Spring 2001, a beautiful day on the Sony lot. The studio is about to release “The Animal,” a comedy starring Rob Schneider as a man who finds himself taking on traits of various animals after receiving their organs in donor transplants.
Sony has invited the press for a marketing stunt, one that involves a number of zoo animals walking down a red carpet, including one accompanied by Schneider himself. It’s a photo finish as to which is dumber, the film or its promotional tactic. No one — from studio chief Amy Pascal to the zebra — seemed to know why they were there, or what this event was supposed to do.
The executives did their best to smile and applaud, but you could almost see heat waves of mortification. As for the movie, “The Animal” went on to become a critical depth charge, today best known as one of the titles in the David Manning scandal. (Remember him? That’s the imaginary critic who was invented by an enterprising young Sony marketing exec to blurb their bad movies.)
Cut to a year later: Fall 2002, a premiere afterparty in Westwood. Sony has just screened Spike Jonze’s second feature, “Adaptation.,” and the mood is downright giddy. No need for anyone to invent ego-soothing platitudes to justify their free hors d’oeuvres and cocktails: The audience loves the movie and so does the studio.
When congratulated on the film, Pascal almost can’t contain her joy. “Adaptation.” is not an ordinary movie — it’s risky financially and creatively; she gets to make a movie like this once a year, if she’s lucky. Now it’s in the world — and people get it. Making movies like this are why she loves this business and if enough people love it, maybe she’ll get to make more of them. “Adaptation.” received four Oscar nominations and a win for best supporting actor Chris Cooper.
The reason for retelling these stories isn’t to put the boot in: Today, Sony is experiencing no less than a slow-motion corporate evisceration. A reported 100 terabytes of deeply private studio data have been hacked and are being made public, with each day seeming to reveal another indiscretion: Executive salaries. Social security numbers. Medical records. Confirmation that Sony executives loathe Adam Sandler movies as much as we do, and are baffled as to why they’re still supporting his career.
Of course, Sony is doing whatever it can to find the culprit, and to protect their data from future attacks, but this is done. They are exposed. No one knows what the repercussions will be, or how long they’ll last — but maybe this horror show contains some sliver of opportunity.
Before the breach, everyone knew Sony was in trouble. Bad box office, layoffs, plunging stock prices. After the breach, everyone knows at least one reason why: Even the studio doesn’t like the movies they’re making and no amount of crisis management can counter 100 terabytes of truth.
This week, Gawker highlighted Sony files that included boulder-blunt executive assessments (“upper management allows certain talent and filmmakers to bleed us dry…” “the boorish, least common denominator slate strikes me as a waste of resource and reputation”) and some thuddingly dense Powerpoint decks ostensibly designed to aid in the marketing of films like “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “Smurfs 2,” and “Elysium.” A slide for “Grown Ups 2,” with its helpful “Key Theme” thought bubbles (Humor, Fun, Friendship) was a flashback to watching a glum Rob Schneider trudge down the red carpet with a beast of burden: God, no one wants to be here.
It would be simpleminded in the extreme to suggest an answer lies in Only Making Good Movies. Even if that were possible, it’s flat-out wrong.
While Indiewire would be delighted to live in a world where there were more movies by Spike Jonze and fewer (well, none) from Rob Schneider, the numbers don’t support it. Wretched as “The Animal” may be, it earned $56 million in North America; “Adaptation” made $22 million. And that’s about what every Spike Jonze movie earns (with the exception of “Where The Wild Things Are,” which was not a Sony title).
Still, is it possible that amidst all this embarrassment, the truth could set Sony free?
As Sony’s executive assessments point out, they want to work on better films — not necessarily Megan Ellison’s next creative partnership, but films like Lionsgate’s “Hunger Games,” or “Twilight.” These are blockbusters that demand some element of creative risk — and, it should be noted, a different kind of economy.
By comparison to Sony, which still maintains rich term deals, the much-smaller Lionsgate works in the theater of poverty. They couldn’t afford stars, but they launched Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart into stardom. And while now we all know exactly how many millions Sony toppers are paid, a recent New York Times profile noted that Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen also served as the “Hunger Games” campaign photographer.
That DIY attitude doesn’t solve every problem, but may point the way toward some answers. As any indie filmmaker can tell you, a paucity of resources forces creativity because — well, what choice do you have? You have nothing else.
Everything has been taken from Sony. That’s not a bad place to start.