Following an unceremonious leave of absence, Christine Birch has stepped down from her post as head of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, but anyone who thinks her exit stems from smoking pot on the lot must be high themselves. Birch isn’t leaving because she supposedly likes to fire up a joint every now and then, she’s leaving because she wasn’t considered a good fit at Sony, nor did she mesh well with her marketing colleagues. The pot excuse is just (pardon the pun) smoke and mirrors.
Birch has been on a leave of absence since mid-March, when Variety reported that Sony’s human resources department was investigating complaints from several employees who alleged that Birch had been smoking weed on the lot during business hours. Birch denied those allegations, and a subsequent investigation (which should really be turned into a short film) cleared her of any wrongdoing. And yet, despite these findings, Birch agreed with Sony brass that it would be difficult for her to return to her position, and the two sides agreed to part ways.
The decision allowed Birch to save a little face on her way out the door, though it remains to be seen whether she’ll be “tainted” by the whiff of pot smoke, since it will almost certainly come up in her next job interview. Still, who cares about a little weed? Don’t even try to tell me with a straight face that Sony does, considering that High Times cover boys Seth Rogen and Snoop Dogg both have offices on the lot. Of course, they’re talent, so they get to play by a different set of rules, but still, the fact that the trades are still pinning Birch’s exit on pot smoke is a bunch of (cough, cough) bullshit.
Variety also mentioned Birch’s “caustic” management style in its exclusive report, while The Ankler included Birch among a list of four movie marketing execs (three of whom were women) who were “notorious for making life difficult for their staffs.” It’s funny how the trades rarely say that about powerful men like Scott Rudin, who has gotten away with a lot more than smoking pot over the years. I can’t say how “caustic” Birch is because I’ve never worked for her, but what I will say is that there seems to be a real double standard in Hollywood, not just between men and women, but between talent and executives, who used to be able to get away with just as much as their famous collaborators. The Ankler added that Birch’s superiors felt her (rumored) behavior was “embarrassing the studio,” but I don’t see how indulging in a now-legal substance is any more embarrassing than the drunk executives I meet at industry functions on a weekly basis, or, say, The Dark Tower.
Insiders tell me that Birch is actually pretty good at her job, when she’s physically around to do it. I’m told she’s the type who shows up to work a little late and leaves a bit early. Now, despite what my past bosses will tell you, the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with that… so long as the work gets done. And I’m told that too often it wasn’t, thereby leaving her staffers to pick up the slack. To me, that’s a much more serious problem than a marijuana habit. A lot of people find that marijuana stimulates their creativity, and marketing is certainly a creative job. However, a lot of people also find that marijuana makes them lazy and complacent, and if that was the case with Birch, then I understand Sony’s desire to part ways. Still, I’m of the opinion that if you’re hired to work a 10-hour day and you can finish the job in a half the time, more power to you. But if you’re not around to make decisions, then I can see where it might become problematic, especially for the head of an important department.
As far as the decisions that Birch did make, I’d say she did a pretty good job, especially of late. She helped usher Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle to a worldwide haul of $946 million, which is far beyond Sony’s wildest expectations for that film. She ran a hell of a campaign, and it was extended one, too, with Jumanji playing to crowded theaters for nearly three full months. She also did a great job with Spider-Man: Homecoming, and I happen to really like the trailers that Sony cut for Venom, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Studio 8’s Alpha.
The bottom line is, I think this resignation/forced firing stinks to high heaven. It’s like an HR exec grabbed Sony’s employee handbook and read it page by page, looking for ways to force out the studio’s “problematic president,” to quote the Ankler one last time. I’m not saying that Birch was perfect, and I understand that Sony is entitled to expect nothing less than perfection, but you’d think the studio would try to help Birch with her alleged substance abuse problem, if she in fact has one. Instead, they seem to have cast out a talented executive, albeit one whose style clashed with the studio’s corporate culture.
This was actually Birch’s second stint at Sony, where she’d previously worked for 12 years before moving on to top posts at FilmDistrict, DreamWorks Studios and eventually Focus Features before ultimately replacing Dwight Caines as Sony’s domestic marketing chief. Birch’s boss, Josh Greenstein, wrote in a memo to staff that “Christine approached us about leaving in January 2018, following the record-setting performance of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” but I’m not sure I buy that one, even though Birch was quoted in today’s press release as saying she’s “ready for a new challenge.”
For now, Birch’s direct reports will report to co-president of domestic marketing Andre Caraco on an interim basis, and while they may very well be doing cartwheels in the hallways, I’m left feeling like justice wasn’t served here. We may never get the full story, but sometimes, the truth is cloudy. Hopefully she lands on her feet, and Sony finds a capable replacement who’s better suited for the demands of the job.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief