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Distribution Maestro Jeff Blake Exits Sony After 22 Years: Dynamo and Class Act

Distribution Maestro Jeff Blake Exits Sony After 22 Years: Dynamo and Class Act

The news that Jeff Blake is departing his position as Chairman of Sony Pictures and Vice-Chairman of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution for the company after 22 years leaves the film industry, at least until his future plans are announced, without one its most revered and honorable executives. Tough, smart, a workhorse even by the standards of Hollywood, he remained true to the values and talents I first saw when we first knew each other at Northwestern University in the early 1970s.

In a brief phone call today, Blake seems in a good place. “It seemed like the right time,” he told me. “I’m not unhappy. Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton have treated me very well.” He said his health is fine–when I met with him at his office a few months ago, he seemed vigorous and far from retiring. He credits previous Sony head John Calley with giving him the chance to maximize his talents. “The hardest thing is to grow up with one set of skills and then get a chance to do more. John Calley gave me that chance.”

Calley let him expand into the burgeoning international marketplace, previously a piecemeal patchwork at most studios, and gave him the chance to coordinate marketing and distribution, often motion picture departments that work at cross purposes. Blake also shared the credit, saying he was lucky to work with (and hire) execs who helped him grow and gain new skills, most recently in the social media world. His best advice to anyone younger starting out in the business is to always keep learning and not limit themselves to just one area or field of expertise.

Clearly whatever is driving his departure (Variety story about Sony revolving door turmoil here), Sony’s Lynton and Pascal appreciated and relied on his expertise. During his tenure at SPE, Blake led the marketing campaigns for all five “Spider-Man” films, the studio’s biggest franchise, which is now nearing $4 billion in box office revenue worldwide. “Spider-Man” in 2002 was the first film to reach $100 million in domestic box office in its opening weekend. The third “Spider-Man” in 2007 was the first film ever to open to more than $150 million domestically. Blake also launched the “Men in Black” and Robert Langdon franchises. He also oversaw the marketing and distribution of the three most successful films in the James Bond franchise, including “Skyfall,” which earned over $1.1 billion in worldwide box office and was the most successful film ever released in the United Kingdom. “I have worked side-by-side with Jeff for more than two decades,” stated Pascal. “He is the best partner anyone could ever want. We have benefitted greatly from his wisdom and genius. As sad as I am about his decision to leave, we all wish only the best possible things for him.”

As someone who has known and worked with Blake from the start of our respective careers, I can share some personal notes about him. We first met when we both ran film groups at Northwestern. In our senior year, he ran the weekend series (called A & O Films) that drew big crowds, showing mostly recent films (back then, pre-video, the first non-theatrical showings of movies came in 16mm presentations, usually around a year after initial release). I ran Film Society, the weekday foreign language and classic series. (Ira Deutchman, still a player in the specialized world, ran the A & O sidebar Midnight Film series on weekends.)

Blake and I both hail from Chicago. I came from suburban Evanston, from college-educated parents and the assumption of prime higher education as a given. He came from the more working-class Catholic Northwest side of nearby Chicago (Irish in a more Polish and Eastern-European neighborhood) where he was the first in his family to go to college, and then a top one. He clearly knew that this was a great opportunity for him, and like everything later in his career, made the most of it.

Driven to succeed, Blake boasted a strong sense of self-confidence and direction. He was no-nonsense even at the age of 19, but leavened with friendliness and humor. But he was tough. We both started our years running our groups with a potential conflict — “Gone With the Wind” was coming out for non-theatrical play in 1973 for the first time ever. (Its only legal showings had been in theaters since its first release; TV didn’t come for two more years.) This was a film that fit both our groups, but Jeff had more clout running the official student activities film group in the larger auditorium. I took the lead and approached him early, saying: “Let’s not fight – maybe it makes sense for us to cosponsor this?” 

