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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Studio Report Card, Part 2: Sony Pictures

January 16, 2009 |  6:00 am

It wasn't so long ago that Warner Bros. was known as the home of movie stars. But these days, it's Sony Pictures that is perhaps the most talent-friendly studio in town. It starts at the top. Sony Pictures Co-Chairman Amy Pascal works out of Louis B. Mayer's palatial old MGM office on the Sony lot, so perhaps his shrewd instincts about star power have rubbed off on Pascal. Having seen her soothingly talk a legendary filmmaker off a ledge when his movie was crashing and burning on its opening day of release, I've come to appreciate her canny, intuitive grasp on what makes showbiz talent tick.

Will_smith  Nowhere is this knack more evident than in Pascal's cozy relations with Will Smith, Hollywood's top movie star, who has found a happy home at Sony, making both personal and commercial films at the studio without sticking the studio with a costly stinker. It's telling that since 2001, Smith has starred in nine live-action movies--seven of them at Sony. In 2008, he delivered "Hancock," an action thriller that was the studio's top-grossing film of the year, grossing (all numbers are through Jan. 4, courtesy of Media By Numbers) more than $625 million around the world. Smith also starred in "Seven Pounds," a poorly reviewed drama that will still turn a profit, thanks to its relatively modest $65-million price tag.

Sony also had a James Bond film, "Quantum of Solace," a series it shares with MGM. The picture surely proved the staying power of the franchise, since it nearly equaled the global box office of the preceding Bond film, despite being one of the worst Bond movies ever. Sony didn't make many critics' pictures (except for "The Other Boleyn Girl," a Scott Rudin film it co-produced with Focus Features). Once zealous in her pursuit of Oscar glory, Pascal has given up the chase. "I've made movies that I consciously did to win an Oscar and it didn't work," she told me. "If you try too hard, you learn that he's a pretty elusive little guy."

She still makes movies she loves but they're more commercially minded, like the studio's annual Adam Sandler vehicle, this time "You Don't Mess With the Zohan."  It was actually the first Sandler movie to make a bit more money overseas than at home, ending up doing more than $200 million around the world. Sandler pictures aren't cheap anymore--"Zohan's" budget was close to $90 million. But Sony has finally learned to exercise budget discipline, which paid off in 2008. Most of its hits were modestly budgeted comedies and thrillers, including Judd Apatow's "Pineapple Express," the thrillers "21" and "Vantage Point" (from in-house producers Mike De Luca and Neal Moritz) and the romantic comedy "Made of Honor."

The studio also benefited again from Clint Culpepper's Screen Gems, its dependable genre division that kept the studio supplied with a steady stream of low-budget thrillers and horror fests. The only flops were outside-financed films that Sony had little if any money in, including the Al Pacino fiasco "88 Minutes" and the low-budget blues biopic "Cadillac Records," financed in part by Sony Music, which was given a relatively perfunctory release despite the presence of pop starlet Beyonce Knowles. Still, Sony's days as a dysfunctional studio seem long gone, with Pascal, Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton and worldwide marketing and distribution chief Jeff Blake providing mature leadership.

The studio has placed its bets on stars--with Seth Rogen soon to join Smith and Sandler in the firmament--and the bets have paid off. "To me, that's the movie business," says Pascal. "You take risks together, you have success together. Whether it's a filmmaker or a movie star, I don't want them to come here and just do one picture. My goal is to have the kind of relationship where they want to keep coming back."

Performance: A-minus. Quality: B-minus. Overall: B-plus.   

Photo of Will Smith by Peter Kramer / Associated Press