To say that Sony’s film division has had a bit of a tough go lately might be understating things a bit. The email hack, the terrorist threat against The Interview that essentially put the kibosh on a wide release, the ouster of Amy Pascal, and a failure to clear the billion dollar mark in domestic grosses in 2015. In fact, all 16 movies Sony released last year combined to outgross Star Wars: The Force Awakens by just under $30 million at the domestic box office. That’s a rough 20 months.
Check out the first half of this year at the box office, and on the surface it doesn’t look any better. Nine films released, $358 million in domestic grosses ($334 million of that from 2015 releases), 6.2 percent market share and sixth place out of the sixth major studios, not to mention the enormous amount of negative attention directed at this week’s big movie, the female-led reboot of Ghostbusters.
But look a little closer, and it’s not necessarily as dire as it might appear.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Ghostbusters. The $154 million film has been something of a lightning rod for narrow-minded idiot fanboys since it was first announced. Ivan Reitman, the director of the original, insists that the ire directed at the project is because it is being remade at all, and not because of an overriding sense of misogyny that it’s being done with a gender switch in the title roles. I am a great admirer of Mr. Reitman and his work, but I happen to disagree with him on this point.
Our society is in an ongoing state of crisis, in case you hadn’t noticed, and at the center of it is a general nastiness that pervades just about everything. We are racist, we are bigoted, we are misogynist, xenophobic and misanthropic. We have lost our collective sense of humor and replaced it with fear, which often manifests as irrational anger and aggression. To say, then, that the faceless internet cowards trolling the film are doing it because of nostalgia is, I believe, on the naive side.
Which is why I have so enjoyed the way the movie’s stars — Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones — have handled the controversy, which is to say they’ve taken it and called the trolls out on their nonsense. From what I’ve seen, the response has been pretty positive, but it still might not be enough to overcome what appears to be a fairly strong indifference to the movie. It’s tracking to open at the top of the box office, but with less than $60 million, it could very well fail to make back its budget domestically, which means the folks in Culver City better hope for boffo foreign numbers. Great reviews might change that, of course (and what I have seen is decidedly mixed), but there is definitely cause for concern because Sony has plans for a long-running franchise (Pascal, the movie’s producer, said this week that the franchise will be “endless”) that may or may not include other films in a shared universe. Reitman has been overseeing a so-called Ghost Corps, but other projects — like a Russo Brothers-directed film with male Ghostbusters starring Channing Tatum — have been axed or failed to materialize. Either way, the studio has a lot riding on this.
What’s interesting is, this is actually Sony’s first big budget release of the year. Yes, The Angry Birds Movie cost $173 million and hit theaters in May, but that movie was financed by Rovio, the company behind the video game, so no matter what happened, Sony wasn’t on the hook for it. Other than that, while there have been a couple of outright flops like The Brothers Grimsby and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, both of those were relatively cheap, and the Chinese film The Mermaid was a monster international hit that Sony simply distributed domestically. The other five films on the list have actually done okay.
The 5th Wave was a disappointment in that it doesn’t appear to start the YA franchise that was intended, but the $38 million film did $110 million worldwide. The Blake Lively shark movie The Shallows cost just $17 million, has done $46 million domestic, and hasn’t even hit the major foreign markets yet. Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, with George Clooney and Julia Roberts, didn’t break the bank like the studio hoped, but it only cost $27 million, has cleared $87 million worldwide and could still break the $100 million mark. Then there are the two faith-based films, the historical Risen and modern Miracles from Heaven, which cost a combined $33 million and have teamed to gross close to $120 million worldwide.
These are what are known as small victories, it’s true, and not the basis of great success on the studio level these days, but you have to take those wins where you can get them. At the very least, these movies have been bringing in some amount of money while new studio co-chairman Tom Rothman brings his major changes to the overall operation, changes that are almost certain to improve the studio’s fortunes. One look at the rest of 2016 and what could be an all-time best year for the studio in 2017 will back that up.
After Ghostbusters, there are seven more projects set to hit theaters before the end of the year. First up is the Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg R-rated animated Sausage Party, which is already getting smashing buzz, then a pair of relatively cheap genre pics from Screen Gems, Don’t Breathe and When the Bough Breaks.
After that, the big guns come out, one each month starting in September with Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven, with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, then Ron Howard’s latest Tom Hanks-led adaptation of Dan Brown lit, Inferno, in October. November sees Ang Lee’s sure-to-be-Oscar bait adaptation of the bestselling Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, followed by the biggest of them all, director Morten Tylden’s followup to The Imitation Game: Passengers, starring Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.
Could those eight movies combine to make $640 million, and thus get Sony back over a billion dollars in grosses? Certainly. I think, in fact, it would be a surprise if they don’t. Either way, the collection of projects should allow the studio to build some momentum to carry it into 2017, where it currently has 17 films on its slate. It’ll start the year with a pair of Screen Gems flicks, the recently moved Underworld: Blood Wars and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, both in January, and then it gets especially interesting.
The 20-years in the making sequel T2: Trainspotting, the decades in development The Dark Tower, Edgar Wright’s long-awaited Baby Driver, the Jake Gyllenhaal-Ryan Reynolds-Rebecca Ferguson sci-fi thriller Life and a new animated Smurfs movie are all set to hit theaters between February and the first week of April, a month before the summer movie season starts.
Oh, yes, Sony’s 2017 summer slate is rife with possibilities, too. First up, in May, is Barbie, a kids movie adaptation starring the famed doll. If that doesn’t exactly get your blood flowing, no worries, there’s also Joe Carnahan’s Bad Boys 3, the Scarlett Johansson-led, female-centric comedy Rock That Body, the video game adaptation Uncharted, the Dwayne Johnson-Kevin Hart-led remake of Jumanji and the Emoji Movie all are set to go next summer, as well as a small film you might have heard of called Spider-Man: Homecoming. That last one, in fact, could be the studio’s first movie to clear $300 million domestic since 2012’s Skyfall.
Yes, it’s been a while since Will Smith and Martin Lawrence last teamed up and both the Barbie movie and the Emoji Movie are question marks, but you can’t deny they are big steps toward corralling box office dollars and, if nothing else, it’s nice to see more studio flicks made for female audiences.
After that, there are only three movies currently set for next fall, including an untitled event film, a sequel to the 2014 Denzel hit The Equalizer, and the animated The Star, but expect more to end up on the schedule in the coming months. There’s no way Rothman will let an awards season go forth without at least some representation.
Back in 2012, Sony finished ahead of all the other studios and set a company best of $1.792 billion domestic, over $4 billion worldwide and a market share of 16.1 percent. It hasn’t come close to those numbers since, and in fact has only cleared $1.2 billion domestic once. Now, it’s got new leadership at the top, a new attitude in place and a clear vision to regain past glories.
Yes, 2012 was the best year that Sony has ever had, and while 2016 is not any threat to take its place, 2017 very well might be.
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Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.