From the moment a series of racially insensitive jokes about President Barack Obama and her controversial back-and-forth leaked emails about A-list actors and talent became public, Amy Pascal was widely perceived as a dead executive walking.
Fairly or not, the Sony Pictures studio chief has become a corporate cautionary tale for the digital age. On Thursday, it was announced that Pascal was exiting her perch of more than a decade as gracefully as could be expected, landing a production deal at Sony with the promise of a four-year commitment to back a mixture of critically and commercially oriented projects.
But in her new role, Pascal still has some fence mending ahead of her.
“Her relationships and her effectiveness in dealing with talent had been compromised,” said Hal Vogel, a media analyst. “It’s a healthy move for her and the studio. It’s the kind of thing that requires a shift in leadership and an opportunity to change direction and put all of this behind them.”
Pascal’s replacement at the studio will likely come from within Sony’s current ranks, according to individuals with knowledge of the situation. Among the contenders, TriStar chief and former Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Tom Rothman has run a major film studio and Sony production president Michael De Luca has deep relationships with talent, but Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad likely has the inside edge. He’s popular on the Culver City lot and has a firm grasp of finances.
As for Pascal, she will remain in place throughout May and will help with the transition. Industry observers and analysts predict that the new production company offers Pascal a chance to restore her damaged brand as a creatively minded executive with a passion for film that’s rare in bottom-line oriented Hollywood.
Dave Logan, author of the book “Tribal Leadership” who teaches leadership at USC’s Marshall School of Business, thinks Pascal can repair her reputation if she re-emerges as an apologetic figure who has learned from her mistakes. “I actually think if she plays this right, she’s going to come out from it at least as strong,” Logan says, adding that people love a comeback story. “If she publicly apologizes and spends time out of the spotlight and appears to have changed. She’ll become one of those figures seen as having depth. I don’t think it’s going to happen right away. But if she approaches it the right way, this can turn into an important learning moment, not a career-ending moment.”
Even before the hack, Pascal weathered rough waters as Sony struggled with profits. After the studio suffered 2013 box office bombs “After Earth” and “White House Down,” hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb wrote a public letter advocating that Sony Entertainment be spun off from its parent company. (Loeb’s hedge fund, Third Point, invests in Variety.)
The public denouncement set off widespread panic and $100 million in cost-cutting — among the casualties, reportedly, was a personal assistant for Pascal who made $250,000 annually. Pascal had been telling her staff that she needed “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” to gross $1 billion to keep her job. The May 2014 tentpole release topped out at $709 million worldwide, and the bad buzz from an “Annie” reboot prompted rumors that Pascal could be pushed out after the holidays.
But the Sony hack turned the business leader into an unwitting celebrity. She suddenly felt the glare of tabloid reporters and TMZ paparazzi, with websites dredging up her salty conversations with producer Scott Rudin about Angelina Jolie and President Obama.
The ordeal that Pascal and Sony went through after leaks of stolen email exchanges, budget information and financial details ordered by North Korea in retaliation for the studio’s Kim Jong-un assassination comedy, “The Interview,” cost the studio $15 million “in investigation and remediation costs,” according to Sony’s earnings report on Wednesday, although it’s expected to have wider ramifications across the corporate landscape.
Pascal’s most shortsighted move, analysts claim, is not that she participated in jokes about the president preferring movies like “The Butler” and “Twelve Years a Slave,” or shared her unvarnished opinions of Harvey Weinstein and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s that she did it on company email instead of her private address.
“There is no such thing as a reasonable supposition of privacy,” said Brian Solis, a digital analyst at the research and advisory firm Altimeter Group. “Privacy isn’t what it used to be, and in an era of Anonymous and other factions like it, it’s easy to hack into something and expose skeletons in everyone’s closet.”
In a recent Vanity Fair story on the Sony hack fallout, Pascal was described as an obsessive emailer. However, she has tempered her enthusiasm for electronic communication. The magazine noted that she now uses four different devices to communicate and has changed her email addresses and passwords.
That Pascal was widely perceived to be vulnerable during the last months of her reign obscures the fact that she achieved remarkable longevity, having been president of the studio since 1996 and co-chairman since 2006.
“Every studio head is quite aware of the fact that they are fungible,” said Howard Suber, professor of film history at UCLA. “She became the issue. The films are supposed to be the issue, and anything that distracts from that, you’re going to have people say, ‘Do we really need this person?'”
Pascal’s relationships with talent may be strained, and the 56 year-old exec has been on an apology tour of late with people who were maligned in her leaked emails and those of her top lieutenants. Yet, she still has an enviable contact list and is a favorite of top film business players such as George Clooney, Aaron Sorkin and CAA managing director Bryan Lourd, all of whom rose to her defense during the hacking fallout. Insiders say that if she’s to survive as an important Hollywood figure, it will be thanks to these relationships.
Even now, many filmmakers and producers aren’t shy about singing Pascal’s praises. Kenny Ortega, who directed the 2009 Michael Jackson documentary “This Is It,” said Pascal inspires loyalty because of how she nurtures filmmakers. In his case, that meant bolstering him in the wake of the King of Pop’s unexpected death months prior to the release of “This Is It.”
“She pushed me to tell the story,” Ortega said. “I was traumatized and going through a lot of grief at the time. Basically, she said, ‘You need to step out of your own way. You need to find objectivity or don’t do it.’ And at the end of the day, she let me make my movie. She had strong ideas, but at the end of the day, she trusted that I knew the story.”
Ortega says that Pascal has tried to show remorse for what happened. “I think we all make mistakes,” Ortega said. “I think she knows that she blew it with regard to language and correspondence. I think she came out and said, ‘Don’t let this define me.’ We should give her a shot. She’s an extremely talented and gifted woman who has proven herself in the industry.”