Sony Emails Reveal Failed Efforts to Recruit ‘Lego’ Directors to Run Animation Unit

Phil Lord and Chris Miller Turned
Araya Diaz/WireImage

Bad reputation of Imageworks, Sony Animation hinders drive to create 'brain trust'

Stolen emails from Sony Pictures reveal the studio tried and failed last summer to recruit Phil Lord and Chris Miller to take over its animation division.

The emails from the hacked documents, obtained by Variety, show studio toppers Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton looking to animation “to turn the studio around.” They hoped to install a Pixar-style “brain trust” of filmmakers at the top of Sony Pictures Animation. Lord and Miller were being courted to head that group; other names being floated included Brad Bird.

Lord and Miller, who directed “The Lego Movie” as well as SPA’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and the studio’s “Jump Street” live-action comedy hits, met with Pascal last summer to discuss what such a brain trust might look like. Lord and Miller even suggested they would approach Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to join that team. “Can you imagine that world — the projects, the talent we’d attract, the money we’d make,” Pascal wrote to Lynton.

Pascal acknowledged in the email that Lord and Miller were tied up making four “Lego” pictures at Warner Bros. through 2015. But when the pair were asked to detail any concerns they might have about coming to Sony, Lord wrote an email to Hannah Minghella, the former Sony Pictures Animation chief who now works for Pascal exclusively on the live-action side. He cited the bad reputation of Sony Pictures Animation and the studio’s visual effects unit Sony Pictures Imageworks, a reputation that developed from the loss of key talent from both divisions and Imageworks’ move to Vancouver.

“It’s too hard to do great work there,” wrote Lord to Minghella, in answer to Sony’s query.

Their assessment was only slightly harsher than an internal assessment that Minghella had sent to Pascal a day earlier. On July 31, she emailed  Pascal, with subject line “Confidential” (ellipses in original):

“Objective: We want the creative direction of the company, and the projects, to be run by creatives… either an individual or a brain trust: Lord & Miller, Brad Bird, Will Gluck… (Lindsay Doran).”

Minghella outlined how such a brain trust might work, then turned to:

Current Problems:
– low morale negatively impacts talent retention.

– studio reputation negatively impacts talent recruitment
– only one (proven) director in-house: Genndy.
– SPA no longer has the competitive edge it had before Fox, Universal, and Paramount started their animation divisions.

– ImageWorks moving to Vancouver also impacts the competitive edge that came from being LA based
– limited financial success compared with other animated titles – what are the drivers of this: Quality? Originality? Marketing? Dating?
– limited number of active projects/franchises – Cloudy, Hotel T, Smurfs, Popeye
– does the relationship with ImageWorks help or hinder SPA?”

(Genndy is “Hotel Transylvania” director Genndy Tartakovsky.)

The ensuing emails suggest that until they attempted to recruit Lord and Miller, Sony’s top brass was generally uninformed about the decline of Imageworks and the ill will that the studio’s personnel practices had generated in the vfx and animation community.

After receiving Minghella’s honest assessment, Pascal had an email exchange with Lynton about their efforts to make Lord & Miller “our john lassiter” (sic). Pascal wrote to Lynton that Lord & Miller were excited about taking such a leadership role, but:

“… they say we have lost every good person we had there and it’s a travesty”

She also added that Lord & Miller had floated the idea of approaching Rogen and Goldberg, among others, to join that brain trust. “i’m having lunch with brad bird today to talk about it with him as well…this is our shot,” wrote Pascal.

Lynton responded: “why have all the good people left our place????”

Later that morning Lord emailed Minghella a list of key talent that had left Imageworks; according to Lord and Miller’s reps, they sent that message in response to a request from Sony for feedback on why they were reluctant to return. Lord wrote that he and Miller felt that at Sony “artists have been treated like paper, and it’s too hard to do great work there,” adding, “What’s not measured by who left is who never came because the reputation was so bad.” Minghella forwarded the message to Pascal.

Lynton wrote to Pascal and pointed a finger at Sony Pictures Digital president Bob Osher, who oversees Sony Animation and Imageworks. Lynton implied that Osher would have to be fired. Pascal responded that Osher’s “cost savings stuff” at Imageworks was “amazing.”

“I am only sorry that left bob to his own devices and let it get to this point. And we just renewed Bob which is also a problem given what we will probably have to do. That being said we should do it,” Lynton said in his email to Pascal.

