Sony’s Film Division Isn’t What It Was — Well, Most of It Isn’t (Studio Series)

Sony PicturesAll images courtesy of Sony Pictures

And now we begin Part Two of our Studio Tale of Woe, with Sony, which has had a decidedly rough go of it lately. Any time your film division loses over $700 million in a year, and that essentially carves the parent company’s profits in half, it’s low tide.

Things haven’t really been right for a couple years now, since the infamous hack of late 2014. That spelled the end of the line for Amy Pascal, who had, to that point, run a reasonably tight ship before she was forced out the door in the wake of the North Korean cyber attack that left egg on the faces of executives all over Culver City, and was directly responsible for the changing of the guard there.

Pascal, of course, walked out as the producer of Sony’s lucrative Spider-Man franchise and was replaced by Tom Rothman, who is certainly no slouch in the Running a Studio department. He had a fairly outstanding run at Fox during the first dozen years of this century, during which time the studio’s movies racked up over 150 Oscar nominations and three Best Picture trophies. He resigned from Fox at the end of 2012, was hired to restart TriStar pictures a year later, and that put him in prime position to take over for Pascal, once that particular bunch of nonsense hit the fan.

Unfortunately, Rothman’s tenure at Sony has not been nearly as successful as it was at Fox. While the 2015 calendar year has to be attributed to Pascal’s slate, the studio hasn’t actually cleared a billion dollars in domestic grosses since 2014. It set records in 2012 with the best year in the film division’s history, then dropped from almost $1.8 billion to about $1.2 billion the next, and after another bump to $1.4 billion in 2014, it’s been on a steady downward slide ever since.

While Spectre did good business in 2015 (almost $200 million domestic and over $880 million worldwide), it was expected to do Skyfall numbers, as in, north of a billion. It didn’t. But at least that was a profitable movie. A year later, the studio’s highest grossing film was the ill-fated Ghostbusters reboot, which did just $128 million domestic, not even earning back its $144 million price tag. The fact that it brought in a total of $229 million worldwide is small consolation, considering how much money the film lost, which is in the neighborhood of $70 million.

Which means no sequel, or a much-needed continuing franchise, or a shared universe, or any of the other things for which the higher ups were hoping for with that deal.

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The Angry Birds movie was a nice surprise, with about $350 million worldwide, but Sony was just the distributor for that one, not the financier, which means a lot of that money didn’t actually reach Sony’s coffers. A better win was Sausage Party, the relatively low-budget animated comedy from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, that cleared $140 million globally.

Throw in the TriStar faith-based drama Miracles from Heaven, which did a modest profit, and the Blake Lively-led shark movie The Shallows, which did a much healthier one, and that about brings to an end the good news for Columbia and TriStar Pictures in 2016. Pretty much everything else either broke even (like Money Monster, The 5th Wave, Inferno) or lost money (The Magnificent Seven,  Passengers, Risen, The Brothers Grimsby, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). That Inferno did only $220 million worth of business, considering its franchise pedigree and the continued involvement of Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, is hardly a victory. This was the third in a series that has shown nothing but diminishing returns. The Da Vinci Code did over $750 million worldwide, Angels & Demons fell to $486 million, and now Inferno comes in with less than half that, and only $34 million stateside. All that adds up to the end of the franchise, which is something I think we can all agree is not ideal in the current climate.

What continues to work exceedingly well for the film division, though, is Clint Culpepper’s Screen Gems. Anyone who is a regular reader of the words appearing in this space will be aware of the high esteem in which Screen Gems is held, and if you take a look at the numbers, you’ll understand why. While Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a rare misstep, the reasoning behind it was solid: established IP, rising star in Lily James — who had just fronted the live action Cinderella the year before — comedy-horror genre which the division executes so well, it’s sort of a surprise it didn’t work. That said, the solid showing of When the Bough Breaks and the phenomenal results of Don’t Breathe ($159 million worldwide on a budget of just $9.9 million) more than make up for a slight stumble.

What’s interesting is that, as we have continued to tout the idea of every studio in town having a division like Screen Gems — high concept genre fare for a specific price — Sony actually has it. Good thing, too, because it has been the only profitable part of the film division over the last couple years. Without it, things would be really bleak.

The first five months of 2017 haven’t been all that much brighter, with disappointments coming fast and furious. Smurfs: The Lost Village brought in a very modest profit from worldwide grosses, but is hardly the franchise reboot the company was looking for. Life was a medium-budgeted, star-driven sci-fi flick that should have made money, but didn’t. The long-awaited Trainspotting sequel was an outright flop, failing to even clear $3 million at domestic theaters. And, while Screen Gems’ fifth (and final?) Underworld entry, Blood Wars, lost a few bucks, its other release this year, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, did more than seven times its $40 million budget in international grosses alone, which of course more than makes up for it, and thus keeps Screen Gems’ hot streak alive.

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Still, the combined domestic grosses of the seven movies that Sony has released this year add up to roughly $130 million. For a point of reference, that’s a few million bucks less than what M. Night Shyamalan’s Split has done so far. Which is great for Shyamalan, not so much for Sony.

