Too much knowledge can be a mixed blessing in the movie business.
At a panel discussion not long ago, Amy Pascal observed that “the more you know, the harder it becomes.” When making decisions at a movie studio, she said, “benign ignorance can be downright helpful.”
Her observations are interesting in view of the fact that Pascal, in her 20 years at Sony Pictures, may be setting a record in terms of studio experience, as well as savvy.
As Sony co-chair, along with Michael Lynton, Pascal presides over a studio that has become a symbol of stability amid a period of Hollywood turbulence.
While rumors swirl about executive shifts at virtually every other studio, the Sony family seems to cruise along in its own safety zone. And despite hits and misses, the studio’s overall record has been a model of consistency.
This aura of stability is a reflection of the intensely focused personalities of Pascal, Lynton and their boss, Sir Howard Stringer.
“I’m not afraid of failure,” Pascal has said. “That gives me a sense of freedom.”
And Sony continues to make some daring bets in the movie business, occasionally placing $100 million pay-or-play commitments on mere pitches. Witness Roland Emmerich’s “2012,” a very expensive sci-fi epic that will be released Nov. 13. Or “The B Team,” a package pitched by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell.
While Pascal is also a proponent of mid-budget projects like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” or the forthcoming “Julie and Julia,” she has consistently stepped up to the big franchise pictures — witness the “Spider-Man” or “The Da Vinci Code” sequel. Budgets nearing the $200 million zone would have been considered surreal back in 1987 when Pascal started at Columbia. She has been at Columbia and Sony ever since, with a two-year intermission as president of production at Turner Pictures.
Through it all, Pascal has remained a free spirit — one studio chief who cares little for social glitz, avoids dressing up and maintains a buttoned-up personal life with her husband and son. She’s also closely bonded to her production chiefs, Matt Tolmach and Doug Belgrad.
Sony’s solid results in the entertainment business have posed a sharp contrast to the parent company’s headaches on the manufacturing side. A generation ago, when Pascal started, the Sony brand brought premium prices for TV sets and other products and the company was a leader in the music business.
Indeed, some business schools now use the decline of the Sony brand as a case study. The object lesson: Corporations that achieve dominance as industry leaders usually fail miserably as innovators. Success does not breed further success.
All that makes the success of the Sony studio all the more intriguing. The guiding rule at the studio seems to be an absence of rules. Even as Pascal will sign David Fincher to direct an Aaron Sorkin script about the founding of Facebook, Screen Gems, under Clint Culpepper, will turn out a steady flow of movies with titles like “Quarantine” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”
Despite the prevailing stability, Pascal and her team know that their business is going through a transformative period. Talent deals are getting tighter, co-financing sources are shrinking and DVD revenues diminishing.
Pascal, for one, believes the ordeal of change may have some positive results, such as less dependency on franchise pictures. In the interim, however, the executive turnover in Hollywood will be stepped up and the rumors will continue to proliferate.
Except, that is, at Sony.