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Sony Pictures' dynamic duo splits up as top executive exits

October 29, 2010 |  2:20 pm

MattTolmach And then there was one.

In a move that surprised Hollywood, Columbia Pictures' long-running tag team of production heads Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach is breaking up. Tolmach, who has served as co-president of Sony's Columbia label for the last eight years, is moving on to become a producer at the studio while Belgrad stays back as sole president.

Since they were named to their posts in 2002, the pair have been heavily promoted to the creative community and media as equals and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal's top production lieutenants.  Requests for an interview with a production executive frequently led to the two paired together on the call.

Insisting she did not want to "break up" the partnership, Pascal said the move was prompted by Tolmach's own desire to change his role. "Matt has wanted to be a producer forever."

Tolmach echoed that, acknowledging that he may be better suited for his new role: "I love being an executive but I've always longed to be on the other side. I like staying in the creative conversation more than taking another meeting or returning another phone call."

People close to the studio noted that Pascal, who has been in a senior creative role at Sony since 1996 and co-chairman since 2006, appears unlikely to relinquish her role any time soon, leaving little room for either Belgrad or Tolmach to move up the ranks in the near future.

While Tolmach's background is in creative development and production, making it a natural segue for him to become a producer, Belgrad began his career at the studio working in strategic planning and business development.

"It wasn't my dream to become chairman of the studio," said the 46 year-old Tolmach.

DougBelgrad Some people with films in development at Sony noted that Belgrad and Tolmach have different tastes and focused on different projects. There was some concern in the Hollywood creative community Friday about what might happen to the projects that Tolmach had been championing.

But the soon-to-be producer said that he and Belgrad would begin a process of transitioning relationships for those films.

Tolmach has been given a three-year production deal at the studio and will become a producer along with Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad on the reboot of "Spider-Man," a franchise he oversaw while he was an executive. The movie, which will restart the Spider-Man saga with a new cast and lower budget,  begins production in December for release in July 2012.

Like other studios responding to the industry's tougher economics, Sony has pulled back on buying scripts and developing movie projects in order to be more selective about taking on projects that it intends to make. Pascal acknowledged the slowdown -- "yes, we're developing less" -- but said "this move had nothing to do with that."

To help relieve the burden on Belgrad, Sony also named Hannah Minghella president of production for Columbia, a position that hasn't existed for several years. After working for several years as a creative executive for Pascal, Minghella, daughter of the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella, was named president of production for Sony Pictures Animation in 2008. The appointment surprised many at the time given the then-29-year-old's lack of experience in animation.

Minghella's departure from Sony Pictures Animation is the latest sign of turnover since the division was launched eight years ago. Although it scored a modest hit with last year's "Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs," Sony Animation has struggled to find its footing in the crowded competitive computer animation market. Pascal said she will soon name a successor to Minghella. 

Columbia, meanwhile, has been on roll at the box office this year with such hits as "The Karate Kid" and Adam Sandler's "Grown Ups." It also had a strong 2009 with such blockbusters as "2012" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." That performance, however, hasn't been enough to offset financial losses at the studio. In its most recent fiscal quarter ending Sept. 30, the studio's revenue rose 6% to $1.7 billion while posting an operating loss of $58 million. In the year-ago period, the studio lost $71 million on revenue of $1.5 billion.

-- Claudia Eller and Ben Fritz

Photos, from top: Matt Tolmach; Doug Belgrad. Credit: Sony Pictures.