But of course, all hope is not lost. There are 11 more movies coming out this year, and at least one of them is a license to print money. Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theaters July 7 and, now that Sony has begun working with Marvel on the series, hopes are high for a return to form of the Web Slinger’s first two go rounds, the Sam Raimi-directed films released in 2002 and 2004. Early tracking has the movie ready to do gangbusters business, which would be much needed for the company’s ailing coffers.

Before that happens, though, there are a pair of movies set for release in June. The first is the raunchy comedy Rough Night, which stars Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon and is being positioned as a sort of female Hangover, which should be excellent counter-programming for the feminine set. That’s June 16, and 12 days later comes the Edgar Wright action flick, Baby Driver, which may be great, it may not be, but one thing is certain: it has one of the best, most entertaining and kick-ass trailers of recent memory, and when you combine it with the good buzz it had coming out of SXSW, its possibilities are decidedly promising. That said, there is a genuine and valid question as to why the decision was made to move the movie’s release from an empty August to an extremely crowded June. Seriously, the original date was August 11, which doesn’t have a lot of competition, other than the horror sequel Annabelle: Creation, and the drama, The Glass Castle. Whereas now, Baby Driver comes out a week after the new Transformers movie, five days after indie drama The Beguiled and indie comedy The Big Sick, both of which also have major film festival buzz around them, and two days before a new Amityville movie, Despicable Me 3 and the Will Ferrell-Amy Poehler comedy, The House. No matter how good your smaller action movie is, when it’s surrounded by that much content, it’s going to be tough to break through.

After Spider-Man hits theaters, there’s The Emoji Movie at the end of July, which should do about the same business as The Angry Birds Movie did a year earlier, then The Dark Tower on the first weekend of August, which has a lot riding on it. It’s either going to be the start of a much-needed brand new franchise, or a complete misfire. The fact that it’s budgeted at a reasonable $60 million would be small consolation if it fails.

After that, there’s the faith-based All Saints, the first film from Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8, the ice age drama The Solutrean, in mid-September, followed by Screen Gems’ remake of Flatliners, the action flick Granite Mountain Hotshots, the animated The Star, and, around Christmas, the Dwayne Johnson-Kevin Hart sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Take another look at that slate, and you’ll see that there really is only one sure-fire winner in the bunch, and that’s the Spider-Man flick. Everything else is something of a question mark, and that probably has people in Culver City very nervous.

Spider-Man Homecoming

Tony Vinciquerra was just named the new CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which means the longtime TV exec will oversee both film and television for the company. There is scuttlebutt that the corporation is looking to unload the film division to someone else, though there’s nothing substantial in that chatter, other than the idle ruminations of those in the industry who pay attention to such things.

As of now, and for the foreseeable future, Sony’s film division — made up of Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, and Screen Gems — isn’t going anywhere, but needs to become a more productive part of the company. Rothman is not everyone’s cup of tea, but to say he is anything other than an exceedingly talented executive is selling him short. His record at Fox is unassailable, and while he has not done nearly as well thus far in his tenure at Sony, one would think that he is going to be given at least some opportunity to turn things around.

After all, there is plenty on the slate for 2018 — three more Screen Gems films, a new Lisbeth Salander flick, an Equalizer sequel, an animated Spider-Man movie, a new Hotel Transylvania, a third Bad Boys film (with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, of course), and the Tom Hardy-led Spider-Man spinoff, Venom. That’s a good start, and with another live action Spider-Man in 2019, alongside a Charlie’s Angels reboot, an Angry Birds sequel and a new take on Masters of the Universe, there is hope for the future. Obviously, there needs to be more original content, as well as a new batch of franchises, since Bad Boys and Charlie’s Angels aren’t exactly cutting edge anymore, and they need to find something major to turn the ship around.

Last week, I pointed out that Paramount is down, then asked, “But is it ever really out?” The same question could be asked here. Is Sony ever really out? Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to turn things around. Just look at Fox in 2016. One movie, Deadpool, did so well that it made the company’s whole year. Spider-Man: Homecoming won’t be the same thing here, because the price is much higher and, unlike with Deadpool, the company is expecting huge grosses. But, a year off some historic losses, a couple of good-sized wins could be the initial steps needed to turn things around.

At least, the folks in Culver City certainly hope so.

For more entries in our studio series, click here.


Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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One Response to Sony’s Film Division Isn’t What It Was — Well, Most of It Isn’t (Studio Series)

  1. Good analysis, though I think you may be more bullish on The Emoji Movie than is warranted. I mean, who is this movie for? It’s “IP-based,” but it’s not IP that speaks to coolness or nostalgia or excitement. The marketing makes it look too juvenile for adults. I teach kids, and “The Emoji Movie” has become a punchline of their jokes (it’s a punchline on Gen Z twitter, which, in the aggregate, considers the concept impossibly stupid). I haven’t seen the tracking, but my unscientific sense is that this one is more likely to perform like “Pixels” than like “Angry Birds.”

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