Amy Pascal: The Movie Theater Is Our Soul; We Just Need Better Films

Sony’s movie chief on “Spider-Man” in 3D, Sony’s search for the “Dragon Tattoo” girl and the sanctity of the theater

This is the first in a series of interviews with industry leaders discussing the state of the entertainment industry in 2010. Sony Pictures Entertainment co-Chairman Amy Pascal sat down with Wrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman.

Sharon Waxman: Amy, thank you for kicking off this series for us. We wanted your perspective on how the industry landscape is shifting and where the fault lines are. We feel like there is widespread anxiety in the movie industry; is that warranted?

Amy Pascal: I’m not willing to concede that the sky is falling. I just don’t feel like it is. I feel like the box office always expands with people’s desire to see movies. I think you wrote an article maybe 5 years ago about how the movie business was over and box office was down and nobody was going to the movies. And it’s not a very original thought of mine but it’s a fickle business. It sometimes expands. The other thing that’s interesting that you’re seeing this summer is there are some movies where people are jumping to the conclusion that they haven’t worked, like ‘How to Train Your Dragon.’ That movie’s done fantastically well, all over the world. I think it’s got a fantastic multiple because it was a good movie. Good movies are working, and I think that we need to be buoyed by that. 

SW: So you’re saying if it doesn’t succeed right out of the gate …

AP: We feel like we’re under such a microscope these days.  And I think there’s a rush to judgment from all of us. (People said) “‘Robin Hood’ is a disaster.” Robin Hood’s done $300 million. To me that’s a good start. You know, sometimes I get the matinee figures at 9 a.m. on Friday, and I myself am guilty of saying ‘Oh my God, we’re in trouble.’ Five theatres in New York! It’s just not always representative of what’s gonna happen.

SW: Do you believe in a "Twitter effect" for movies? That Twitter impacts the box office, because people are talking about it either for better or worse?

AP: I think that social networking in general has changed word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth used tobe what you told your friends, and you couldn’t tell as many friends verbally as you can across the internet. You know, the idea of friends has changed for one thing … so that the idea that how many people you’re telling has changed, and it becomes an exponential word-of-mouth thing. It used to be, you called up and you go, "This movie is really bad," or "This movie is great! You have to go see it."  Now you’re saying it to an insane amount of people.

SW: How do you deal with that as somebody who’s trying to shape opinion about a movie?

AP: Well, I try to make good movies, so they say good things about it. That would be our first thing. All you can do is make a good movie and market it as honestly as you can. You can’t tell people how to feel about it after that.

SW: I’ll take an example of somebody else’s movie. We wrote a story as "Sex and the City 2" opened that said it was review-proof. The reviews were very bad on that movie, and people went out to see it anyway. 

(Chart, at left, from boxofficemojo.com)

AP: To be fair to all of us, nobody sets out to make a crappy movie. Nobody says, "Let’s make this one bad." You’re always trying to make it good. Now, sometimes you succeed in making it good, sometimes you really succeed at making it great, and sometimes you massively fail and make a bad movie. Which you …

SW: Which you still have to sell.

AP: Which you still have to sell. But it wasn’t as if he thought, "Oh, this one doesn’t have to work."

SW: Right. No, I understand that. But given the exponential factor of social networking that you’re talking about, how do you deal with that?

AP: If you have a good movie, it helps you, because it expands that word-of-mouth exponentially. If you have a movie that isn’t word-of-mouth proof — which I think matters just as much as reviews these days — then that is a change.

SW: Do you spend less time thinking about critics and reviews than you did before?

AP: To be honest, I try never to think about them. If you think about critics, then you’re going to second guess yourself, and you can’t do that because if you second guess yourself you won’t do anything that is authentic. If you make something that’s good, and you … and, and … it’s gonna get critical acclaim, I mean, that’s fantastic, and that can help you. But, any time you ever set out to do that, I’m not sure that’s the way of achievement. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy when we get good reviews.

SW: I’m sure you are.

AP: People check the Rotten Tomatoes site and what’s interesting about it frankly is that the accumulation of good reviews becomes as important as the specific reviewer. That’s really different because it is a great equalizer among people who are talking about them. When you go on Rotten Tomatoes, you’re hoping you got an 80 percent. That is a change!

SW: That is a big change. You know the critics have lost their jobs all across the country.

AP: Well, I don’t want them to lose their jobs.

SW: They didn’t lose their jobs because of you.

