Sony’s Calley dallies as Roth’s role grows

Move puzzles insiders

Industry dealmakers who’ve been hoping for a clarification of Sony Entertainment’s opaque power pyramid were not surprised to learn last week that, if anything, the structure may grow even more opaque.

Joe Roth is expected to take a spot soon on the Sony Entertainment board, where he will doubtless have an influence on the policies of the studio.

Though Howard Stringer has courted Roth to head Sony Pictures Entertainment almost since Revolution’s inception, it’s now clear that the former Disney studio chief wants to play out his hand at Revolution, the company he founded a year ago.

As a stopgap, Stringer has signed John Calley, 71, to remain as Sony’s studio head for another year, thus postponing issues of succession.

Revolution is partially financed by Sony, which also distributes its movies and funds prints and advertising. The tight relationship between the companies has caused rival producers doing business with Sony to worry that Roth’s pics may enjoy an additional measure of marketing and advertising support than do theirs. Such concerns may be heightened if Sony makes a deal, as expected, for Geoff Ammer to take a top marketing spot at Sony. Ammer, also formerly at Disney, now heads marketing at Revolution under Roth.

Insiders puzzled

The unwillingness of Stringer, 58, to make a firm decision on issues of succession has puzzled Sony insiders.

The Welsh-born Stringer, who holds the position of president of Sony Corp. of America, has confided his reluctance to hire a conventional production chief who may not be prepared to embrace the digital future to which Sony is dedicated. “I don’t need a studio guy, I need a digital studio guy,” Stringer has said.

Yair Landau, 38, currently president of Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, a newly formed operating unit of SPE, is considered a dark horse for the job should Roth demur.

In view of its broadband objectives, Stringer’s continued commitment to Calley, whose studio background goes back to the ’60s, is doubly ironic: For the past couple of years Calley has functioned more as a high-level consultant than as a hands-on production chief, delegating many of those duties to Amy Pascal, the chairman of Columbia Pictures.

Roth, meanwhile, has technically been barred from taking a more direct role at Sony because of a lingering noncompete clause that he signed in leaving Disney. That restriction ends in November.

Relishes autonomy

Roth recently finished directing “America’s Sweethearts” and clearly relishes his autonomy at Revolution.

In the past he has worked for some of the industry’s toughest taskmasters — Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller and Michael Eisner — and has been reluctant to return to the corporate arena. In addition, neither Stringer nor Roth are convinced that the Japanese board of directors would approve the sort of deal that would attract Roth to play a full-time role at Sony.

Indeed, even Roth’s appointment to the Sony Pictures board has not as yet been approved at the corporate level. The board is an informal one, not akin to a corporate board of directors.

By extending the Calley deal, Stringer delays these machinations for 18 months. From the standpoint of profitability, Stringer has no cause to be agitated: Most of Sony’s releases over the past year have been in the black, and the company is high on its forthcoming slate.

“The status quo isn’t hurting us,” said one top-level Sony executive.