Hollywood’s focus always shifts magically at this time of year from the fresh to the familiar. The Shape of Water, quirky and innovative, already is yesterday’s news as the next Avengers prepares to battle Rampage for the first shot at summer franchise business.

It’s all about following the money: After all the Oscar hoopla, The Shape of Water managed in the end to gross $61 million and Call Me By Your Name $17.4 million, but the gold standard for the summer blockbuster business is $1 billion, newly achieved by Black Panther. Given the fact that only three of the six majors experienced profit growth last year and that box office returns from May to September dropped 14.7% in the U.S. and Canada, it’s understandable why the studios are relieved to shift focus.

Black Panther’s mega success has, of course, confounded studio strategists who keep searching for the foolproof formula (Panther is not quite a remake, and not quite a superhero movie). Their shifting tactics have resulted in some wild roller-coaster rides: The sequels and remakes mantra ruled until The Mummy and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword returned studio mavens to reality. Reliance on the filmmaker-as-auteur school may have delivered results for the old United Artists, but the collapse of Paramount’s 2017 slate (from mother! to Downsizing) served as a reminder that director dreams do not translate into box office.

The magic answer in the heyday of the studio system was to place all bets on movie stars, but the misadventures of the Sony regime under Amy Pascal a few years ago punctured that myth. Struggling with its wobbly slate of mid-budget dramas, Sony effectively bet the store on two stars who also fancied themselves as producers. It was a serious bet: The 50 or so films built around Will Smith and Adam Sandler embodied an array of star-driven sequels and remakes plus some mid-budget vanity projects, all huddled under the Sony corporate umbrella. The Smith & Sandler adventure is vividly reprised in a new book by Ben Fritz, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, whose account is built largely on information pillaged during Sony’s infamous hacking scandal (it’s titled The Big Picture: The Fight for The Future of Movies). While much of the data is public knowledge, Fritz buttressed it with original reporting that puts Sony’s extravagant caper in new perspective.

At the peak of their game, Smith and Sandler were both nonstop and non-negotiable. Pascal billed her regime as “a relationship studio” and the two stars benefited from their affectionate relationship. Smith and Sandler pulled down $20 million a picture against 20% of the gross (whichever was bigger), plus another $5 million against 5% for producing and $4 million each for overhead. Movies starred in or produced by the two grossed $3.7 billion between 2000 and 2015, generating almost a quarter of the studio’s profits.

Men In Black II
Will Smith in “Men In Black II”
REX/Shutterstock

They sustained a frantic pace, as though fearing that the gravy train would pull away: Sandler starred in 24 films, producing an additional 13. Smith starred in 15, producing seven. Both initiated their Sony careers with big hits. For Smith, Men in Black II grossed $441.8 million and Hancock $624.3 million. Sandler ground out comedies like Click, which grossed $237.7 million, and Grown Ups, which grossed $271.4 million. But, as Fritz reminds us, what started as a cozy relationship ultimately became a numbing dependency. Even as the stars made abundant use of studio perks, becoming regulars on the corporate jets, studio overhead continued to soar. Whenever overhead was raised at corporate meetings, Pascal or another senior executive would remind colleagues that “Smith and Sandler paid for our homes.”

As production budgets (and overages) continued to rise, Smith produced a curious bomb called After Earth (which starred his son Jaden), costing $149 million to produce but losing $25 million for the studio. Smith then starred in and produced a specialty film titled Concussion, reducing his fee to $10 million – but the film still lost $25 million. Men In Black III went massively over budget (costing $250 million) but grossed $624 million and broke even. Sandler’s last Sony film was Pixels in 2015, which cost $110 million and managed to break even. Sony had tried to back out of That’s My Boy in 2012. Bottom line: A loss of $42.5 million.

Adam Sandler
Sandler
REX/Shutterstock

Ultimately, Smith and Sandler took their business elsewhere and also downsized their demands and producing ambitions. Pascal, whose last annual payday totaled $21 million, was terminated by her longtime ally, CEO Michael Lynton, and was shifted to a producing deal. Lynton himself departed last year for other shores after a 12-year run at Sony (he is a major shareholder in Snap).

Fritz’s book points out that the extravagance of the Sony commitments seemed marginally justifiable in the years when profits from DVDs consistently buttressed the returns of the majors, but later became dangerous with the movie business under siege from streaming and other new competitors. Indeed, the ascendancy of the movie star had suddenly ended, along with the mid-budget drama that stars traditionally favored. Twenty million dollar paydays at this moment have all but disappeared for stars (a rare exception is Dwayne Johnson –- The Rock -– who
will pull down $21 million for the forthcoming Red Notice).

The upshot: Studios are struggling to discover “zeitgeist busting events” or “eye popping spectacles” to sell tickets — and hoping that a new magic formula may emerge from the melee.