AP: Right, I think it’s sad that important voices aren’t talking about movies, and I think that’s a loss for all of us. That’s how I feel from one part of my brain. The other part is really happy that what stays in the Internet zone is that number and not any one review.

SW: You are making a Facebook movie. Do you ever use Facebook?

AP: Do I?  I do have a Facebook account. Not under my name.

SW: How often do you go on? Is it a research tool for the movie, or is it something that you actually use?

AP: I am not on it all the time. But, I find it totally fascinating. I’m not interested in posting every time I make pasta sauce and then go do yoga, which is what seems like that’s what I read.  But, I think it’s that people have a place that they feel they can be intimate. And I think anywhere that gives people an opportunity to reveal who they really are is a good outlet for human beings. And I think sometimes Facebook is like a journal for people, and I think that if they want to share their journal is what they want to do. But, that they have an outlet to reflect on what they’re doing. I mean, cool.

SW: I know you’re really busy but you’d be surprised there are people who are very major people in the world who are on Facebook.

AP: Oh God, of course! Yeah, it’s an easy way of connecting.

SW: What about Twitter? I cannot imagine you tweeting, sorry.

AP: I am not a tweeter. I have been known to check Twitter to see what the … trending topics are to see if any of our movies are in them. I’m very curious to see how something gets into the zeitgeist, which is something that people who do what we all do have to be aware of.

SW: I did wonder if "Karate Kid" did get a bump from Twitter, because it did so much better over the weekend than the research said.

AP: I don’t know if it was Twitter that was responsible for the good fortune we had in that opening.  I think it was a combination of things.  You know, we would have been happy at $30 million, really.

SW: What’s your view on tracking and research these days?

AP: I think with all the tracking and research you have to look at, you have to drill down into the bones of them. You have to look at what the percentage of every single demographic that you’re going after, and as much what the numbers are, how it changes day-to-day during that three weeks right before the movie opens. I think it’s as important to be checking that your message is right or not as the actual number. You know, but, the do-or-die number is "unaided"and "first choice," always. As you start to open your movie, those are the two things you are looking for. You can tell from all these research services that you’ve got a huge problem. I think it’s harder to know how good you’re gonna be. You I think they’re very useful in telling you when you message isn’t penetrating. They certainly are really useful there.

SW: And you’re going to make "Karate Kid 2?"

AP: Yes. I’d call it that.

SW: And you made that decision on the Monday morning (after opening)?

AP: No, we really liked the movie and we were hoping that it could work, and if it had worked less well we’d probably would still be wanting to do it. I think one of the things that made people like it is that they liked the characters. You like the characters, and you’re rooting for them, and I think the key to a franchise or a sequel lies in the material. You’re rooting for the people and you’re interested in their story, and you’re interested in their conflicts. You want to know what happens at the end. You want to care. I thought Jaden was brilliant and Jackie Chan was, you know, he’s a really good actor, and this was an opportunity for him to really show what he could do, and I think he hadn’t been able to do that in American films in a while.

SW: Let’s take a step back and look at the movie landscape. Is the 13-year-old to whatever it is 24-year-old boy still your central focus in the movie industry?

AP: Well, it depends on the movie that you’re making and what you’re looking for. The opening weekend is now made up of an ethnically rich population, not just the 13-year-old boys. The Latino audience has become huge for movies as they have become a bigger part of the population. I don’t think we just rely on that 13- to 18-year-old boy as the only way to make a hit.

SW: When you’re talking about the Hispanic audience, are we talking about adolescent boys, or families?

AP: They are a big component in the success of family movies. With movies costing what they do, you can’t rely on any one demographic unless you’re making a very targeted movie. When you’re making "Pineapple Express" or "Get Him to The Greek" or whatever.

SW: But you’re not still thinking about that when you look at your slate, X number of tentpoles in a year.

AP: If you’re making a tentpole movie, you’d better make sure that you don’t have one demographic.  You’ve gotta have general audience movies for everybody — national, domestic, young, old, everything.

SW: With greater ethnic diversity among moviegoers, does that mean you’re thinking about making more movies that will appeal to that audience?

AP: No, I wouldn’t do it that way. I think you make movies about authentic human experiences and then people find themselves in it. I would never segment movies that way.

SW: But I would think that that would be a logical thing to do, although I have noted that Hollywood has tried over the past 10 years and they have not been particularly successful when they tried to do niche movies.

