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Peter Bart: Getting Whiplash From Sony Spin

The studio brings on new execs and production deals even as it tells investors of film cutbacks

MEMO TO: MICHAEL LYNTON AND AMY PASCAL
FROM: PETER BART

Running a major studio has always been a balancing act, but I confess that I’m getting dizzy tracking your words and actions at Sony Pictures.

You inform investors that you will reduce the film slate, channeling more resources into television, and cut costs by more than $250 million, only to disclose new deals with top production executives that would suggest a busier feature release schedule.

In a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, Michael, you insist that Sony Pictures is not “in need of a turnaround,” but you’ve just fired your heads of marketing and public relations, appointed a new PR specialist in crisis management and disclosed plans for “a quick process” of staff layoffs.

While talking enthusiastically about a slate of future “Spider-Man” and other film franchises, you then emphasize that “this is not a business purely built on franchises,” citing several low-budget hits including “This Is the End” — an ominous title for a studio success story.

All this has left me a bit confused — a confusion shared by many on the Sony lot. Studio employees hold you both in great respect, Amy and Michael. They know you revere filmmakers and the filmmaking process. Hence I applaud your aggressive posture in the face of so-called activist investors like Daniel Loeb, who proposed spinoffs and cost cuts. (Loeb’s Third Point is a minority stakeholder in Variety Media.) You’ve come to fight, not retreat. It’s just that I’m trying to figure out the rules of combat.

Television has clearly been a profitable arena for your studio, hence it makes sense not only to step up development but also to explore acquisitions in foreign markets, such as Latin America, and to augment the Game Show Network with additional U.S. cable channels.

This may entail a tighter film release schedule and a reduction in producer deals (you already cut loose some talented filmmakers, such as Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick).

Several developments have suggested an expansionist track, however. Tom Rothman, the voluble production chief ousted by Fox, has come aboard at Sony to resuscitate TriStar Films, and already has started hiring staff and optioning properties. Next has come a buzz of negotiations with Jeff Robinov, late of Warner Bros., who would create a new production entity with the help of outside funding.

More surprising yet was your latest bombshell: that Sony’s producer Michael De Luca was becoming your president of production, sharing the title with Hannah Minghella. Both report to Doug Belgrad who, in turn, reports to you. That adds up to some hefty and expensive executive firepower presiding over a supposedly downsized schedule. It also raises questions as to the need for so many top chefs in the kitchen and what De Luca’s appointment portends in a potential succession plan for Pascal.

To some on the Sony lot, De Luca seems an odd fit. Many are asking why one of the producers of such acclaimed hits as “The Social Network,” “Moneyball” and “Captain Phillips,” who is sustaining whiplash trying to transform the “Fifty Shades of Grey” opus into a feature for Focus Films (and also has a busy agenda of TV series), would opt to exit his lucrative shingle to be yet another production executive with no longtime job security. Is this a smart move for a man who had a brief and bouncy ride as head of production at DreamWorks and before that was head of production at New Line, where he got fired after a damn good run? Clearly De Luca likes action — and he’s guaranteed to get plenty at Sony.

If your company seems to be putting out some mixed signals, Amy and Michael, I just hope those nasty bankers don’t share my occasional dizzy spells.

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