This story first appeared in the Dec 6. issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It took a five-hour investor presentation Nov. 21 to underscore what increasingly has become obvious in Hollywood: Sony Pictures is slashing costs, slimming down and moving its TV business to the front burner to reduce the risk of making movies.
In fact, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton promised analysts "a significant shift in emphasis from motion pictures to higher-margin television." Although the studio hasn't yet determined where it will make its promised $250 million in cuts through 2016, the struggling film division is certain to take a hit, with layoffs inevitable. Lynton also has enlisted Bain & Co. to identify up to $100 million in further cuts. Sony declined comment.
It's no surprise that Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, who came under fire this summer when investor Daniel Loeb pointed to pricey flops After Earth and White House Down as evidence of bloat, has made key changes both in her spending and her disposition within the company. For instance, this summer she let go one of her assistants, who sources say was making well over $250,000 a year. At the same time, she has begun taking a greater interest in television.
After all, Sony Pictures Television, run by Steve Mosko, a 20-year veteran with strong TV relationships, has enjoyed recent success. During an Oct. 31 analyst call, Sony CFO Masaru Kato lavished praise on its 13 new series in the 2013-14 U.S. TV season. Couple that with the studio's pledge to reduce its film slate from 20 to 18 a year, including cutting next summer's offerings to four (down from nine in 2013), and it's no wonder Pascal is exercising her oversight of the studio's TV operations.
Pascal, 55, is still somewhat of a TV newbie. For years she largely ignored the self-managing unit, home to such low-cachet moneymakers as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! (one source calls her knowledge of the development process "naive"). But sources say she was particularly hands-on with two new series, Showtime's Masters of Sex and NBC's The Blacklist. She helped enlist prestige film director John Madden to helm the Masters pilot, and one top agent recalls being advised to personally lobby Pascal on behalf of a client vying for a role, which he found odd because studio heads typically don't get involved in TV casting. But sure enough, Pascal was receptive. "I think it has been a strategic move for Amy," says a network head who estimates Pascal began delving into TV about 12 to 18 months ago. "She has incredibly strong story skills, which is useful in TV."
No recent TV project proved as key to Pascal as the Showtime/SPT pilot The Vatican. She came up with the idea for the modern-day pope drama starring Kyle Chandler and persuaded director Ridley Scott to cut his fee to tackle it. Pascal even frequented the London set.
Scott, a final-cut director, was not accustomed to hearing no and was given free rein. But when the pilot came back with problems, reshoots were ordered. Before long, writer Paul Attanasio exited, leaving Vatican all but dead (there's little chance of revival given that cast options expire Dec. 31).
Although the demise is a blow, Pascal had cause to celebrate when Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan signed an eight-figure deal with the studio Nov. 18 -- a high priority. Gilligan, who worked with Pascal as a writer on Hancock, opted for SPT over other pursuers, though Pascal is not said to have been involved in the deal.
"If you look at the studio heads who have been ousted recently like Adam Fogelson [at Universal] and Jeff Robinov [Warner Bros.], they were really film-only guys," says a top dealmaker. "They were replaced by people who are more well-rounded, like Jeff Shell and Kevin Tsujihara. Amy has been very smart to make herself more well-rounded."
Sony and Pascal still will make films, of course, albeit with an ever-shrinking slate. "We in no way, shape or form have lost our commitment to the movie business," insisted Lynton. Bringing in Tom Rothman, famous for frugality and profit-ability at Fox, to run the TriStar label is a step toward being leaner and meaner.
But if Sony is to make good on that promise, Pascal's strong talent relationships will be put to the test. The two biggest stars in the fold -- Adam Sandler and Will Smith -- will continue to make films with Sony. Although Smith hasn't lined up another vehicle post-After Earth, he is producing Sony's musical Annie, which is shooting in New York. Sandler will make his next three films with Sony: Hotel Transylvania 2, Pixels (currently being budgeted) and Candyland.
"Amy's biggest strength is just passion," says Smith's Overbrook Entertainment partner James Lassiter. "She's not an accountant running a studio. She gets a lot of flak [from investors] for that, but she also gets a lot of support from the filmmakers for that same reason."
Pascal gave Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg their first shot at directing on This Is the End, and it became a bright spot of 2013 with $125 million worldwide. Says Rogen, "It's been a pretty ideal working situation for us, and we hope to continue it for a long time."