Pascal wrote back to Lynton about the brain drain at SPA and Imageworks. She repeated some of the names Lord had provided and added: “we gotta hold on to these folks.”

“we know this is an impossible situation… a much tooo great an asset to waste not to mention a real way to turn the studio around…..we have lost the competitive advantages we had when we were th eonly option for people who wanted to leave disney dreamworks or pixar as well as the advantages we had to get local talent when imageworks was one of the few remaining la based options. more than ever we have to rely on our reputation as a place for creative innovation and excellence and we don’t have that reputation or reality anymore.”

In the early years of this century, Imageworks was known for driving up wages for vfx pros, to the dismay of management at its competitors. One of the “big four” vfx studios, along with Industrial Light & Magic, Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues Studios, it was a regular Oscar contender and would work on several tentpoles each year, in addition to supplying the animation for SPA. Imageworks planned to support the low-margin vfx business with profits from animation, which has been successful for every other studio.

But SPA’s pictures have underperformed relative to the competition. One of the studio’s biggest hits was Lord and Miller’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”

Over the years Imageworks shifted away from permanent jobs to a crew model, where artists are hired only for the duration of a show, which slashed personnel costs. Imageworks shifted more and more work from Los Angeles to Vancouver, and employees have complained that they were pressured to move to Vancouver, only to find that there was no job waiting for them, just an opportunity to be hired onto the next Imageworks project. In May, the division moved its HQ and all production to Vancouver.

During the summer of 2013, Imageworks did not work on a single summer tentpole. This year it had Sony’s own “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and contributed to Marvel’s releases.

All this has larger implications. First, Lord and Miller’s complaints about the move to Vancouver bolster arguments that runaway production — and the unchecked pursuit of short-term profit — will ultimately do these companies more harm than good.

Second, it suggests that Sony’s top leaders were somehow unaware of the issues afflicting not just Imageworks, but the entire vfx industry, despite numerous news reports, public protests, and even the grievances raised by the Imageworks unionization org SPI Union.

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  1. landon says:

    HOW SONY PICTURES ANIMATION IS BAD ITS ACTIVITY GOOD I LIKE THE CARTOON ANIMATION I SUBSRIBE TO ITS CHANNEL

  2. rootUser says:

    I find it hard to believe, neigh impossible, that Amy and Michael had NO IDEA that Bob Osher’s cost cutting “strategy” was to systematically replace the talent at SPI with cheaper and inexperienced people that he believed could do the job just as well. They knew damn well what was going on. If anyone needs to be fired its those two chuckleheads for bringing Bob on in the first place, and then not listening to the hundreds of people who were blowing the whistle for years

    How else in the world was he cutting costs? Taking away the decent food/ beer at monthlies, or any semblance of a creative culture surely couldn’t account for it. Nothing like stale chips and some Natural Light to say “job well done!”

  3. thaddeusbeier says:

    I know many fantastically talented people who worked at Sony Imageworks, but they’ve all been forced to leave — every single one of them — by the ridiculous “cost-cutting” paradigm that has taken over the place. Sony created some great VFX over the years, and created incredible open-source projects like OIIO, OCIO, as well as Katana in partnership with The Foundry — but all the people that created those tools are gone as well.

    To see upper management confused about why people had left, or why other talented people wouldn’t work with them, is truly astounding. How could they not know? I’ve worked at VFX and animation companies for 30 years, and I’ve never seen such a disconnect.

    There are several points of irony here, but one of the most eye-roll-inducing is that when Sony Pictures Imageworks was founded in the 90’s, they quickly poached people from all of the other VFX and animation companies including ILM and Pixar; and raised their salaries by 50% or so. This caused outrage among the management of these other companies; and truly did attract great talent.

    Thank you Mr Cohen for writing this article. I can well imagine that there are strong incentives not to write about viciously, illegally stolen information; but on the other hand it is important to see what has been destroying the VFX industry.

  4. JP says:

    I am not in “the business” by any stretch, I just clicked on this article because of the recruiting teaser. I have to say that I really enjoyed reading about a company (SPA) that focused on short term profitability and then got burned because they couldn’t attract and retain talented employees. It’s a common story in many industries but the relatively short cycles of the entertainment business reveal the truths so much quicker. I wish some of my previous employers had such quick and tangible success/failure measurements like box office receipts; perhaps we would have be been rid of their mismanagement much sooner and before the companies went bust.

