Amy Pascal Exit Brings Talk Of Legacy And Successor To Shape Sony Pic Future

After the bombshell dropped today that Amy Pascal would end a decade atop the Sony Pictures Entertainment film studio to become a producer on the Culver City lot, we are left to contemplate her legacy, her successor and how an era of talent-friendly, lavish and gutsy film making might well be going by the wayside.

pascal lyntonNow it is up to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton and Sony Corp president/CEO Kazuo Hirai to name a replacement and stamp what the next iteration of the movie studio will be. They don’t seem to be in a great hurry, and Pascal has afforded them time by staying on until May even as there are rumors that she will quickly become aligned with plum producing projects that could include James Bond, Spider-Man and others. Her Sony-funded producing shingle will run four years and include development funding, “put” picture commitments, and outs that will allow her even to make movies for other studios or upstarts like Amazon Studios or Netflix.

As I reported when Deadline broke the news this morning that Pascal was exiting, Lynton and Hirai have a deep bench from which to draw—Doug Belgrad, Michael De Luca, Tom Rothman and Jeff Robinov–and it appears they are determined to find her successor from within and haven’t discussed the job with anybody outside the studio. That process will take a little while, I’m told. That’s because the actual agreement for Pascal to exit was pretty abrupt, coming together over the past week. It convinces me that this exit isn’t as simple as saying that Pascal was shown the door.

That would be an understandable assumption given all the shrapnel that came with the release of embarrassing stolen emails feasted on by bottom feeding media as part of a cyber-terror campaign by North Korea-backed hackers that siphoned secrets and destroyed hardware and data to thwart the release of the year-end comedy The Interview. It left Pascal and Lynton feeling like the survivors of a tsunami. There was that pre-holiday frenzy of endless controversy and email revelations that prompted Pascal to apologize to talent and even Al Sharpton because of an ill-advised musing of what black-themed movies President Obama might like. Then the Christmas break arrived, and brought it all to a screeching halt. By the time they returned to work in January, it was eerily quiet.

Interview Kim Jong UnEven the film that caused the international incident, the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview, didn’t lose the ton of dough that seemed likely when its wide theatrical release was scrapped following bomb threats issued by the Sony hackers. Sony had blown through two-thirds of its P&A spend before stopping ads abruptly, but insiders say The Interview did $45 million in digital revenue. The VOD return to studio is higher than a traditional theatrical split, and coupled with theatrical gross north of $6 million, the proceeds from a Netflix deal and international and domestic DVD, it seems plausible Sony could get close to recoupment, certainly much closer than the $30 million that NATO claimed the studio would lose.

Despite a return to normalcy, there seemed to be a collective expectation that something had to give–few hang onto these jobs as long as Pascal has–and Pascal and Lynton (who is himself feeling pressure from Japan) came around to realizing that doing this, now, was the best outcome for all parties. Those who know her say Pascal doesn’t like change and her instinct would be to hang on and not give up a job she loved. But it’s a job not nearly as fun as it used to be, when there was more money to spend and risk taking was easier, when Pascal and Lynton and their team made movies they wanted to, sometimes extravagantly, and established themselves as talent magnets. This was before Daniel Loeb came into the picture as a vocal minority shareholder, and before a few bad quarters had Sony’s Japanese bosses calling for layoffs and leading Pascal and Lynton to get rid of staff they’d worked with forever. Pascal’s passion is picking and making movies, and much of the headaches seemed to have little to do with that.

belgradThe prime contenders to replace Pascal we named this morning. There is SPE Motion Picture Group president and Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad; production president Michael De Luca; former Fox and current TriStar principal Tom Rothman; and Jeff Robinov, who left Warner Bros after not getting the top slot and who started the monied production company Section 8 with $1 billion in financing that comes mostly from China. It’s worth adding a long shot: the ambitious Sony Pictures TV chief Steve Mosko, whose division is a reliable profit center.

Several of these guys are well-respected execs who were once picture pickers at this or other studios. On the lot, they’ve been debating the possibilities all day of which horse to bet on. Some feel that if Japan wanted to reflect fiscal acumen, Sony might go with Rothman, who at Fox made ambitious pics like Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi but was known more for budgetary discipline that means profitable quarterly reports; or for that matter Belgrad, a savvy business guy who, before he was promoted from production president, once handled the Adam Sandler account when he was starring in hit after hit.

If Sony’s emphasis would once again be about filmmaker and talent relationships, then the favorite might be De Luca. Unlike Belgrad, he’s not well known to the Japanese bosses, but he was producer of some of Sony’s recent tastemaker hits The Social Network, Captain Phillips and Moneyball. He is also the former wunderkind New Line production president who empowered emerging filmmakers and pics like the David Fincher-directed Se7en, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, launched Jim Carrey’s star with The Mask and Dumb and Dumber, and presided over franchises that included Blade and Rush Hour. He has a strong relationship with Sony-based producer Scott Rudin, with whom De Luca produced several of those Sony hits.

robinov-formal__130417111436-200x228Robinov would be a stickier proposition, despite all his bonafides from his Warner Bros reign. It’s doubtful backers would have given Robinov $1 billion if he wasn’t shackled to his Studio 8 venture, which is just getting underway. But they probably said the same thing about the producing duo Peter Guber and Jon Peters, until Sony paid $200 million to buy their production company and then paid  hundreds of millions in obligations to Warner Bros, including real estate that completed the WB lot, in order to get them to run Sony several regimes back.

I have also heard that two of these candidates could be teamed and in that case a pairing of Belgrad and De Luca might make sense. It’s all speculation at this point but one benefit all of them will get is that the studio runs more fiscally sound than it used to, and the community accepts that now.

All of these executives are doing fine where they are and that includes Rothman, who relaunched TriStar with a strong slate that includes the Robert Zemeckis-directed The Walk, a 3D extravaganza that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, Ricki and the Flash with Meryl Streep as a decadent rock star, and the Jodie Foster-directed Money Monster with George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

This leaves the question of legacy of Pascal’s long reign. Some feel she’ll be hard pressed to shake the memory of the  Sony hack and the unfortunate things that occurred when emails were leaked. Talent like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Bennett Miller, David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin and others who worked with her repeatedly will define her much differently, and likely will cushion her landing into the producer role. Backed by Lynton, Pascal took creative risks that are hard to find in today’s tent pole hungry studio executive suites. The Interview was a misfire, but it was a gutsy creative call and her instincts paid off many times over the years.

One memorable example is Moneyball. Pascal shocked everyone when, three days from start of production, she cancelled the film because Steven Soderbergh turned in a rewrite she felt didn’t resemble the film she’d green lit. Overhauled slowly by director Bennett Miller, it went on to become a Best Picture nominee.

Her transition to producing will take some adjustment. She has been a buyer forever, and I’m told there will be a rude awakening in being on the other side of that equation.

But at least Pascal can take Al Sharpton off her call sheet.

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