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Whither Sony? No Place to Go But Up

Whither Sony? No Place to Go But Up

Things have to get better for Sony Pictures, currently eighth in studio market share this year. Their top 2015 film, “The Wedding Ringer,” only hit $64 million, double its next best prior to last weekend. This means that ahead of the studio are sixth place Lionsgate (“Insurgent”) and 7th place The Weinstein Company (“The Imitation Game” and “Paddington”). 

No studio has undergone a more traumatic and trying six months than Sony, from the horrifying North Korean Hack to multiple changes in management, as producers Jeff Robinov and Amy Pascal now run new labels, Josh Greenstein runs marketing, Kristine Belson heads Sony Animation and Sanford Panitch comes in from Fox to run Sony International.

At last week’s CinemaCon–which the studio was rumored to be skipping due to anger at the big movie chains for not showing controversial day-and-date holiday release “The Interview”–the studio did present their 2015 slate as well as new chairman Tom Rothman, a familiar figure from his many years at Fox. “We have been through as challenging a time as any modern company has faced,” Rothman said. “But we survived. … We have more than survived. We have thrived. Sony Pictures is unbroken, unbowed and pushing on to new heights…It’s a new day at the studio, and there are mighty things ahead…I believe in big-ass movies for big worldwide audiences. I also believe in rich diverse slates…in pushing forward, not retrenching or retreating.”

Rothman has already made his mark on Sony with a promising slate of high-end pictures set for 2015 release, although the studio is downplaying their Oscar worthiness. Make it a hit first, seems to be the operating mantra. In the past Rothman made a big fuss about ultimate Fox Oscar-winner “Life of Pi” and also-ran “The Life of Walter Mitty,” so he does know how to play that card.

But no. Rothman’s Tri-Star titles include Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash,” a family comedy drama starring Meryl Streep as a hard-living rocker returning to her family in order to tend to her troubled daughter (Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer). An August 7th release date suggests no plans to reach for support from critics or fall film festivals.

Similarly, Bob Zemeckis’s “The Walk” (October 3) has issues which may be resolved by suspension of disbelief upon watching the film. Based on CinemaCon footage, while the period 3D movie builds tension leading up to Philippe Petit’s infamous 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers (the subject of James Marsh’s thrilling Oscar-winning doc “Man on Wire”), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt boasts the physical grace to pull off his incarnation of a real-life French athlete, he also has to deal with a thick French accent. That may be harder for audiences to get beyond.

Rothman also lured Ang Lee to direct “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” based on a true story about a soldier (Joe Alwyn) on a post-war promo tour, now shooting in Georgia for 2016 release. Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund costar. In a video, Lee revealed that he’s taking 3D to an added dimension by joining Peter Jackson and James Cameron in the high-frame-rate club, actually doubling Jackson’s rate by filming at 120 frames per second. Audiences have not exactly embraced this new technology.  “The experience is not just about the extravaganza — not just action, but drama as well,” Lee said. “I think it’s more personal. I think the future is real. It’s a new way of dreaming.”

Also from TriStar is Smokehouse’s Jodie Foster comedy “Money Monster,” starring George Clooney as a TV financial guru who is held hostage by an angry investor (Jack O’Connell), set for 2016. 

Sony’s upcoming summer slate is anchored around Regency, Ratpac and Scott Rudin’s Cameron Crowe romance “Aloha” (May 29), about a military contractor (Bradley Cooper) who is smitten with the Air Force’s Emma Stone; Rachel McAdams is his ex. John Krasinski, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride costar. It’s another character piece for Cooper, who has now earned both Oscar (“American Sniper”) and Tony nominations (“Elephant Man”). Writer-director Crowe (“We Bought a Zoo,” “Elizabethtown,” “Vanilla Sky”) is still trying to pull off that magic match of original story and studio budget. It’s a tough thing to nail.

Chris Columbus action comedy “Pixels” (3D, July 24) feels borrowed from “Wreck-It-Ralph” and its 80s arcade game characters brought to life–this time they’re Pac Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong aliens stomping on big cities. Only arcade champs (Adam Sandler, Josh Gad) can beat them, Ghostbusters style. Dumb males only, but the trailer did go viral. 

The fall lineup is unprepossessing: indie import Robbie Pickering’s high school horror comedy “Kitchen Sink” (September 4), stalker thriller “Perfect Guy” (September 11), starring Sanaa Latham and Michael Ealy, and Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Hotel Transylvania 2” (3D, September 25), which has a similar European feel to the “Despicable Me” series, with a neurotic Dracula leading a posse of such public domain monsters as Frankenstein (Kevin James). Adam Sandler co-wrote and voices Dracula; Mel Brooks joins the voice cast as Vlad.

Rob Letterman’s family movie “Goosebumps” (October 16) based on the hugely popular R.L. Stine (Jack Black) children’s series (400 million copies sold), boasts plenty of monsters to scare little kids. “It’s our next franchise,” boasted producer Neil Moritz (“Furious 7”). “Jack Black is funny but not too scary,” he reassured exhibitors. The proof is in the pudding. 

Sam Mendes is halfway through directing James Bond 24 installment “Spectre” (November 6) starring Daniel Craig, new M Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci. Sony showed a bit from the beginning which marked a spoiler not to be alerted.

“X-Mas”
(November 25) –“from the men who almost brought you ‘The Interview,'” stars Seth Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie as three friends who always celebrate the holidays together. It looks raucously hilarious. Presumably theaters will welcome the comedy with open arms.

Alan Bennett/Nicolas Hytner comedy “Lady in the Van” stars Maggie Smith as an old woman parked in Dominic Cooper’s driveway (December 11), while Oscar bait “Concussion” is a ripped-from-headlines drama about football injuries starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, a doctor with a South African accent (December 25). 

In the franchise pipeline is yet another Ron Howard/Dan Brown sequel starring Tom Hanks, “Inferno,” shot on multiple exotic locations, natch. Marvel’s Kevin Feige is developing with Pascal the next “Spider-Man” (July 28, 2017). She is also working on Paul Feig’s femme “Ghostbusters.” Rumors are that the new “Jump Street” could also head in that direction. And hot-as-flapjacks “Lego Movie” directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are working on an animated “Spider-Man” spin-off for July 20, 2018. (How these busy guys will fulfill all their promised projects is another question.) There’s also a “Smurfs” sequel and a reboot of “The Magnificent Seven” starring Denzel Washington. 

GK Films’ “The 5th Wave” is yet another dystopian thriller starring Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello and Chloe Grace Moretz who are among a handful of humans to survive an alien invasion (January 2016). 

Sony will have to reenergize and find some new blood if they are to compete. 

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