  5. slappyjoe says:

    Not so shocking, really. This is exactly why Pascal placed osher and his crew at SPA. Don’t believe for a second that she or her male counterpart were kept in the dark during his “amazing cost cutting” practices.

    EVERY employee, past and present, feel the same way Phil and Chris do. SPE/SPA leadership, from top to bottom, is laughable at best and lined with ineptitude and nepotism. The effects of such leadership should have been noticed years ago, especially when TOP TALENT started resigning.

    Instead they continued to threaten employees into uprooting their lives and moving, while they receive multi million dollar bonuses.

    Truly sad and pathetic…

  6. Mark says:

    I bet amy pascal doesn’t remember how badly she treated talent, including Brad Bird, during her short, aborted tenure at Turner Animation. I bet Brad Bird, and the others there who’ve gone on to produce giant moneymakers elsewhere haven’t forgotten.

  7. Scott says:

    One of the biggest problems SPA has is that they approach feature animation as a visual effect. It’s not. It’s much more difficult. That idiot bob osher didn’t help, and pascal has zero experience in animation. And as far as gender being “proven,” that’s barely true. Only with a strong producer and screenwriter can he work, as his ability to tell a story is very weak. Sadly, these leaked emails won’t help attracting some real talent to the place.

    • SquishNStretch says:

      Agreed. Further, if they want to build a world-class feature animation house, is it detrimental to be taking on outside VFX clients? Too much of a drain on resources, financial and artistic. Grabbing at every scrap of work, poaching your own internal talent from the far more important animated features, to put them on some frenzied loss-leader of a VFX cluster f***, just to say you’re keeping the lights on. No clear mission.

  8. SquishNStretch says:

    I know many current and former SPI’ers. Throughout the Osher reign they have watched in horror and bafflement as the once-great facility was systematically and doggedly gutted. World-class top senior talent was chewed up and farted out like potato chips, as if there were plenty more where they came from. The attrition has been breathtaking. Key artists and technology holders were either given the Vancouver ultimatum, simply shown the door, or saw the writing on the wall and left. Morale is in the gutter. Producers and supervisors had progressively fewer resources to work with, and are reduced to band-aiding things together. The crewing department is walking wounded. Osher has been steadfastly tone-deaf to all pleas and arguments regarding the eventual consequences. And now we learn that the top-kicks look to SPA/SPI to help turn SPE around? By building a rival to Pixar? HUH??? With what resources, exactly? We are meant to believe that Lynton and Pascal have been that disconnected all along. A turn-around may still be possible, they’ll be starting with a near-smoking husk. It starts by 1) stopping the hemorrhaging of what little talent remains by actually proving that you don’t consider them a bunch of expendables, 2) installing management that understands what it takes to run a Pixar-caliber shop 3) overcoming its current reputation to make it attractive to new talent.

    Would’ve been easier if they hadn’t nuked it all in the first place. But as everything that Lynton and Pascal touches seems to suffer the curse of Big Dumb Corporation think, I dunno if any of the right decisions will be made.

    • SquishNStretch says:

      Oh yeah: 4) hire top story talent and directors, give them a long leash to let them do their damn jobs, and 5) stop greenlighting lousy scripts!

      SPE fearless leaders may talk about change every once in a while, but deep down I don’t think they’re wired for it, keep repeating the same dumb reflexive mistakes. They literally can’t stop themselves.

      No wonder Lord and Miller weren’t particularly enthusiastic about coming back. They correctly don’t see the potential for things to improve under current mgmt.

      You can’t cheapskate, micromanage and offshore your way into a thriving creative culture where storytelling magic has a chance to evolve.

  9. minoton says:

    “…..we have lost the competitive advantages we had when we were th eonly option for people who wanted to leave disney dreamworks or pixar as well as the advantages we had to get local talent when imageworks was one of the few remaining la based options.”

    Sorry, being peoples’ last option for work in L.A. is not being “competitive”.

  10. Pascal and other execs were asleep at the switch, allowing the virtual destruction of the animation division. Amazing that they were so surprised that everyone of merit had left, and no one of any quality wanted to work at Sony Animation. Add this to the general low quality of the films being churned out by Sony’s feature division, and you have to wonder why Sony’s upper management are getting multi-million dollar salaries. Or why they’re employed at all. Of course, even if they’re fired, they’ll be given massive golden parachutes and cushy independent production deals. Failing upward is a Hollywood tradition.

