Development players make personal choices

Sony lines up a number of franchises

Now that Sony has achieved a remarkable slate of summer blockbusters, the trick is to not only keep the hits coming but to stay hungry. The development team headed by production prexy Peter Schlessel is already grappling with the pressure of being the latest studio front-runner, each in their own particular way.

“It’s all about driving the distribution system with movies that we want to make in a really meaningful way,” Schlessel explains.

That primarily means sequels and franchises, but Schlessel is also mindful of surprise hits including “The Bourne Identity,” “Insomnia” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” “They are old-fashioned in the sense that they hit people in an emotional way.”

Yet the development execs admit they’ve become more marketing-driven than ever in the current climate. But under the patient leadership of Columbia chairman Amy Pascal, who often goes against conventional wisdom, they’ve learned how to stay ahead of the curve.

“Amy recognized (the importance of franchises) a while ago and her determination and focus, which speaks to the personality of the company, helped pull this off more than anything else,” observes Doug Belgrad, exec VP of production.

“We spent a lot of money and a lot of time trying to crack this. And we have a couple of different creative approaches stemming from the immediate aftermath of the success of ‘Bad Boys,’ where the idea was to take Martin (Lawrence) and Will (Smith) to London (for ‘Bad Boys II’) and play it as a fish-out-of-water comedy to even a draft set in South Africa as an attempt to lure back Will. We finally ended up back in Miami for the whole movie. Amy was not going to take no for an answer and it’s one of the pillars for next summer.”

But it’s the phenomenal success of one pic that has really turned the studio around and is impacting its future: “Spider-Man.” “We all feel like we just finished a triathlon putting this summer together and now next summer,” Belgrad adds. “‘SWAT’ (based on the TV series and co-starring Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell), ‘Charlie’s Angels II’ and ‘Bad Boys II’ start production in the next couple of months. The thing that Amy is constantly reminding us about is that you can’t be satisfied. We’re very focused on that.”

Like most studios, Sony’s development team is predicated on relationships and individual taste. Belgrad likes comedy and action-adventure. In addition to “Bad Boys II,” he also spearheaded “Men in Black II,” “Mr. Deeds” and another upcoming Adam Sandler movie, the animated “Adam Sandler’s 8 Crazy Nights.” He’s currently working on “Identity” (an ensemble horror film headlined by John Cusack, Ray Liotta and Amanda Peet) and another film with Lawrence, “National Security.”

Matt Tolmach, exec VP of production, who developed “Spider-Man,” “Panic Room” and the upcoming “I Spy,” is already working feverishly on “Spider-Man II.”

“What kinds of movies we like to work on has changed in my mind because the ones that are successful are driving our business,” he says. “Franchises to me are double-edged. They’re enormously complex and pressure-filled experiences but are so incredibly satisfying for everyone at the company.”

Amy Baer, exec VP of production, who boasts the most eclectic taste, worked on “Adaptation,” which took eight years to bring to the screen, with director Spike Jonze reuniting with “Being John Malkovich” screenwriter Charles Kaufman.

“We thought maybe Spike could figure it out,” Bauer says of the “unfilmable” book “The Orchid Thief,” which Kaufman revamped into a more personal journey about the whole adaptation process. She says the studio has been very supportive of the unconventional film that nonetheless contains a strong emotional core.

Meanwhile, Baer has just landed Jonze to helm “Memoirs of a Geisha” (replacing Steven Spielberg), and also has “King Kamehameha” (a romantic epic starring wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and an untitled Nancy Meyers romantic comedy in the works. “We have lots of conversations now about what audiences for a movie we’re talking about,” she says. “It’s about making sure we’re really clear.”

Andrea Giannetti, senior VP of production and the newest member of the team, is developing her own offbeat project, the otherworldly father-son movie, “Big Fish,” with Tim Burton (also replacing Spielberg). “It’s a project that I’m very passionate about and the kind of film we can’t lose sight of with all the franchises.”