ANALYSIS: The appointment of Michael De Luca to share production president duties with Hannah Minghella at Sony Michael De LucaPictures has taken the town by surprise. Insiders on the lot see an improved structure that could position the studio to up the level of quality as it follow through on its mandate to take big swings for global hits. The way the new structure will work is, Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group chairman Amy Pascal and Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad will focus on the studio as a whole, including administrative endeavors, and Minghella and De Luca will concentrate on building the film slates.

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columbiaMany in town have expressed surprise that De Luca would make such a move at this moment, and not just because he’s most identified with smart and edgy filmmaker-driven films and not the tentpoles that increasingly account for studio slates. They are surprised that, after transitioning from a fabled run as wunderkind production chief at New Line (and a stint at DreamWorks) to become producer, De Luca has built enviable momentum: hits include Sony’s Oscar hopeful Captain Phillips, The Social Network and Moneyball, and De Luca is in the middle of Universal/Focus’s adaptation of the EL James publishing sensation Fifty Shades Of Grey. There are dozens of other promising projects percolating. “There is no way a guy with that hot a hand is going to take that job and probably a pay cut to report to Belgrad unless there is some eventual succession plan,” barked one rival exec.

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hannahbelg__131206215847Plenty of turbulence has occurred at Sony these past few months leading up to the recent investor meeting, but insiders tell me this structure is not viewed as a short-term solution, and they say no other shoes will be dropping. They say this move will strengthen the studio in several ways. Most important is De Luca’s value as an executive; I have gotten to know him very well, as we spent over a year working on a book about his professional and personal coming-of-age years at New Line. We shelved the project at Mike’s request, so I’m not uncomfortable writing about him here. But what I observed that the above exec is unaware of is just how much De Luca loved being an executive.

He missed being able to discover talent, take risks and exercise his strong relationship with filmmakers and actors the way he did while an executive at New Line. There, he helped break directors like David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Gary Ross, Guillermo del Toro, Jay Roach, and Brett Ratner, and just as many stars making enduring films like Seven, Boogie Nights and American History X, and launching the franchises Austin Powers, Blade, Rush Hour and Friday. De Luca’s hot streak ended, he developed a bad-boy rep, and flops like Town & Country ended his run. He was hampered by DreamWorks’ bureaucracy, but did break talent on films like Old School and Anchorman.

Amy PascalDe Luca has spent the past few years on far-flung movie sets and on the high seas with Captain Phillips. Now a married father of two young children, De Luca has settled down, and the appeal of being able to kiss the kids goodnight makes an exec job enticing. He also brings a better understanding of the filmmaking process from his decade as producer, and he should be able to flourish as part of a quartet that has worked closely together and gets along. Pascal has been a close friend of his going back to the days when both worked under the Ted Turner umbrella, she running Turner Pictures and he running New Line. She also signed him to the producing deal at Sony, where De Luca feels he has done his best work not only with Pascal, but also Belgrad and Minghella. While that studio’s priorities are franchises like Spider-Man, James Bond and the reboots of Ghostbusters and Men In Black, Sony’s holiday looks strong because of American Hustle and Monuments Men as well as the Robocop reboot.

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De Luca will remain a producer long enough to finish the first installment of Fifty Shades of Grey for Universal/Focus, and Dracula Untold for Universal. By February he will transition out and become a passive producer on his percolating projects and the Fifty Shades sequels, when he takes the president post.

The big challenge will be avoiding overlap. Agents and producers want to be able to get answers, and bureaucracy sometimes gets in the way of that. Belgrad is good at the administrative and management stuff. Minghella, who moved from Sony Animation and is still developing talent skills to go along with her strong rep for script development, will split up the slate with De Luca, whose talent whisperer rep will help. Then there is Pascal, who seems to be in a position not unlike Jim Gianopulos at Fox or Kevin Tsujihara at Warner Bros. Of course, Pascal is a filmmaker at heart; several agents have told me that they were conducting spec script auctions they were shocked to be called directly by Pascal when she wanted something. I can’t believe that will change.

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There is plenty on the Culver City lot for Pascal and Michael Lynton to manage. They’ve got a new slate financing deal with Blue Anchor Entertainment’s John LaViolette and Joseph M. Singer to protect downside. In hiring De Luca, Sony has essentially added another buyer on a lot full of them. Besides Columbia Pictures, there is Tom Rothman– whose TriStar will generate four moderately budgeted films per year — Clint Culpepper’s Screen Gems and Steven Bersch’s Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions. There is also the specter of a new company hatched by former Warner Bros chief Jeff Robinov and Graham King, to fully fund or co-finance event films that will feed through Sony’s global pipeline. I’ve heard Sony will seed that venture $50 million if Robinov and King raise $250 million to make big movies, a process that is still underway.