EXCLUSIVE: Though he was flushed out of the bush quicker than he expected to be by a spate of rumors this week that led to tonight’s press reports about his exit, Doug Belgrad is well along in the construct of a monied production company that will have an exclusive first look deal at Sony Pictures, one that chairman Tom Rothman tells Deadline will generate two to four films per year for the studio.
Belgrad, who spent 27 years as a Columbia Pictures executive and has been a senior exec since 2002 when he became co-president of production with Matt Tolmach, will transition from the post and finish his run as an executive with the release of the Paul Feig-directed Ghosbusters. He’ll help with the transition of a replacement that sources said will be hired from outside to take the post of Motion Picture Group president (the hire is in the works and will happen quickly). And then, Belgrad will begin a new career chapter, one he said was his goal when he first became a studio executive nearly three decades ago.
“I came out here from Wall Street a long time ago hoping to build my own media company, and I got bit by the movie bug and got a great opportunity here to grow and learn the business,” Belgrad said. “But I always had these ambitions, even though I am a late booming entrepreneur.” His goal? “To have a relatively small, nimble company that has financing to back projects I believe in, that are commercially appealing, and to be able to work within Sony’s outstanding global distribution and marketing platforms,” he said. “I will make projects I’m passionate about, that fit the feature space or television platform, with properties and the talent relationships I want to explore. The landscape and possibilities are very exciting, but these executive jobs are more consuming than they were 10 or 15 years ago. I’ve got three kids, two of them who grew up while I’ve been doing this job, and I’d like to have a relationship with them. Part of this is a work-life balance decision. It was time for me to do something else.”
While his new venture doesn’t have a name he would disclose, Belgrad said he has been figuring out these plans since “well before” Sony got hit with a devastating cyber attack. He shelved his aspirations to help weather that crisis. Belgrad said the ambition and first discussions about this go back to discussions he had with Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton during his most recent re-up two years ago. And while Belgrad was a contender for the top job to replace Pascal that went to Rothman, both Belgrad and Rothman said Belgrad put his plans on hold while they got the studio past a slump and pulled together the promising slates for 2016 and 2017.
As word raced about Belgrad leaving (it comes a day after the exit of TV chief Steve Mosko though insiders the two are not related), rumors and one report suggested that Belgrad had been let go. Both he and Rothman wince at that notion, and vehemently deny it. Rothman said that he asked Belgrad to stay and help him put the studio on firmer footing, and that they have been figuring out this eventual transition for months (the rumors certainly have been around that long). The exit plan didn’t progress quickly because Rothman implored Belgrad to stay as they hammered out a slate that besides Ghostbusters includes such films as The Magnificent Seven, Passengers, Inferno and The Dark Tower, among others.
“He has been working his ass off for us in bringing us back to being a 20 picture releases a year studio,” Rothman said.
For his part, Rothman said he’s now determined to make Belgrad’s imminent fund raising efforts as painless as possible. “Doug will have guaranteed distribution slots, which should be helpful to him as he raises money, and he will be located on the lot and we will start him off with a number of projects at the studio,” Rothman told Deadline. “He is going to jump on some of our movies right away, and we will be making a major financial investment in his future. This is not one of those situations where an executive conveniently goes off into some producing deal. This is going to be a meaningful distribution partnership and I will be counting on him for two to four pictures per year. I don’t look at this as a blow to Sony in any way. We are gaining a supplier, one who knows everyone in the system here, and one that we trust implicitly. That is a rare thing.”
They wouldn’t divulge the pre-existing projects that Belgrad will become a producer on; this has all come to a head quickly and a lot of phone calls go into adding producers to existing projects, as was the case when Amy Pascal exited and became a producer on a number of plum pictures including Ghostbusters and Spider-Man: Homecoming, while she began building up her own arsenal of new projects. For Belgrad’s part, he’ll work on those projects Sony assigns to him while simultaneously staffing up and raising funding that will make him an equity player with the goal to grow a multi-platform content company in the mold of New Regency, Spyglass or Media Rights Capital, the latter of which was the catalyst and Sony’s partner in The Dark Tower.
There will be the cynical reaction that Belgrad’s exit was inevitable because that is what happens when two executives compete for the top job, and one doesn’t get it. Studio president Michael De Luca was also a candidate, and he left for a lucrative producing deal at Universal, for instance. “I understand the question, but this genuinely has nothing to do with me not getting the job as chairman,” Belgrad said. “I understood the decision that was made, at the time. Tom has the most experience of any executive around in running a studio, and he’s talented. I wanted to stay on. We have affection and respect for one another, and we had a great time putting together these films. I just didn’t feel right leaving when there was adversity to overcome, and I felt that there was a lot of job left for me to do before I took this on. I look not only at the Sony slates as accomplishments for us, but also moving Hannah Minghella to TriStar and Christine Belson to the animation company. The company is in a good place, and I sat down with Tom and explained my ambition and he has been most helpful in figuring out how to make the transition.”
Rothman said he understood Belgrad’s desire to change course, and in the course of conversations, the shape of Belgrad’s venture began to evolve with a greater involvement from the studio. “What evolved over months of discussion was a situation that was mutually beneficial to both of us, with this large and meaningful production deal as a major supplier for us. I asked him to stay and put together the slate, and our Cinemacon presentation showed an exceptional year of executive work that Doug and his team were responsible for. We are in a very strong place for the next 18 months, and that is why I don’t feel we’re losing a colleague as much as we’re gaining a supplier.”