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Sony: Shaken, not stirred

2006 starting off strong with 'Panther,' 'Stranger'

Not to add to the stress level at Sony Pictures, but 2006 better work.

Coming off a disastrous 2005, there’s more riding on this year than any in the studio’s recent history. As Sony’s electronics division has slumped, it’s become more reliant than ever on its entertainment-division profits.

Good thing for Sony, this year’s slate appears auspicious, after the launches of “The Pink Panther,” which has grossed over $60 million in its first three weeks, and Screen Gems’ “Underworld: Evolution” and “When a Stranger Calls.”

The studio’s tentpoles are “The Da Vinci Code,” which bows in May, and the James Bond pic “Casino Royale,” which unspools in November.

Both have built-in fan bases and high visibility factors. But they’re still unseen: Studio execs have only had a peek at “Da Vinci,” and “Casino Royale” just started shooting.

And on the personal side, the studio is working hard to convey a message of solidarity.

As a result of last year’s performance, there was a reshuffle of Sony’s marketing department. But Columbia topper Amy Pascal remains in place, along with Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, who tells Variety the studio’s executive lineup is set, not just in stone, but “in granite.”

The movie business is cyclical, but Sony’s been mostly in the catbird seat in the past few years, thanks to such hits as the “Spider-Man” duo. But there has been a notable shift in mood: At Sony these days, humility reigns.

“There were a few decisions that we made last year to make things bigger than they ought to have been,” says Pascal. “By stretching them into bigger movies, they stumbled. Not everything is a franchise, not everything is a giant movie.”

She declined to name pics but the studio’s ’05 slate included “Stealth,” “XXX: State of the Union” and “Bewitched.”

As a result of those and other misses, the studio did some soul-searching over not just budget constraints, but issues of personality. “We decided we wanted to be making pictures with filmmakers who were willing to communicate and collaborate — even if that meant giving up on some enticing projects,” says one senior studio exec. “The renegade auteurs fall into the life-is-too-short category.”

Says Sony chairman and CEO Howard Stringer: “Michael and Amy figured out last year that if you have too many movies that have to make $200 million at the box office (to earn money), you have a finite number you can do. You have to say, ‘Is this really good enough? Is this something to bet on?’ ”

The 2006 slate has a handful of pics of more modest scale, like “Stranger Than Fiction,” a Mandate Pictures co-production directed by Marc Forster and starring Will Ferrell; Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” starring Kirsten Dunst; and “All the King’s Men,” starring Jude Law and Sean Penn.

The rest of the slate boasts proven commodities and Sony favorites such as Will Smith (“Pursuit of Happyness”), Adam Sandler (“Click”) and Nancy Meyers (“Holiday”).

Sony Pictures Animation will also unspool its first release (“Open Season”) and there’s good buzz on the Ferrell laffer “Talladega Nights.”

Sony’s hedging its bets financially with a $400 million, 11-picture financing pact led by Relativity Media.

Studio is also in the process of unwinding its equity partnership with Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios, a deal that became a major drain on Sony’s resources with misfires such as “Gigli,” “Rent” and, most recently, “Freedomland.”

The Sony-Revolution marriage expires at the end of ’07 and Sony brass is talking with Roth as to how the future will shake out. It’s likely Roth will stay at Sony in a smaller producing capacity.

Pascal says Col will continue to make 12-14 pics a year, plus about six from Screen Gems. She called 2005, when Sony unspooled 25, an “aberration” resulting in part from the acquisition of MGM, combined with heavy slates from Col, TriStar and Revolution.

That was then. Now, Pascal is focused on 2006. Her assessment? “It feels good.”