Considering that global movie ticket sales reached precedent levels after a particularly robust holiday period and a mostly sizzling summer, 2013 was one of the most turbulent years I can remember in the executive suites of major studios. Studios were overhauled all over town to better compete in an arena that is more of a global pursuit than ever, with victory belonging to whoever can build and maintain the most franchises.
Purists will decry the fact that Hollywood’s brightest minds are mostly focused on repackaging derivative concepts for maximum global grosses, but evidence of the rewards are right there in the gross charts: Six of the top seven biggest films were sequels that provided the kind of results that keep studio conglomerate parents happy, keep studio chiefs employed, and slate co-financiers coming back for more. Sure, studios will still get involved with awards-season prestige films like The Wolf Of Wall Street, American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave, but often only when someone else pays to make them. This franchise fever pushed costs of blockbusters to ridiculously high levels, and left top execs and producers explaining, and sometimes packing, when some badly misfired. Add that to internal power struggles at places like Universal and Warner Bros, and you needed a scorecard to keep up with the executive changes — which came fast and furious, especially after the brutal summer blockbuster season. Among them:
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*Universal fired film chairman Adam Fogelson in a move that surprised him along with everyone else in town but Ron Meyer and Donna Langley, with whom he engaged in a quiet power struggle. Fogelson was blindsided by the result, coming hours after he presided over the Toronto premiere of Rush. The Comcast-orchestrated move that put Jeff Shell in charge of filmed entertainment after he did well running NBCUniversal’s international operations. Meyer was upped to vice chairman of NBCUniversal and Langley as sole Universal Films chairman and picture picker. Even though the studio placed third in market share and Despicable Me 2 could become the studio’s biggest-ever box office hit when it plays in China, Universal also flubbed franchise launch attempts like R.I.P.D. and 47 Ronin, and Kick-Ass 2 proved that once was enough. Universal has sequels to Jurassic Park, The Mummy and Ted coming, and a new salty adult franchise in Fifty Shades Of Grey for 2015. Thomas Tull’s Legendary Pictures moved in to hatch pictures and co-fi Universal titles like Jurassic World, hedging the studio’s bets as it moves forward. Langley’s biggest challenge has been retooling the studio’s most lucrative franchise, Fast & Furious, which was halfway completed when star Paul Walker died tragically in a fiery car crash. Right after Fogelson was ousted, longtime Focus Features chief James Schamus was dismissed just as suddenly. He was replaced by Peter Schlessel, the whip-smart former Sony dealmaker who’d been running FilmDistrict and who clearly will be charged with broadening the highbrow Focus slate to include more low-risk high-return genre films like the FilmDistrict hit Insidious. Schamus’s co-chairman, Andrew Karpen, declined to relocate and stay on, dramatically changing the complexion of that prestige company.
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*The final shoe dropped after Warner Bros gave the top job to Kevin Tsujihara instead of Warner Bros movie chief Jeff Robinov. At a time when Robinov should have been taking victory laps after his bets on filmmakers paid off so well with Ben Affleck’s Argo, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Robinov instead left in a frosty exit to form his own moneyed film venture. This, and the equally tempestuous exit of Legendary’s Tull after a lucrative franchise-fueled run, left Robinov’s successors Greg Silverman and Sue Kroll under big pressure to assert themselves to find new franchises. The studio re-upped Village Roadshow Pictures and replaced Legendary with James Packer, Brett Ratner and Steven Mnuchin’s RatPac Dune in a slate co-financing deal that will spread $450 million or more over 75 films. While Warner Bros brass tired of Tull imposing his creative will and cherry-picking Warner Bros titles to co-fi, RatPac Dune will not do that, and I heard the studio was able to exclude certain plum titles from the arrangement. But Warner Bros also gifted RatPac Dune with a co-fi stake in Gravity after it was completed, creating a big windfall for a fledgling venture. It’s ironic given nobody in Hollywood but Robinov seemed to want to make that movie — an expensive auteur effort that has zero sequel potential. One challenge for the new team at Warner Bros: keeping Robinov from peeling away the directors he empowered, from Christopher Nolan to Affleck, Snyder, Luhrmann, The Hangover‘s Todd Phillips and Cuaron to make movies at the new company he and Graham King are expected to launch at Sony. Silverman is respected and Kroll is regarded as arguably the best marketer in town and the studio’s global distribution and marketing operation is as good as there is, but the pressure’s on even though Warner Bros topped other studios in market share. It also has what seems like a strong year with franchise launches in Godzilla and LEGO, another installment of 300 (so what if everybody died in the original?), and a Hobbit finale. Beyond Hobbit, New Line continues to do its part on the franchise front, hatching a Horrible Bosses sequel for 2014 and gearing up another installment of its sleeper 2013 road trip comedy We’re The Millers.
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*After two costly summer misfires in After Earth and White House Down, a lackluster Smurfs sequel that fizzled the franchise, and disappointing returns on the Matt Damon-starrer Elysium, Sony Pictures chairman Amy Pascal found herself in the cross-hairs of minority activist shareholder Daniel Loeb. The result: seismic changes in its executive structure and game plan moving forward. The studio dropped marketing head Marc Weinstock, corporate PR chief Steve Elzer and home entertainment chief David Bishop, and then added former New Line president-turned Fifty Shades Of Grey producer Michael De Luca to share president of production duties with Hannah Minghella. The studio vowed heading into its fall investor meetings that it would cut $250 million in costs through 2016, and make fewer movies in 2014 and pour the money into TV. I keep hearing that was temporary window dressing, and after adding former Fox chief Tom Rothman to revive TriStar, which creates another buyer on a lot full of them, Sony will continue to try and create franchises to go along with its Spider-Man and 007 stalwarts. Sony secured a big slate co-fi investment from John LaViolette and Joseph Singer’s Blue Anchor that begins with George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. And then there is the prospect of the venture by Robinov/King which would give Sony huge movies to release and gain market share and bragging rights, without actually having to fund them if they don’t want to. If 22 Jump Street and especially The Amazing Spider-Man 2 hit as well as is hoped, some of that pressure could be alleviated as the studio presses ahead with reboots of past franchise successes Ghostbusters and Men In Black.
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