LOS ANGELES – If Louis B. Mayer haunts the Irving Thalberg Building, once his seat of power at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he may recognize more than the walnut walls. The building is now the home of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and there are signs that Mayer’s old studio system is being revived.
As Hollywood has backed away from movie stars as too expensive and too unreliable, Sony has embraced its favourites. In July, the studio opened “Friends With Benefits,” a romantic comedy with Justin Timberlake in a leading role. It is Sony’s third film with Timberlake in less than 10 months and comes on the heels of his performances in “The Social Network” last October and in “Bad Teacher.”
In July Sony released “Zookeeper,” a comedy, made in partnership with MGM, with Kevin James as the star, a writer and a producer. Next year, it has “Here Comes the Boom” with James, last year it had “Grown Ups,” and the year before, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” – in all, four of his latest five pictures.
Sony, whose film operation for 15 years has been run by Amy Pascal, the company’s co-chairwoman, has emerged as perhaps the closest contemporary approximation of a classic studio. Its movies change, but those who make them remain remarkably consistent, thanks to personal relationships and shared tastes that have largely supplanted the rigid contractual arrangements that allowed Mayer to build an empire around the likes of Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Clark Gable.
Of the Sony films released in 2011, the studio reckons that all have involved filmmakers or stars with whom it has worked repeatedly. Adam Sandler and Will Smith, two of Sony’s most reliable suppliers, both have a film on tap in the next year. Sandler, 16 of whose latest 21 films have been at Sony, next has “Jack and Jill,” a comedy set for release in November. In May, Smith stars in “Men in Black III.” It will be the eighth time he has landed at Sony in his last 10 films (putting aside voice work and a cameo elsewhere).
“It gives us stability,” Pascal said.
This kind of stability is rare in Hollywood, where there has been a decline in the number of production deals. Instead, studios are focusing on core relationships. Thus, Universal Pictures has worked repeatedly with Judd Apatow, who has directed three movies there since his debut with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in 2005, and Warner’s relationship with Clint Eastwood has lasted decades.
But few have matched the breadth or consistency of relationships at Sony, where Dennis Dugan, the director of “Jack and Jill,” has made nine of 10 pictures since 1997, including “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”
“It’s Hollywood, it’s still whom you know,” said Peter Dekom, an entertainment lawyer. The arrangement has been steadily, if not always hugely, profitable. In its latest fiscal year, which ended March 31, Sony Pictures contributed $7.3 billion, or about 8 percent, of $87 billion in total revenue for its parent company in Japan, the Sony Corp. In addition, about 78 percent of the unit’s reported $466 million in operating profit for the year came from two television transactions.
But for many in contemporary Hollywood – where virtually everyone is suffering from the decline in home video revenue – the goal is not so much to score huge profits as to stay in the game until presumed new revenue streams grow from quickly evolving digital technologies.
At Sony, that has meant finding a comfort zone in which executives can work regularly, and often economically, with a core group of stars and filmmakers who consistently earn their keep, even if their pictures do not often challenge the more expensive animated and effects-driven blockbusters at the box office.
If Sony smacks of the old studio system in substance, the style has changed. Mayer talked down to stars and filmmakers from a carpeted dais in his Thalberg building office; Pascal is more likely to curl up on the couch beside them.
Pascal spoke from a marketing conference in Cancun recently, where she joined Michael Lynton, the studio’s chief executive, and Doug Belgrad, the president of its Columbia Pictures unit, in a telephone conversation about a system they described as having evolved not by conscious design, but rather from the personal chemistry among executives.
“A lot of it is about Amy’s personality,” said Belgrad, who rose through the ranks under Pascal, after having started as a junior executive 18 years ago.
“Don’t say that, it’s all of us,” responded Pascal, who said her staff must cultivate stars and filmmakers without ignoring fresh opportunities or becoming hostage to unproductive whims and escalating financial demands.
“It’s more difficult,” she said of Sony’s approach, which often aims to score with lower-cost films like “Bad Teacher” – it was made for $20 million, and has taken in more than $134 million at the worldwide box office – by using good will to keep deals in line. “There is an expectation on both sides that you’ll do things the other person wants you to do.”
Sony Pictures last year ranked fifth among six major studios at the domestic box office, despite successes with “Salt,” which starred Angelina Jolie, who also appeared last year in “The Tourist” for the studio; “Grown Ups,” with James and Sandler, among others; and “The Karate Kid,” which featured Jaden Smith, and included his father, Will Smith, among its producers.
A noteworthy failure was “How Do You Know,” which cost about $120 million to produce and took in less than $50 million at the worldwide box office. It was written and directed by James L. Brooks, a core member of the Sony family whose last four films were made at the studio.
Sony last topped the box office in 2006, when it released “The Da Vinci Code,” “Casino Royale” and a series of hits from Will Ferrell, Sandler and Smith. Next year, it is looking for a boost not just from Smith’s return in “Men in Black III,” but also “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which aims to rebuild its “Spider-Man” series around a pair of young stars, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who were fostered in the Sony system.
Garfield, 27, was relatively unknown when Sony and the director Marc Webb cast him to succeed Tobey Maguire as the superhero. But he had already made an impression at the studio with his performance as Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network,” a Sony film.
Stone, 22, who plays his love interest, similarly got her big career break with a 2007 performance in “Superbad” for the studio, then went on to appear in “The House Bunny,” “Zombieland,” “Easy A,” and “Friends With Benefits” for Sony.
“When we were doing the screen tests for ‘Superbad,’ you could see, this girl, she’s going to be a star,” said Pascal, who, a bit like Mayer, has enough muscle to back up her instincts by pushing a new star up the ladder.
Timberlake, who spoke by telephone recently, said Pascal personally wrangled him into “Friends With Benefits,” casting him as a romantic lead after his pair of supporting roles. “She called me directly, and said you have to make this movie,” Timberlake recalled.
Still, there are pitfalls. In the wake of “Superbad,” Sony quickly featured another of its stars, Michael Cera, in a pair of movies, “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Year One.” Both fell flat.
“You don’t want to fall into a pattern that is past its time” Lynton said.
In the wake of a hit, Belgrad said, the tendency is to say “let’s keep things as much the same as possible” on the next one.
The tougher part, he and the others said, is to cultivate a next film from a friend of the family who has flopped. It is something Sony did with the director Jake Kasdan, who did poorly with “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” but went on to make “Bad Teacher,” and with Will Gluck, who directed “Fired Up!,” a little-seen comedy, but nonetheless stepped up to “Easy A,” and now “Friends With Benefits,” both for Sony.
Sometimes, talent development is helped along by contracts that give the studio an option on a next film at a relatively modest price. But Mayer, by and large, was probably the tougher enforcer of his rights.
When a movie hits, Pascal said of her modern-day stable of stars, “they inevitably want a different deal. And more money.”