EXCLUSIVE: Jeff Blake, who has served as vice chairman of Sony Pictures and chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution for Sony Pictures since 2005, is leaving the studio that he has been a part of for the past 22 years. Part of the innermost circle of Sony’s senior management team with CEO Michael Lynton and chair of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group Amy Pascal, the departure is a real shake-up for the studio at the highest level. Blake is the stalwart pro and has been one of the longest survivors at any studio. He worked under several Sony regimes including that of Peter Guber and Mark Canton, Jonathan Dolgen, Alan Levine, Robert Wynne, Mel Harris, the beloved John Calley, Howard Stringer, and finally Lynton and Pascal. He exits August 1.
Sony announced it at 8 AM this morning, saying, “It’s with a heavy heart and great appreciation that we want to share with you news that Jeff Blake has decided to leave SPE to pursue other opportunities … he’s been an important part of the fabric of SPE. We have all loved his legendary role as raffle master at our annual holiday party, enjoyed his gregarious laugh and sense of humor and appreciate his reputation as one of the nicest and most easy-going guys in the business.”
With Blake’s departure, the studio loses an executive with institutional and strategic knowledge of not only marketing and distribution both domestically and internationally, but on the business itself. He has worked at three studios, having joined the business in 1974 working for Paramount Pictures in Chicago. He has also worked with the best known names in the business at Paramount and at Sony (and even a short stint at Disney) – from Charlie Bludhorn and Barry Diller to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Stanley Jaffe, Frank Mancuso, the wonderful Brandon Tartikoff, the aforementioned executives and so many others. Katzenberg and Mancuso became Blake’s lifetime friends and mentors.
His departure comes after Pascal and Lynton and the rest of SPE’s senior management have been under tremendous pressure after a rough round last summer and a hit-and-miss year so far in 2014. Pascal and Lynton have spent this past year making changes at the studio and shoring up their ranks with execs like Michael De Luca coming in as president of production at Columbia, and the announcement last week that Doug Belgrad is expanding duties with a new president of the motion picture group title. Those expanded responsibilities included working with the marketing and distribution team which also saw changes last year. Sony has undergone extreme cost-cutting at the studio as well with layoff after layoff. They have also worked to bring in co-financing deals and closed a big one with Lone Star Capital and Citibank, a smaller agreement with Village Roadshow and have also been waiting for former Warner Bros. executive Jeff Robinov to secure financing to start producing movies to distribute.
“Certainly there has been an air of change at Sony for the past couple of years,” said Blake. “I put it out there prior to our summer if at some point, I needed to step aside that I certainly would but, in the meantime, I wanted to make sure that there were no distractions in releasing our summer slate. I’m really comfortable with my decision, and I wish Michael and Amy all the best. We have a lot of great people working here, and I’m going to miss them.”
Blake’s departure does, in fact, come as the studio is closing its summer box office run – one that includes both hits and misses: 22 Jump Street, Heaven Is For Real, the almost amazing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which is in need of a serious reboot) and the duds Mom’s Night Out and Sex Tape. Yes, there were misses in marketing and distribution but to be fair, there have been hits and misses in the kind of quality (or lack thereof) films the studio has produced, too.
Asked if this was part of an organizational change, Lynton said: “There’s been so much change in terms of headcount reduction, and this is not part of that. He’s the best of the best and it’s a real loss for us. This was his decision.” Lynton worked with Blake for 11 years. Added Pascal: “Jeff and I have been partners and collaborators for 22 years. He’s one of my best friends. It’s a real loss for us. He made everything work for a very, very long time.”
What will Blake do next? “I’ve been in the business 40 years without a break — no gaps, always under contract. I’m going to decide what to do next after I take a breath,” Blake said.
And what happens at Sony now? Are there more changes afoot? Belgrad already was upped with more duties last week, Sony’s worldwide distribution head Rory Bruer will step up and, of course, marketing chief Dwight Caines will probably take on a more prominent role. The international team should remain the same (they are doing a great job). “Right now we are going to leave the existing structure under Jeff in place,” said Lynton. “And we will be looking both internally and externally to replace Jeff.”
But do they really need that position? “We are going to take stock of everything and decide after that,” said Pascal. Both Pascal and Lynton were effusive about Blake and his contribution to the studio. “He always delivered information with much wisdom and incredible humor. And he’s both strategic and tactical,” said Lynton.
The stock price has been down about 24.5% over the past 12 months but the entertainment sector makes up only a small part of the electronics giant. Sony Pictures — the combined movie and TV operations — generated $8.05B in sales and $501M in operating income in the fiscal year that ended in March. That accounted for about 11% of Sony’s sales. The parent company only generated $257M in operating profit due to losses in the PC business, mobile products, games, and devices. Sony Pictures sales fell 6% on a constant currency basis with gains in TV unable to compensate for the decline in film.
Blake has seen much at the studio – from the allegations of overspending and scandals of Heidi Fleiss that dogged the Guber/Canton regime to the revitalization under CEO Calley (where the James Bond pics Casino Royale and Skyfall came to Columbia thanks to Calley’s business savvy) to the present-day ups and downs and having to endure the wrath of minority shareholder Daniel Loeb, who voiced his dismay at the string of box office flops. The business is cyclical and every studio in town has gone through these kind of roller coaster rides many times.
Despite it all, Blake has been steady as a rock, helping to keep things in balance and perspective and with that legendary sense of humor. Calley once said to me that he was happy to have another Irishman at the studio and depended on Blake in many ways; he considered Blake one of the grown-ups in town and at the studio itself.
The story can be told now, but unbeknown to a lot of people: When Mancuso emerged as MGM’s new chairman under the ownership of Credit Lyonnais and Calley came out of years of a self-imposed exile (he said he wasn’t having any fun anymore at Warner Bros.) to run United Artists again, Blake played a significant role for the new executive. When Calley needed to get back in touch with the business, he turned to a few people behind the scenes to help him – one of those executives was Blake.
Sure, Blake was at a competing studio, but Mancuso and Blake had worked together at Paramount for many years. So, out of friendship with Mancuso, Blake helped Calley understand how distribution had changed over the years he had been absent from the business. So, it was no surprise that the year after Calley arrived at Sony in 1997, he repaid Blake with the job first overseeing worldwide distribution and then worldwide marketing and distribution which he has run for the last 14 years.
That’s the kind of camaraderie that this business used to run on.
Speaking of that kind of camaraderie: Blake also has mentored numerous executives over the years – Josh Goldstine (now head of marketing at Universal) and Marc Weinstock (now head of domestic marketing at Fox), as well as many others.
Blake joined the studio in 1992, courtesy of former marketing head Sid Ganis who brought his former colleague over from Paramount. He came aboard as president of Sony Pictures Releasing (as it was called then) before Calley stepped in in 1997 and began guiding Blake’s career trajectory. Blake became vice chairman in 2002. After Calley left, Blake was upped again in 2005 to chairman of worldwide distribution of marketing by Stringer, Lynton and Pascal
During all those years, he oversaw the marketing and distribution for so many of the studio’s most successful franchises, including Men In Black, all the Spider-Man movies, the aforementioned Bond films, about 15 Adam Sandler films and more than 10 Will Smith films. In fact, not only did he help the studio make billions of dollars — the Spider-Man films alone took in $4 billion and the last one made about $710M worldwide — he and the rest of his team at Sony helped to set worldwide box office records in 2009 and again in 2012.
Before Sony, Blake worked at Paramount for 17 years in distribution, where he worked for Mancuso, then Jaffe, and finally the wonderfully honest Tartikoff.