The changing of the guard continues at Sony, where the exit of veteran Jeff Blake on Tuesday as chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution comes on the heels of last year’s sweep of the marketing and public relations departments and speculation over the direction of the studio.
“We’re going to take this opportunity to look internally and externally and see what the best fit is to take our studio forward,” she told TheWrap. “Rory [Bruer] and Dwight [Caines] are going to do a fantastic job right now and I think we’re going to be looking at everything,” said Pascal, who has pushed out several longtime executives over the past year including former marketing chief Marc Weinstock and head of PR Steve Elzer.
Blake’s exit comes as a sign of the times, with Sony still a studio very much in transition, particularly in regard its all-important “Spider-Man” franchise. This summer’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” turned a tidy profit with its $706 million worldwide gross, but that franchise has yielded diminishing returns with each successive film and there is no clear strategy in place for reinvigorating it.
Domestic grosses have fallen from $403 million (2002’s “Spider-Man”) to $373 million (2004’s “Spider-Man 2”) to $336 million (2007’s “Spider-Man 3”) to $262 million (2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man”) to the latest film’s haul of $202 million, though “Amazing Spider-Man 2’s” foreign gross is the second-highest in the series, underscoring the point that international audiences are driving the box office.
Blake was one of the last surviving executives from Sony’s old guard, with a career that included the first $100 million opening weekend in history. New blood brought in by Pascal include president of production Michael De Luca and TriStar Pictures chief Tom Rothman. Pascal said she expected to bring into the Sony fold former Warner studio chief Jeff Robinov and his newly-funded Studio 8.
Whether Blake took a hard look at the state of the industry and felt it was simply time to go (as Sony insists) or whether he was gently pushed out (as outsiders suggest) is less important than the fact that the buck now stops with Amy Pascal, who despite sharing power with Michael Lynton is considered most responsible for the studio slate.
Pascal and Lynton’s changes have come in the wake of agitation by activist investor Dan Loeb for a sale of the movie division by parent company Sony. Loeb’s criticisms have subsided, and while Sony’s movies have been performing for the most part (including the hit “22 Jump Street”), there are no studio veterans left for Pascal to shield herself with if they stop.
Sony is sinking a ton of resources (time, energy, money) into expanding the “Spider-Man” universe with “Sinister Six,” “Venom” and two more Spidey sequels, but the appetite for the series is shrinking. Even Roberto Orci, one of the architects of the “Amazing Spider-Man” movies, has indicated in recent days that Spidey’s future is currently in limbo as Sony’s brain trust figures out how to stop the bleeding and fix the franchise.
For now, Pascal and her team will focus on finding a replacement to fill Blake’s big shoes, which will walk off the lot for good on Aug. 1. Blake’s fellow distribution veterans Dan Fellman and Nikki Rocco are both planning to retire from their longtime posts at Warner Bros. and Universal, respectively.
Logical candidates for the prime-time post include former Universal chief Adam Fogelson and former Disney and Fox executive Oren Aviv, both of whom would provide a built-in succession plan of sorts. Terry Press might have also been a good fit, but she just took over sole presidency of CBS Films.
The most recent round of surprise exits started with Gary Martin who ran physical production for years, followed by top-tier team members Dave Bishop and Chris Cookson. Martin was blown the standard Hollywood air-kiss by having a soundstage named after him and a plaque bearing Blake’s name surely won’t be far behind.
One veteran studio observer suggested the cord-cutting will benefit both Sony and Blake in the long run, criticizing the studio for having a lack of direction and low morale. “They are doing him a favor. It is a toxic dump over there right now in terms of stress and pressure and downsizing,” the executive told TheWrap.
What is clear is that Blake was a beloved executive, and his colleagues affectionately referred to him as “Santa Claus” due to his white locks and imposing physical frame. “Jeff had a magnificent 22-year run. He’s an industry legend, a fantastic guy and really, really brilliant,” said Pascal. “In terms of why now, he wanted to stay and release all of the Columbia movies this summer. He felt a responsibility to do that.”
“Sex Tape” opened last weekend.
Pascal said she knew he was “thinking about (leaving), but he never communicated that to us. I know him well enough to know that he’s a planner, and he made sure his department was in fantastic shape.”
Pascal said that what she’ll miss most about Blake is “his wisdom, his ability to inspire people, his encyclopedic knowledge of our business going back 100 years and forward 100 years, and his friendship for sure. He’s a very unique individual.”
The Sony chief also credited for “practically creating day-and-date releasing” and for being the first executive to have an opening weekending that broke $100 million — the original “Spider-Man” in 2002.
“We’ve made five “Spider-Man” movies in the last 12 years and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of continuing to make that franchise vital, and I think Jeff’s done a great job of finding new ways to do that,” boasted Pascal.
By “building the company,” Pascal is referring to the murderer’s row of talented executives that she has brought into the Sony fold, including De Luca and Rothman.
After all, if the Miami Heat’s Big Three managed to find a way to share the ball en route to winning two NBA titles, why can’t Sony soar on the wings of its all-star execs?