Is Jeff Robinov Looking for the Exit? What’s Behind Studio 8’s Slow Start

Jeff Robinov Ang Lee

When Jeff Robinov launched his ambitious new movie production company, the former head of Warner Bros. film division declared that he would release as many as 24 movies over five years.  The scope of his grand vision — to one day rank alongside Hollywood’s seven other major studios — was clear in his company’s name: Studio 8.

But 26 months after unveiling his new millennium enterprise, Robinov’s would-be powerhouse has been associated with only one major film release – Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” — and it was a flop. The slow lift-off has many in Hollywood asking: What has become of Studio 8?

And now sources close to the situation say that the 57-year-old film executive has been drumming up conversations in Hollywood that suggest he is looking to extricate himself from his distribution deal at Sony Pictures. Several people have told Variety that Robinov is disillusioned with the domineering style of Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group. Some are even speculating that he’s hoping to succeed Rothman.

According to some insiders, one of the rival studios that Robinov has his eye on is Viacom’s Paramount Pictures, the troubled studio that finished last in the domestic box office standings for the last five calendar years. They say he made overtures to Les Moonves, when it looked like the CBS Corp. CEO might become head of a re-combined CBS-Viacom, and that he was trying to get an audience with influential shareholder Shari Redstone. But, the sources say, he never met with Redstone or Moonves.

Robinov’s distribution deal at Sony does not expire for two more years, but Studio 8’s modest start and the possibility his gaze is wandering raise questions about where the highly-regarded film executive is headed.

Robinov declined, through a spokesman, to comment. But his allies said talk about him moving on is nothing but chatter. They say that interest in Robinov was coming from Paramount, due to his experience running a major studio and relationships with filmmakers, and that the veteran executive has made no moves to ingratiate himself with Paramount.

The executive has been taking his time with Studio 8 to assure he creates the best films possible, the Robinov loyalists say. He has no interest in running any of the big, establishment studios, they insist, having already devoted 17 years to the movie operation at Warner Bros. The Robinov allies also rejected the notion that he was chafing under Rothman’s leadership at Sony. Said one: “He has a solid working relationship with Tom Rothman and they like each other personally. There is no significant friction there.”

Perceptions around Hollywood of Robinov’s startup are not so rosy.

“It’s weird how much silence there has been out of Studio 8,” said one producer, who has worked with Robinov in the past and declined to be named, in hopes they might one day do business again. “I don’t understand how that is a going concern.” Added another old Hollywood hand who has done business in China for more than two decades: “Studio 8, so far, has been much ado about nothing.”

Further fueling questions about Robinov’s future is the fact that his current distribution host, Sony, is in the midst of significant overhaul. The executive who originally signed him, chairman Amy Pascal, left under pressure in 2015. Then, just this month, long-time Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton announced he would step down Feb. 2 as sole leader of the Japanese conglomerate’s entertainment operation.

Pressure is mounting for the Culver City studio to up its game, as Sony has spent four years near the bottom of the box office rankings. Even though there is a search underway for Lynton’s successor, insiders at Sony describe the current environment as fluid and uncertain.

If Studio 8 is going to be the rocket that finally will propel Sony off the launch pad, it has not been evident yet. Robinov’s company paid for only about one-quarter of the $40 million cost of “Billy Lynn,” which grossed just $31 million worldwide and less than $2 million in the U.S. The Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group, Robinov’s principal backer of Studio 8, has remained silent on the progress (or lack thereof) of its $200 million investment. (Another $50 million came from Sony.)

But Aynne Kokas, a University of Virginia Media Studies professor and author of the soon-to-be-released “Hollywood Made in China,” said that, despite most of “Billy Lynn’s” box office coming from China ($23.7 million), “such a tepid performance, with a director who should have reliable at the box office, is really a big concern.” With the growth of theatrical receipts from China slowing dramatically last year (up 3% or less after years of jumping more than 20%) Kokas said that Chinese companies like Fosun are bound to re-examine how much more they invest in Hollywood.

A Robinov ally said the Chinese company “has been incredibly supportive” and appreciates the fact that their American partner is not rushing into deals but instead “spending their money wisely.”

Not much has been made public yet about how Robinov plans to get his company going. Because Studio 8 took only a minority stake in “Billy Lynn,” the company is said to consider the historical drama/thriller “The Solutrean,” from director Albert Hughes, its first true release. The ambitious film is due out this September. Also on the drawing board is the story of a young drug informant, “White Boy Rick,” with Matthew McConaughey, and another Ang Lee film, “The Thrilla in Manila” – about Muhammad Ali’s 1975 fight with Joe Frazier.

Another China-backed startup that launched at virtually the same time as Studio 8 — Robert Simonds’ STX Entertainment — has made a much bigger immediate splash in the film business. STX created its own distribution system and released nine films over the last couple of years, although its path to profitability also is not clear.

Robinov allies pooh-pooh all the speculation about Studio 8 as standard Hollywood gossip. They said the executive has been proceeding slowly by design, determined to make the best films possible, rather than plow ahead to try to show he is doing something. “You don’t want to rush in just to show how big your d— is,” said one Robinov associate. “You want your movies to succeed and he has a great lineup coming.”

More than 40 projects are in some stage of development, said the associate. A Hollywood film financier who knows Robinov but is not invested in his company, agreed, saying: “Jeff devoted all of his time and resources and capital into content and he has done it very quietly and methodically.”

Still, multiple sources reported that Robinov does not get along with Sony chief Rothman.  One producer noted that after Pascal left, Robinov made it known that he is no fan of Rothman’s. “Now it’s Tom in charge, so you have two hard heads bumping into each other,” said one producer who knows both men.

A spokesperson for the studio rejected the notion that the two men are at odds, describing a cordial, mutually-respectful relationship. Another Robinov ally says their working relationship is fine.

Robinov has both the financing and contractual obligations to continue with Studio 8, one of his allies said. “He has spent two years getting his movies ready and he gets to make the movies he wants, with total authority,” this person said. “Why would he want to take [another]  job? In show biz anything can happen, but it would be a big surprise.”

(pictured: Jeff Robinov and Ang Lee at the premiere of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”)