AP: I really think people go to movies where they can recognize humanity and characters they relate to, and I think segmenting a movie for a certain demographic is not good to do.

SW: One of the things we heard it a lot at The Cannes Film Festival is that this middle-ground movie has kind of disappeared. That the studios are only making very big tentpole movies.

AP: What would you call "Karate Kid?” It’s a movie that didn’t have big, giant $20 million movie stars in it.

SW: What did it cost?

AP: $40 (million).  And you can’t make those kind of statements (about "middle-ground" movies). What would you call "Blind Side?"

SW: Yes, but Disney’s been very clear they are not making “Blind Side,” … they are not in that business.

AP: I think every studio does what they do very well. Disney has an advantage over all of us, they have the Disney label. If I had a label like that, I would want to make movies where I could exploit that label, and I think that’s what they’ve decided to do with it. It’s smart for them. But as a rule, as a whole, big movies make the most amount of money. That’s the rule.

SW: You have a lot of companies that are moving into that space where they perceive that people in your position are not interested in making movies that cost $30, $40, $50 million because the DVD market has become so uncertain.

AP: The DVD market since 2006 has been down 34 percent, and thank God for all of us, it has stabilized at that down 34 percent for a while. It’s changed the business for all of us. But I wouldn’t say that for us the answer is, "Don’t make movies that cost between this much and that much." Those kinds of rules might get you in trouble. Because then something comes in, and you’re not going to make it because you said you’re not making movies in the middle, it’s not part of your business plan. I think you have to be a little more opportunistic than that. At least, that’s my philosophy.

SW: Are you not under pressure from the people who you report to, for the lack of a better word, to be focusing on the bigger projects that you can guarantee big returns on?

AP: Oh yeah, 100 percent. I mean, of course. And, every day, if you look at what’s made money last year and this year, in 2008 and 2009, and what been true so far, all the movies that make all the money are brand names. You know, except for maybe "The Hangover," and "Up," and "2012," and "Blind Side," everything else is a book, a remake …

SW: It’s an "Iron Man," a sequel –

AP: … a comic book, a remake of a television show, or an intellectual property that everybody knows. I think that when half, or not half – that would be wrong — a quarter of the marketing job is done for you by it being a brand name and not a new business that you have to launch, that’s what the big movies are about. That’s for sure. But not every movie is gonna make $200 million of profit.

SW: But, for example, "Dragon Tattoo," that’s a big bet you’re making. You signed up to make three of those movies, right?

AP: Yes, that’s a big tentpole franchise.

SW: I imagine that’s why you’re doing it.  Have we confirmed the lead in that movie?

AP: No, we have not.

SW: And the girl, is she cast?

AP: No, we are going to do a global search on her. Every actress in the world wants it.  It’s the greatest character for a girl since I-don’t-know-what. 

SW: But she won’t have a stud in her nose.

AP: Oh, just wait and see. We’re doing the book. That’s why we hired David Fincher. We’re going to really do this, in all their glory. Otherwise why do it? They’re very R-rated movies. It’s the shock of what’s really going on underneath the surface of society. If you don’t actually make good on that, you haven’t told the story.

SW: What’s the commitment that you’re making to this franchise for the next 4, 5, 6, how many years?

AP: Well, I’m going to try to get these movies out as fast as possible. But, you know, we’ll have the first one next Christmas. And hopefully, the next two as quick as I can get them. We’re trying to figure that out now.

SW: It turns out you can churn movies out like "Twilight" and do two a year if you want to.

AP: I know, but I don’t think this is that kind of thing.

SW: Would you expect to have David Fincher direct all of them?

AP: Yeah, I would like it. I’m hoping he will. And he’s hoping he will.

SW: How much time do you spend thinking about what’s going on in the digital world, changes in media and consumption, consumer habits, shorter attention spans …

AP: Every day, all the time. You have to think about the world that you actually live in you just can’t make movies for technology. Technology has to help you tell those stories, and different kinds of distribution has to help those stories get to more people. But you can’t make them for the technology. Technology has to help you tell stories in different ways. As special effects did, as color did, as sound did, as 3-D is doing. You know, technology makes it possible for you to tell stories all kinds of different ways. It also makes it possible for you to see them in small, big, in your house, in your car, everywhere.

SW: Do you believe that? Do you believe that people want to see their movies everywhere?

AP: Yeah I do. They want to see them the most in a movie theater.

SW: You are still a big believer in movie theaters.