I expected to lose this fight. But his reaction was to work together as cosponsors, as long as it showed on a weekend at his location (which of course meant that it would be perceived as his film). It set the stage for the Jeff I’ve known ever since. He got most of what he wanted, maybe a bit less glory, but with the bonus of earning a life-long friend. For me, it has been a matter of pride that in my first act in the business, I was able to battle Jeff to a perceived draw.

Jeff was a dynamo even then. He commuted from home and concentrated on his studies along with this first entree into the film “business.” He finished school in about three years and got his B.A. when he was only 20. By this time, he was working at Paramount’s Chicago branch, where he preceded me into the local industry (I ended up on the exhibition side) by two years.

He advanced quickly, soon rising to branch manager for Paramount in Chicago and Detroit. Then, in his mid 20s, he became a branch manager for Paramount. He looked set for a long and fruitful career at that company, with likely guaranteed advancement. But not yet 30, he jumped to his first Los Angeles job as Assistant General Sales Manager for Buena Vista, at a time when the Disney distribution arm lagged far behind other studios and had not transitioned into its current powerhouse form. His friends questioned this — going from Paramount, where his career seemed made, for the less important BV?

But Jeff once again was smarter than the rest of us. He elevated his profile, and before long, he was back at Paramount, serving as General Sales Manager (initially in New York, where they then had their corporate offices). After moving to Los Angeles, he completed his off-hours law school studies (a long time project) and admission to the California Bar. All while still in his 30s.

What followed is better known, with his move to Sony in 1992 and quickly rising to his present position. In 2000 he became the first executive to hold the position (still not universally done by all studios) of overseeing both marketing and distribution for domestic and international, a job he has held for a remarkable and transformative 14 years. Though Sony domestic has been a consistent leader in market share and maximizing its product slate under his direction, Jeff’s greatest legacy is likely in international, where he early realized the growth potential and the need to consolidate what for all studios was a complicated maze of countries and varying circumstances into a more manageable system of coordinated releases and top-down administration. The result has been that Sony consistently excels at worldwide efforts, which help to bolster more expensive projects that lag domestically into a profitable position.

Most anyone who compares their career to Blake comes up short, including me. But Blake never let that make any difference. One truism is that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Whenever I needed Blake’s advice or wanted some question answered, he always got back to me quickly. His loyalty to his Chicago roots was immense — for the Cubs of course, but also local exhibitors who helped him in his early days and to whom he remained in touch. He is private about his family, but they have always been his chief thought despite the demands of his business. (Blake has never been a big presence in industry social functions more than his position required, nor someone who needed media attention to convince people he was important — he let his work do that for him.)

My favorite time with Blake after he came to Sony was during the mid 1990s. He had just been named head of international, and as such went to Cannes for the first time to oversee their marketing office at the Carleton. He was set up with a dusk to dawn schedule of meetings, with dinners at Les Moulin de Mougins at night. He had little time to catch his breath. I called him before the festival, knowing he’d be non-stop busy, and suggested, since I was more of a Cannes veteran by that point, we have lunch when he could take a break. 

He agreed. His driver delivered him to my hotel (the Splendid) near the Old Town of Cannes. I figured he’d appreciate something more down to earth than the three-star diet of the rest of the festival. We walked to Le Pizza, a favorite hangout for American indie types and journalists. To get there, we had to pass a more typically-European section of town. This actually was, other than his honeymoon in England, his first time in Europe. As we walked, he clearly was fascinated by the winding streets and older establishments as if it was all a discovery for him. He was relaxed at lunch, an indulgence that he rarely allowed himself. He thanked me for having thought of this and taking time out of my schedule (just seeing movies) to make room for him. After all the favors he’d done for me, it felt great to find some way to repay them.

I have no idea what his next chapter will be. It seems inconceivable that Blake would not work or juggle multiple tasks. But I hope he gets a chance to take time for himself to enjoy life with his wife Barbara and their adult children and earn the rewards of a brilliant career. He’s earned it. But in the meantime, the business needs him, as I suspect he needs the fix of staying busy ahead. We will see much more from him.

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