Sony Emails Reveal Failed Efforts to Recruit ‘Lego’ Directors to Run Animation Unit

Bad reputation of Imageworks, Sony Animation hinders drive to create 'brain trust'

Phil Lord and Chris Miller Turned
Araya Diaz/WireImage

Stolen emails from Sony Pictures reveal the studio tried and failed last summer to recruit Phil Lord and Chris Miller to take over its animation division.

The emails from the hacked documents, obtained by Variety, show studio toppers Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton looking to animation “to turn the studio around.” They hoped to install a Pixar-style “brain trust” of filmmakers at the top of Sony Pictures Animation. Lord and Miller were being courted to head that group; other names being floated included Brad Bird.

Lord and Miller, who directed “The Lego Movie” as well as SPA’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and the studio’s “Jump Street” live-action comedy hits, met with Pascal last summer to discuss what such a brain trust might look like. Lord and Miller even suggested they would approach Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to join that team. “Can you imagine that world — the projects, the talent we’d attract, the money we’d make,” Pascal wrote to Lynton.

Pascal acknowledged in the email that Lord and Miller were tied up making four “Lego” pictures at Warner Bros. through 2015. But when the pair were asked to detail any concerns they might have about coming to Sony, Lord wrote an email to Hannah Minghella, the former Sony Pictures Animation chief who now works for Pascal exclusively on the live-action side. He cited the bad reputation of Sony Pictures Animation and the studio’s visual effects unit Sony Pictures Imageworks, a reputation that developed from the loss of key talent from both divisions and Imageworks’ move to Vancouver.

“It’s too hard to do great work there,” wrote Lord to Minghella, in answer to Sony’s query.

Their assessment was only slightly harsher than an internal assessment that Minghella had sent to Pascal a day earlier. On July 31, she emailed  Pascal, with subject line “Confidential” (ellipses in original):

“Objective: We want the creative direction of the company, and the projects, to be run by creatives… either an individual or a brain trust: Lord & Miller, Brad Bird, Will Gluck… (Lindsay Doran).”

Minghella outlined how such a brain trust might work, then turned to:

Current Problems:
– low morale negatively impacts talent retention.

– studio reputation negatively impacts talent recruitment
– only one (proven) director in-house: Genndy.
– SPA no longer has the competitive edge it had before Fox, Universal, and Paramount started their animation divisions.

– ImageWorks moving to Vancouver also impacts the competitive edge that came from being LA based
– limited financial success compared with other animated titles – what are the drivers of this: Quality? Originality? Marketing? Dating?
– limited number of active projects/franchises – Cloudy, Hotel T, Smurfs, Popeye
– does the relationship with ImageWorks help or hinder SPA?”

(Genndy is “Hotel Transylvania” director Genndy Tartakovsky.)

The ensuing emails suggest that until they attempted to recruit Lord and Miller, Sony’s top brass was generally uninformed about the decline of Imageworks and the ill will that the studio’s personnel practices had generated in the vfx and animation community.

After receiving Minghella’s honest assessment, Pascal had an email exchange with Lynton about their efforts to make Lord & Miller “our john lassiter” (sic). Pascal wrote to Lynton that Lord & Miller were excited about taking such a leadership role, but:

“… they say we have lost every good person we had there and it’s a travesty”

She also added that Lord & Miller had floated the idea of approaching Rogen and Goldberg, among others, to join that brain trust. “i’m having lunch with brad bird today to talk about it with him as well…this is our shot,” wrote Pascal.

Lynton responded: “why have all the good people left our place????”

Later that morning Lord emailed Minghella a list of key talent that had left Imageworks; according to Lord and Miller’s reps, they sent that message in response to a request from Sony for feedback on why they were reluctant to return. Lord wrote that he and Miller felt that at Sony “artists have been treated like paper, and it’s too hard to do great work there,” adding, “What’s not measured by who left is who never came because the reputation was so bad.” Minghella forwarded the message to Pascal.

Lynton wrote to Pascal and pointed a finger at Sony Pictures Digital president Bob Osher, who oversees Sony Animation and Imageworks. Lynton implied that Osher would have to be fired. Pascal responded that Osher’s “cost savings stuff” at Imageworks was “amazing.”

“I am only sorry that left bob to his own devices and let it get to this point. And we just renewed Bob which is also a problem given what we will probably have to do. That being said we should do it,” Lynton said in his email to Pascal.

Pascal wrote back to Lynton about the brain drain at SPA and Imageworks. She repeated some of the names Lord had provided and added: “we gotta hold on to these folks.”

“we know this is an impossible situation… a much tooo great an asset to waste not to mention a real way to turn the studio around…..we have lost the competitive advantages we had when we were th eonly option for people who wanted to leave disney dreamworks or pixar as well as the advantages we had to get local talent when imageworks was one of the few remaining la based options. more than ever we have to rely on our reputation as a place for creative innovation and excellence and we don’t have that reputation or reality anymore.”

In the early years of this century, Imageworks was known for driving up wages for vfx pros, to the dismay of management at its competitors. One of the “big four” vfx studios, along with Industrial Light & Magic, Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues Studios, it was a regular Oscar contender and would work on several tentpoles each year, in addition to supplying the animation for SPA. Imageworks planned to support the low-margin vfx business with profits from animation, which has been successful for every other studio.

But SPA’s pictures have underperformed relative to the competition. One of the studio’s biggest hits was Lord and Miller’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”

Over the years Imageworks shifted away from permanent jobs to a crew model, where artists are hired only for the duration of a show, which slashed personnel costs. Imageworks shifted more and more work from Los Angeles to Vancouver, and employees have complained that they were pressured to move to Vancouver, only to find that there was no job waiting for them, just an opportunity to be hired onto the next Imageworks project. In May, the division moved its HQ and all production to Vancouver.

During the summer of 2013, Imageworks did not work on a single summer tentpole. This year it had Sony’s own “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and contributed to Marvel’s releases.

All this has larger implications. First, Lord and Miller’s complaints about the move to Vancouver bolster arguments that runaway production — and the unchecked pursuit of short-term profit — will ultimately do these companies more harm than good.

Second, it suggests that Sony’s top leaders were somehow unaware of the issues afflicting not just Imageworks, but the entire vfx industry, despite numerous news reports, public protests, and even the grievances raised by the Imageworks unionization org SPI Union.