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Post-‘Godzilla’

Broad Sony agenda shows there's life after lizard

HOLLYWOOD — In the clearest indication yet of the future management structure of Sony Pictures Entertainment, SPE prexy and CEO John Calley is schooling Columbia Pictures president Amy Pascal to take over the entire film division — when he’s ready to step down.

“Amy is evolving,” said Calley. “Anybody who isn’t grooming people to replace them is crazy. Do I think that she will end up running the studio? Of course.”

In an interview last week on the Culver City lot, Calley, Pascal and Col TriStar Motion Picture Group vice chairs Lucy Fisher and Gareth Wigan sat down to talk about life after “Godzilla.”

Indeed, the once terrifically dysfunctional studio is running so smoothly it’s positively suspect.

While Warner and Universal endure the sort of exec turmoil that Sony faced two years ago, SPE rests above the fray, enjoying newfound stability with its chummy senior management.

And with internal corporate head-shaking over the performance of “Godzilla” on the wane, the Sony exec corps, like Scarlett O’Hara, is looking to tomorrow as another day.

Among the latest positive developments in the friendly confines of Culver City:

  • Sony will put out 20-24 pics per year through its combined Columbia and TriStar studios, not including acquisitions. While other studios are cutting back, Calley says the company is avowedly in the content business.

  • Sony is planning a new division to market and distribute pics in the $4 million-$12 million range, pics that aren’t appropriate for the Columbia, Sony Pictures Classics or Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group banners.

  • Readying franchises is still the order of the day in production meetings, with the studio hoping to fast-track sequels to “Men in Black,” “Zorro,” “Ghostbusters,” “Bad Boys” and “Jumanji,” among others. Another “Godzilla” footprint is a possibility, but Calley and Pascal are waiting to analyze final numbers before making a decision.

  • Col Pix is on the lookout to sign several more producing deals to boost its current contingent. Per Calley, the studio wants to find some “dynamic, entrepreneurial guys who’ll get out and make movies.”

  • Despite Tokyo-based Sony Corp. chief Nobuyuki Idei’s claim that SPE and the other entertainment arms would go public, the contingency seems remote in the near future.

  • International production is a real business, not a frivolity, for the studio, Calley insists, and Sony is focusing in particular on four territories: U.K., Germany, Hong Kong and Brazil.

    And, on the negative side:

  • The studio has no event pics with the all-media appeal of a “Godzilla,” set for next year. Sony execs are confident that they won’t suffer for it. (20th Century Fox had a similar problem this year but is faring surprisingly well with a slew of mid-level hits.)

  • Sony is embroiled in an embarrassing lawsuit with MGM over the James Bond franchise, about which Calley would not comment.

  • Until “The Mask of Zorro” came along, only two of the studio’s last 21 releases (“As Good as It Gets” and “Godzilla”) earned more than $30 million domestically. Sony really needs next year’s crop of pics to perform.

Life after Godzilla

Though Calley and his staff are happy to report that “Godzilla” will end up grossing some $400 million theatrically around the world, they readily admit that their expectations and hype for the leaping lizard were slightly inflated.

The view at Sony is that “Godzilla” was not a disappointment. It may have skewed to a younger audience than the execs expected, but it enabled them to launch their merchandising division and proved that Sony, like Warner or Disney, could mount an event picture with myriad ancillary deals.

Calley said that the relationship between Sony and “Godzilla” filmmakers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich was stronger than ever.

“They are wonderful filmmakers,” he said. “They didn’t have as much time to work on the picture as they should have had, because we were locked into a release date.”

Pascal on the rise

The urbane Calley won’t comment on any greatly exaggerated reports of his exit. He prefers simply to discuss Pascal as a valued executive. But he does admit that she will likely end up running the show.

All the execs were at pains to stress the benefits and efficiency of their four-person management team. Chimes Wigan: “None of us has to watch our backs.”

“Amy runs Columbia Pictures, that’s her company,” said Calley. “But Gareth and Lucy are fantastically gifted in their ways. Anyone of them could do my job.”

Pascal, a former exec VP of production for Columbia, came back to Sony from Turner Pictures, where she spent more than two years developing a slate of pics.

When she arrived at Sony at the end of 1996, she was on a very short leash from Calley and vice chairs Fisher and Wigan, who oversaw all decisions made by her and then TriStar prexy Bob Cooper.

The so-called leaders of each studio weren’t even allowed to buy a spec script or OK a writing assignment. Fisher explained that now it’s different: “Amy can buy anything she wants.”

But don’t expect Pascal to ascend to Calley’s throne immediately. Calley insists that, for the time being, he has no intention of quitting. “My contract ends at my memorial service,” he said.

Franchises

Development of franchises is Calley’s declared goal. Numerous properties, including “Charlie’s Angels” and “Flash Gordon,” are in development.

However, Sony has struggled to get sequels to “Men in Black,” “Jumanji” and “Bad Boys” off the ground.

Nonetheless, “MIB 2” is being cobbled together, and Sony hopes that most of the original elements — Sonnenfeld, and stars Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Linda Fiorentino — will return for the sequel.

The studio has a slate of some 25 to 30 pics coming over the next 18 months that will include contributions from A-list helmers Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Paul Verhoeven, Luc Besson and newcomer Billy Bob Thornton. Stars include Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Adam Sandler, Geena Davis and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Pascal is particularly excited about Spielberg’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” (a project that Fisher personally is overseeing); Besson’s “Joan of Arc,” Pollack’s “Random Hearts,” Neil Jordan’s “The End of the Affair,” the Sandler vehicle “Guy Gets Kid,” fantasy pic “Stuart Little” and Verhoeven’s “Hollow Man.”

“We want to invest our money in movies,” said Calley. “We’re putting all our eggs in one basket, but we’re keeping an eye on the basket.”

Biopics in development at Sony include one about Muhammad Ali, to be produced by Jon Peters, while Calley is keen to evoke the life of jazz giant Miles Davis, with Mike Figgis helming.

Sony is banking heavily on Chris Columbus’ “Stepmom,” starring Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts, as a Christmas 1998 hit. Pic’s performance could be a big boon for Columbia exec VP Amy Baer, who oversaw the project, as well as Sony’s only other big hit this year, “Zorro.”

Quicker reactions

In the earliest days of the Calley regime, many in the industry were miffed by Sony and Pascal’s slow turnaround time in respect to scripts or projects the studio was considering.

However, according to insiders, Calley gently told Pascal that the studio needed to develop a faster response time. And she has complied.

“I think Amy is the leading person doing what she’s doing in the business,” Calley endorsed.

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