Blake rallies Sony forces

Streamlining key for marketing/distrib'n guru

If Jeff Blake, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s vice chairman, were to be given an unofficial title, it would be head of mergers and consolidations.

Upon his arrival from Paramount in 1992 as Sony’s distribution chief, Blake immediately set about consolidating the distribution arms of the studio’s various labels at the time: Columbia, TriStar and Triumph (the last of which has since morphed primarily into a video label, while Screen Gems has flourished as a genre label).

The reorganization was a sign of things to come, for Blake’s next priority, focused on marrying Columbia TriStar’s international operations with domestic to form a global distribution network that would coordinate with the studio’s domestic and international marketing groups, which Blake also merged in recent years.

(Since 2005, when Blake was named Col TriStar Motion Picture Group chairman, global marketing has fallen under his domain.)

“Prior to Jeff’s arrival, international wasn’t communicating as efficiently with domestic,” says Mark Zucker, president of Sony Pictures Releasing Intl. “They had different opinions on their approach to films.”

Blake believed that Columbia’s international side needed to take a domestic approach toward its business, tailoring print counts and release dates respectively to each territory. To accomplish this, Blake promoted Zucker, who had been working on the domestic side, to his current position.

“Now no domestic plan gets set without considering international’s needs,” Zucker says.

In the corporate culture that Blake has fostered at the studio, information — from box office stats to junket schedules — is communicated on a broad level. Even in the early pre-production stages of a project, Blake assembles his marketing and distribution experts to assess not just a pic’s day-and-date prospects but a universal global marketing plan.

“Months in advance, Jeff and I will banter about the pros and cons of a release date and the competition around us,” says domestic distrib prexy Rory Bruer. “Jeff has an amazing ability to take in a lot of data from many different sources, disseminate the information and make the right choices everywhere.”

May flowers

Such foresight enabled Sony to own the first weekend of May 2002 with “Spider-Man’s” $114.8 million bow. It was a symbolic record for Sony, marking the first time a major studio opened a film to $100 million-plus in three days. Blake’s decision to go with “Spider-Man” during the first weekend of May not only stemmed from the frame’s fertile B.O. ground for early summer tentpoles, i.e. Universal’s “Mummy” franchise, but to get a leg up on the then-season’s most anticipated film, “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

By the end of that summer, “Spider-Man” didn’t just exhibit long B.O. legs, it outstripped “Clones” in its final Stateside tally: $403.7 million to $310.7 million.

Though Disney unseated “Spider-Man’s” three-day record last summer with its $135.6 million bow of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” Blake was determined this summer to take back the record.

“Jeff is ultimately about ‘how do we maximize our movies and opportunities?'” says Sony creative advertising president Josh Goldstein. This past May was laden with sequels, many of which represented the franchises’ third installment. If “Spider-Man 3” was going to outstrip the competition, it had to bust out of the gate first. According to Rentrak, Sony plotted “Spider-Man 3’s” May 4, 2007, release date in March 2004. The studio’s early-bird strategy not only reclaimed the biggest three-day domestic bow ever ($151 million), but also set a worldwide day-and-date record as well with $382 million.

“We started summer again in May, and made it all the way to the third weekend in August,” says Blake about producer Judd Apatow’s raunchy teen comedy “Superbad,” the studio’s late summer hit, which grossed more than $68 million in its first 10 days.

R-rated fare for the masses

When it came to getting the word out about an R-rated comedy without any notable headliners, Blake’s team started early, piggybacking “Superbad” trailers on “Grindhouse” in late March. As the film’s release approached, Sony toned down the campaign’s gross-out element and focused more on the comedy’s friendship themes.

“At one point, some people at the studio thought ‘Superbad’ should be platformed,” Goldstein says. “Jeff disagreed. Instead of saying, ‘We have a low-rent version of “Knocked Up,”‘ Jeff believed we could open based on Apatow’s credibility.”

Initially, Sony bounced the domestic date for “Superbad” from June to October before settling on Aug. 17 — a prime period for R-rated comedies such as Apatow’s 2005 pic “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

“Jeff is able to see the pitfalls in a distribution strategy, from both a domestic and international perspective,” Bruer adds.

Despite the solid bows posted by “Spider-Man 3” and “Men in Black 2,” the final tallies for these sequels have shrunk in comparison to their first installments. “Spider-Man 3” might be the summer’s highest-grossing film at $336.5 million, but it’s the lowest-grossing chapter in the franchise.

“We’ve opened them as big as we can,” admits Blake, eyeing his next priority. “Now we’ll look at keeping them in the theaters longer.”

Yet, after breaking weekend records, Blake continues to plan on setting even more.

“We need a 52-week-a-year business,” Blake says. “There can’t be any weekends that go unexplored. I have no doubt in the future that traditionally soft weekends will be exploited with a big picture.”