Studio Report Card: Sony Bets on Originals in Franchise-Heavy Market

Studio Report Card: Sony Bets on Originals in Franchise-Heavy Market

Studio racks up summer hits like “The Other Guys” and “Grown Ups,” but falls short with “The Tourist” and “How Do You Know”

First in a series of studio scorecards from TheWrap. Also included:

UNIVERSAL: Studio Grows Some Green Shoots
FOX: For Fox, a Hot Start to 2010 Goes South
LIONSGATE: Stallone, 'Exorcism' Fuel Lionsgate's Low-Cost Hit Streak
DISNEY: For Disney, Big Hits, But Also Big Bills

Sony
Grade: A-
A painful December, when the bombing of James L. Brooks' dramedy "How Do You Know" blemished an otherwise great year.

***

In 2010, Sony left the likes of "Iron Man" and "Twilight" to others, and bet on that rarest of Hollywood commodities these days: original, star-driven vehicles.

It's not a strategy currently in vogue — with rivals such as Warner Bros. loudly proclaiming that its focus will shift to releasing more tentpoles and fewer films overall. But the surprise is that it seems to be working, enabling Sony to pass $2.5 billion at the worldwide box office this year.

They may not have cut a broad swath through the box office, but films such as “Salt,” “The Other Guys” and “Grown Ups” racked up impressive grosses, mostly by marrying concept with star power.

True, sometimes the gambit didn’t pay off — audiences recently declined a trip with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in “The Tourist” — and the last couple of months have seen several other costly disappointments. But for the most part the studio managed to turn its releases into, at the very least, respectable doubles.

“If you put the right people in the right roles, like Angelina Jolie in an action move, it works,” Jeff Blake, Sony’s chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution, told TheWrap.

Sony’s best streak was over the summer, when “Salt,” “The Other Guys,” “Takers,” “The Karate Kid,” “Resident Evil: Afterlife” and “Grown Ups” all opened at or near the top of the heap.

“We are really proud of our summer slate. In a summer without a franchise tentpole, we went six-for-six with all-original hits,” Blake said. (Well, "Karate Kid" was based on a franchise, but the last film in the series was released over 20 years ago).

Perhaps the biggest surprise was “The Social Network.” Bolstered by glowing reviews, Sony turned the Facebook drama and its unloveable protagonist into an $190 million hit.

While the studio'’s summer and fall slate received a warm reception, its winter films have gotten the cold shoulder from audiences. Despite the combined star wattage of Depp and Jolie and a budget in the $150 million range, “The Tourist” only grossed a limp $16.4 million. (That film, however, was financed by Graham King's GK Films, and marketed and distributed by Sony.)  Likewise, Cher’s “Burlesque” has eked out $33 million worldwide, a paltry total for the $55 million musical.

“The story is not written on ‘Burlesque.' It hasn’t had much of an international launch and we expect the other territories to come through,” Blake said.

As for “The Tourist”s’ pricey failure, Blake says, “I would have liked it to open better, but it’s still week one.”

Perhaps Sony will strike its most discordant note with the $100 million “How Do You Know.” The rom-com opened to an anemic $7.6 million and critical derision. Notably, the lavish salaries paid out to Reese Witherspoon and the rest of a cast that also included Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson represented a break with the kind of belt-tightening that the studio had promised to apply to its slate.

International box office continues to be a key part of Sony’s release strategy. Though it will fall short of the record $1.6 billion brought in last year, foreign markets helped transform more modest domestic performers such as “Resident Evil: Afterlife” and “Salt” into bona fide hits. “Salt" earned 60 percent of its $293 million worldwide gross abroad and “Resident Evil” netted nearly 80 percent of its $294 million gross in foreign territories.

“We were able to deliver a real overperformance on action films abroad, where we’ve consistently done as much as 50 percent better,” Blake said.

Going forward, Sony has high hopes for a live-action version of “The Smurfs,” alien invasion thriller “Battle: Los Angeles,” superhero film “The Green Hornet” and the Kevin James comedy “The Zookeeper.”

It also has ambitions to turn the international bestseller “The Girl with a Dragon Tatoo,” into a viable franchise, despite the fact that the storyline includes such uncomfortable topics as rape and incest.

A little farther out on the horizon in 2012, Sony will roll out new installments of its mega-grossing tentpole series, “Men in Black” and “Spider-Man.”

On paper, these seem like sure things, but there are question marks with both projects. “Men in Black 3” has been riled by reports of onset tension, and Sony hopes fans will still line up for a rebooted “Spider-Man," even with a new director and cast taking over the web-swinger saga that ended with a critically derided third installment just three years ago.

“In 2012, the tentpole strategy is back,” Blake told TheWrap.