says, “that there was no one else to play Peter Parker. We resisted the temptation to make it about Spider-Man the movie star.”

Even though “Spider-Man” was as close to a sure thing as you can get, Pascal took nothing for granted in her push to make it better. After she and lieutenants Schlessel and Matt Tolmach saw the rough cut, they convinced Raimi to take a few more millions and shoot the once-too-costly 49th Street Bridge climax. On opening night, Pascal and Ziskin trawled L.A. theaters in a car, worrying over the early numbers on the phone with Jeff Blake. (The movie handily grossed $114 million and broke “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s” opening-weekend record.) “Always,” says Pascal. “It’s part of the job.”

Pascal is relishing her success, but she has never been one to relax. “The important thing about what any of us do is to learn and move on,” she says. “What not to do is get distracted by the noise or any one year’s showing. The parent company is in it for the long term, they stuck to their guns from the beginning, despite the noise in Hollywood.”

Pascal also has benefited from an unusual deal she forged with a group of top writers, which paid them top dollar to bring their scripts to the studio.

” ‘Panic Room,’ ‘Spider-Man,’ tons of rewrites on things I got for good discounts,” she boasts. “It worked out very well.”

During tougher times, Pascal had to let a risky project like Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt” go into turnaround. With blockbusters behind her, she can afford to put the studio’s resources behind chancier fare such as Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s upcoming “Adaptation,” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Jonze’s next assignment. Tim Burton will direct the magical drama “Big Fish.” While David Fincher (“Panic Room”) returns to direct the World War II epic “Fertig for Red Wagon,” starring Brad Pitt.

Another boon for Pascal is she no longer has to scrounge up 20 to 25 releases every year. With Revolution supplying eight to 10 pictures — upcoming projects include Julia Roberts starrer “Mona Lisa Smile,” Adam Sandler’s “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Anger Management,” the Jennifer Lopez-toplined “Chambermaid” and helmer Rob Cohen’s next big Vin Diesel-starrer “King Kamehameha” — Pascal can focus on a quality-controlled slate of 10 to 15 Columbia movies.

Besides “Spider-Man 2,” also in the pipeline are Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in “Bad Boys 2″; a remake of “I Spy,” starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson; a “Zorro” sequel; Adam Sandler’s “8 Crazy Nights,” an animated musical; P.J. Hogan’s live-action “Peter Pan”; and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Desperado 2.”

“I had to study how not to make 1997 a fluke,” Pascal says. “The plan to take responsibility and authority in 1999 came into fruition over the course of 2000, 2001 and certainly 2002 and beyond.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more