Sony executives have ear for comedy

Belgrad, Tolmach tap into their funny bone

In July, when Columbia’s “Superbad” screened at Comic-Con, a confab that’s become as important in gauging young male tastes as the Toronto Film Festival has in launching fall movies, the studio’s production presidents Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach were taken aback when the comedy’s geeky leads were given a rock star reception.

“Jonah Hill and Michael Cera come out and they get a standing ovation, and you say to yourself, ‘How does the world even know?!'” Tolmach recalls. Referring to the filmmakers — producer Judd Apatow, director Greg Mottola and screenwriters Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg — Tolmach enthuses, “There’s a relationship these people have with their audience that they take very seriously and they know so much better than all of us. You gotta trust that.”

That trust has paid off. The startlingly candid teen comedy has benefited from stellar reviews: The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis drew literary parallels to Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” while the New Yorker’s notoriously tough David Denby called the picture “uproarious and touching.” Made on the bottom end of the $20 million-$50 million budget range that comprises half of Columbia’s annual 12-14-picture slate, “Superbad” is on a fast track to exceed $100 million domestic.

Whether consciously or not, comedy has become a signature genre for the studio associated with “The Da Vinci Code” and the “Spider-Man” franchise. A big reason for that is the relationships Belgrad and Tolmach have cultivated with such talents as Apatow, Rogan, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and director Adam McKay (“Talladega Nights”).

“We recognize the value in comedy,” Tolmach explains, “and that’s an ever-growing market, both in terms of tentpole comedies like ‘Talladega,’ or these smaller movies (like “Superbad”).”

Belgrad says the two were weaned on the comedies of filmmakers like John Landis and Harold Ramis, and mentions “Animal House,” “Caddyshack” and “Stripes” as inspirations. “We developed a certain affinity for (that) style of comedy,” he says. “Now it’s come full circle; Harold is now directing a movie for us (“Year One,” starring Jack Black).

The Ramis film is just one of several in development that also include “Step Brothers,” which reunites the “Talladega” team of Farrell, John C. Reilly, McKay and producer Apatow; “You Don’t Mess With Zohan,” starring Sandler, who’s starred in a string of hits for the studio; and a sequel to the “Pink Panther” remake in which Steve Martin will reprise his role as Inspector Clouseau. The studio also has projects lined up with actor-writer Rogan (“The Pineapple Express”) and Eddie Murphy (“Fantasy Island”).

Already in the can is “Walk Hard,” a pop biopic spoof co-written and co-produced by Apatow and starring Reilly as the fictional Dewey Cox, who suffers every rags-to-riches musician cliche in the book, from drug abuse to infidelity to the salvation that comes from the love of a good woman.

“When you can sit back and be both a production executive and an audience member,” says Tolmach, “it’s probably the most valuable means of assessing a script, a movie or whatever it is.”

Although Apatow, who has become the hottest multihyphenate in the business, does not have an exclusive deal with Columbia, he has four more films in the studio’s pipeline. The creative partnership underscores the relationships that Belgrad and Tolmach — along with studio chairs Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton — have helped cement with talent, and the importance of that most intangible element in a business where there are no guarantees: faith.

“You want to work with the people you have a rapport with,” Belgrad says. “And you’ve got to believe — with all the success they’ve had and the option to work anywhere in town — there’s a reason why they come back here to work.”

One of those reasons is the range of projects Belgrad and Tolmach have helped push through the pipeline, allowing superstars like Smith and Ferrell to step outside their established screen personas: Smith from cocky action hero to struggling single parent in “The Pursuit of Happyness”; Ferrell from gonzo comedian to rueful IRS auditor in “Stranger Than Fiction.”

‘Let the funny people be funny’

Ferrell describes “Step Brothers,” which he co-wrote with McKay from a story they cooked up with co-star Reilly, as “a warped ‘Parent Trap’ with a ‘Brady Bunch’ mixed with ‘Ordinary People.’ ”

The star says he appreciates the Columbia team allowing actors like him and Rogan to stretch creatively and cross over into different disciplines.

“You can work for a relatively modest budget and get these things out there and let them speak for themselves,” Ferrell says. “I think they understand that if you let the funny people be funny and kind of step out of the way it can pay dividends.

“I’ve never worked with a studio where you’re actually excited to hear their ideas,” he adds, “because they raise questions that sometimes we don’t think about.”

Ferrell says the creative give-and-take works both ways. “With Matt we had a couple instances where he said: ‘You know what, guys? You were totally right on that thing and I was wrong and I’m glad you guys convinced me to do it this way.’ And it’s rare to have a studio exec say those words as opposed to, ‘Oh yeah, we always thought this was right,’ which is the norm.”

Jack Giarraputo, Sandler’s production partner, says the “Zohan” movie, about a Mossad agent-turned-New York hairdresser, represented a risky proposition. Conceived pre-9/11, the film was placed on the backburner for obvious reasons. But when the time was right, he found a receptive collaborator in Belgrad.

“His script notes have always been very helpful to us,” says Giarraputo. “Because of our long history together, he understands what we’re looking for. He’s great at story structure, editing, making it more efficient — it’s like crafting a skeleton to hang all the great comedy on.”

In a way, the yin-yang dynamic between Belgrad and Tolmach mirrors that of their bosses Lynton and Pascal. Belgrad boasts a background as a securities analyst on Wall Street, while Tolmach worked his way into the biz as an agent trainee at William Morris; Belgrad is analytical and tends to crunch numbers, while Tolmach relies largely on gut instinct; Belgrad jogs and practices yoga, while Tolmach blows off steam climbing and racing on his road bike.

Both had larger-than-life grandfathers who inspired them: Belgrad’s thrived in the furniture business; Tolmach’s was a studio exec-turned-agent who repped Bogart and Bacall.

Each also has different relationships with talent and is associated with certain tentpoles: Belgrad has longtime ties to Smith and Sandler, and has overseen the “Pink Panther” and Bond movies; Tolmach is linked with Apatow, Ferrell and the “Spider-Man” pics.

According to Tolmach, those individual ties allow the other to be more objective. “If Doug comes to me with a project that one of those (talents) brought in, I’m able to at least take a half step back from it,” he says, “because sometimes you get clouded by relationship issues and you’re not always making the pure decision.”

Someone to lean on

Both executives take pains to point out that while they have different styles, they usually arrive at the same place, if from different paths.

“There are things about each of us that the other one leans on,” Tolmach says. “It’s a little bit like different sides of the brain. It’s my feel for things and Doug’s analysis of things, but that’s a little bit reductive.”

With so much money at stake, sharing the load also alleviates pressure. “We have egos, but they’re not so large that it doesn’t accommodate room for another person and their point of view,” Belgrad says. “We get a lot of strength from the fact that there are two of us to bounce things off of.”

Adds Tolmach: “The idea of doing this job on your own is sort of overwhelming and not something either of us is drawn to. It’s hard not to imagine somebody there to whom you can say, ‘I’ve read 18 scripts and I’ve been to three previews, and I don’t know, what do you think of this? I’m not feeling anything.’ You just have someone to lean on.”

They also have the help of about a dozen development execs who report to them, as well as their bosses Lynton and Pascal, the latter with whom they’ve been associated for many years (Tolmach worked under Pascal when she was at Turner Pictures in the mid-’90s).

“We’re at a point now,” explains Belgrad, “where Amy and Michael are looking to us and saying: ‘What are the movies you believe in? Make them and finish them in a way you believe most suits the needs of the company and the commercial potential of the project.'”

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