AP: I’m a complete believer in movie theaters. Movie theatres are the heart and soul of what we do, and always will be, because viewing movies is a communal experience. And the best experience that any of us has had at the movies is in a dark theatre with the lights turned off. Because in that experience, you can let yourself go, and letting yourself go and be transported is an essential part of the storytelling experience. When you are not watching it in the theater, you’re in control of how you are viewing it, right? You can get up, you can do this, you can do that, you can take it with you, you can a watch it a little bit here and there. You have not made yourself open to the storytelling experience. You’re in control of it. In a movie theater, you have no control, and there’s something great about that. It’s one of the few places any of us are comfortable giving up control, and that is why the experience of a movie theater is different than from anywhere else.

SW: That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought of it as a control kind of thing, but I think that is a really interesting way of thinking about it.

AP: Because otherwise you are the one allowing it to come in. You’re the one turning it on or off, or the size of it, or the anything of it. And, in order to fully drown out everything that’s happening, you need to give up your control. You have to, and that’s why it’s such a great experience … 'cause there’s so few places in the world that any of us get to do that, except when we are watching something that someone else is doing. That’s why concerts are so great, that’s why sporting events are so great. We can’t control what those people are doing, and we want to remain in awe of things because that’s the whole point of entertainment! That’s like, art! You know, you go and see art in a museum, they’re like, unbelievable! You have nothing to do with it, except to be inspired by it. You can’t do that with movies if you’re controlling how and when you’re seeing them.  You just can’t.  So, to me, the theater experience will always be the soul of our business. And, it doesn’t mean that other places won’t be … your iPad, your thing, your watch … everybody will watch everything everywhere, but it won’t be the soul of what we do.

SW: Do you have a strong opinion about whether there ought to be a change to a movie's release windows?  

AP: I think it’s all coming and I think it’s all fine because people want to experience movies and entertainment 100 different ways. I just think that we should never do anything that encroaches on the experience of seeing movies in a movie theater.

SW: So, then you’d want to protect that window?

AP: I want to protect the theater window at all costs because that’s the most important thing.

SW: Just a couple more questions. How do you factor 3D into your thinking when you are green-lighting movies or looking at scripts?

AP: I look at movies that lend themselves to that experience, where the experience is better in 3D. If you think about Spider-Man swinging through New York City and you want to feel the kind of vertigo, I’m hoping that you will in this movie. To have the first-person experience, not the experience of watching him, but the experience of "Oh-my-god I hope that web catches on that!"  I think 3D will give us that experience, and I think we should only ever use it when it does it that way.

SW: Would you ever consider adding 3D afterwards, like in "Clash of the Titans?"

AP: Yeah, sure. If I thought it would work.

SW: Did you see "Clash of the Titans?"

AP: Yeah.

SW: What did you think?

AP: I think it was fun.

SW: Are you being polite? There were a lot of complaints afterwards.

AP:  I know. But I think that the movie really worked and I think that everybody is trying to get used to this new way of telling stories.

SW:  What do you think about movie stars?

AP:  I like ‘em.

SW:  There’s a lot of conversation about there not being movie stars today.

AP: I love movie stars. I believe in movie stars. Julia Roberts and Adam Sandler and Will Smith and Tom Hanks. Those are real big movie stars. And I think there is something really magical and special about movie stars. They’re made from some other planet, they have sparkle dust on them when they were born.

SW:  Yea, but everybody you mentioned is over 35. Who are the new stars.

AP: Fair enough. Let me think. You want new movie stars? There are a lot of actors I like. I always go back to the same thing, which is that you go to movies about people, and you go to movies about characters. And you know, I think Meryl Streep is a movie star, certainly a movie star in “Mamma Mia,” certainly a movie star in “Julie and Julia.” There are people you identify with and you want to know about them — that’s what it’s all about.

SW:  Last question. You’ve been in the move business 20 years?

AP: 1981.

SW: So, 30 years young, yes? So how do you feel about this period of time?

AP: It’s super exciting and I’ll tell you why. A couple of years ago when the DVD market was more healthy than it is now, the movies got more and more expensive and we paid ourselves and each other more and more money. We spent a lot of money in marketing to sell things that we all were making. Now, I think we just have to make better films. And if we make better films, it’s going to be better for our industry and we’re going to make more money. I think that there was a false high and it was great for all of us, but I think that we all took advantage of it. We figured out how to sell things, how to make things, how to pay each other in a way that was just false. And I think we’re going to make better films now. And better is gonna work.