  11. rk says:

    And just think, these two Nimrods run the studio. They were unaware of the effect problems facing the vfx community?

    How exactly did they think Brilliant Bob was cutting costs?

    Amy’s a moron of epic proportions and she’s proving it each day.

    I worked at Imageworks for 8 years…this article barely scratches the surface of the damage Bob, Amy and Hannah did to SPI. There’s so much more it’s comical.

    Now this house of cards is like watching blood infested waters. The Piranhas are feeding on each other. I Wonder what Brilliant Bob thinks now of his bosses. I know what the people of SPI under Bob think of him.

  12. rfk says:

    How sad and out of touch these people were.

  13. Peter says:

    “hey would approach Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to join that team” LOL….Sony really is clueless.

  14. cadavra says:

    Appears that almost every one of Sony’s woes–from this to the hack attack–can be traced back to their idiotic cost-cutting maneuvers. Firing people and then outsourcing the work to foreign countries is no way to run a studio. Or anything else. Pixar, by contrast, hires the best people and for the most part leaves them alone to do their work. The results speak for themselves.

  15. Keyser Söze says:

    The short-sighted ineptitude of Osher is baffling at best. How is someone of his limited capability allowed to make decisions?

  16. Deep Throat says:

    Journalism derived from stolen information. Heck of an effort.

    • whyaminotsurprised says:

      If we suggest that Hollywood chasing subsidies is about profit not talent, that it’s hurting artists and threatening our industry, we’re racists. If we show you the proof, we’re lazy and we’re thieves.

    • Of course they KNEW says:

      Come on, EVERYTHING done at Sony Animation happened with Lynton’s and Pascal’s knowledge. Pascal blows her production budget before the fiscal year even begins because agents know she won’t say “NO”. So she takes every OTHER division’s money.
      And Minghella was CREATIVE HEAD of Animation just a couple years ago! What’d SHE do????

  17. vfx draft-dodger says:

    Wow. Wow. Wow. Many of us at SPI knew or suspected much of this for years. But to see it confirmed by the actual players’ emails is unreal.

    It looks like they all had a moment of clarity back in July. And to think that Hannah was the one to raise the alarm. How unexpected.

    Blinded by hubris…

  18. I know two of the people who were told they had to move to Vancouver – or else. They took the ‘or else, stayed in LA and are far happier with their new situations than they ever were at Imageworks.

  19. Glenn C. says:

    Just shows how most high paid executives just don’t know what the fuck they are doing. They act like they do but they don’t. This sounds like a disaster. And yet they keep their jobs!!!!!

    • animcoop says:

      Exactly! Artists at SPA/Imageworks had been calling this for years.

      If artists had any say in the direction of the company and in electing the leadership, Osher would be long gone, the studio would have aggressively pursued talent like Lord & Miller, and SPA wouldn’t be on a death spiral of franchise movies & sequels to mediocre successes.

      It just goes to show who should be accountable to who.

  20. foobar says:

    haha. totally true and deserved.

  21. animcoop says:

    The Osher Method: “Why increase value long-term by creating great movies when you can increase profit short-term by screwing great people?

  22. animcoop says:

    Michael Lynton: “why have all the good people left our place????”

    Hi Michael, let me introduce you to Amy’s “amazing” “cost-saving” Bob Osher. Here’s a highlight from his performance review: “Bob’s recent restructure (…) allowed for a significant reduction in overall headcount (230) across these areas”

    Translation: “Bob showed the good people the door, stole your money, and drove your company into the ground.”

  23. animcoop says:

    I have to extend a sincere *THANK YOU* for this story, David.

    For years people at Imageworks had been saying this exact same thing, speculating that talent like Chris & Phil would never work with SPA because of the leadership. Kouyate, Osher, and their constant meddling. Osher and his focus on cutting talent instead of retaining it. And SPA’s reputation for not trusting & empowering their artists.

    Excellent story.

  24. VFX_Boom says:

    Osher’s “cost savings stuff” at Imageworks was “amazing.” — Sure, force all the talent to move to Vancouver, having most quit in the process, and no longer have to pay them. Sounds like to solid long term savings right there. Nice work, Osher.

    Vancouver will end up costing studios a massive amount of cash to repair the damage they have ALL done to themselves, and I’m not just talking Sony here.

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