How Sony Pictures Survived the Pandemic to Break Records


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Way back in the darkest days of the N95 era, Sony Pictures Entertainment did something drastic. Starting in the spring of 2020 and continuing through this fall, the studio arm of the Japanese electronics conglomerate basically defaulted on everything promised by its name: It stopped making motion pictures and ceased releasing entertainment. As theaters across North America remained locked shut and Hollywood executives began popping Klonopin for fear of audiences abandoning the cineplex forever, Sony hastily auctioned off a slew of titles — The Mitchells vs. the Machines to Netflix, Hotel Transylvania 4 to Amazon, An American Pickle to HBO Max, and Greyhound to Apple TV+ — and repeatedly kicked presumed blockbusters like Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Morbius, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage further down the release corridor.

Each Hollywood studio found a different way to twist in the pandemic wind. Disney dumped Mulan and Soul directly onto Disney+ and got sued by Scarlett Johansson. Universal ironed out a lions lying-down-with-lambs deal with AMC to share paid video-on-demand profits as it plowed ahead with plans to shorten the theatrical “window” for its films and prioritize Peacock. Warner Bros. transferred the entirety of its 2021 slate to HBO Max in an unprecedented day-and-date “experiment” that ended up mightily pissing off the industry. Paramount went ahead and launched Paramount+. But absent a proprietary streaming platform on which to digitally hawk its wares, Sony ended up parceling stuff out to the highest bidder. It became what The Wall Street Journal characterized as “an arms dealer rather than a combatant in the streaming war.”

But a funny thing happened just as Sony was being counted out of surviving the industry’s mighty inflection point. It suddenly and dramatically reversed course. In October 2021 — in the aftermath of lackluster debuts by would-be hits like Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad and Disney’s Jungle Cruise — the Culver City studio finally decided to roll out Venom: Let There Be Carnage (having rescheduled the comic-book adaptation a breathtaking five times). The flesh-chomping alien surpassed all financial expectations, rampaging to more than $500 million in global ticket sales (without a release in China no less). Sony followed up by finally dropping Ghostbusters: Afterlife (rescheduled four times) a month later, which took in $204.4 million worldwide to relaunch the long-dormant franchise. Then Sony hauled out its biggest guns for the pre-Christmas corridor. Spider-Man: No Way Home obliterated all financial predictions, logging the third biggest movie opening of all time and grossing $1.9 billion to date to now stand as the third most successful title ever.

Sony’s motion picture group presidents Sanford Panitch and Josh Greenstein admit they were less than assured when they sent the $110 million Venom into the movie marketplace. “When we first started releasing movies last October, there were really no other big movies. Everyone had pushed their big movies to this year, to this summer,” Greenstein says. “We took a big gamble putting Venom in theaters. Then we doubled down with Ghostbusters. Then our biggest bet was when every other tentpole had fled, we tripled down with Spider-Man — our biggest, most important piece of IP.”

Sony’s risks certainly yielded rewards and continued doing so into February 2022 — arguably the movie calendar’s deadest month — when the Tom Holland–starring video-game adaptation Uncharted became a surprise hit, notching $401 million for the studio. The executives are quick to take pride in their brinkmanship now — and in Panitch’s case, even taking some credit for the gonzo box-office performance of Top Gun: Maverick. “There’s so much press about Top Gun right now. It’s like, The movie business is back!” Panitch says. “In a weird way, I would say Top Gun is benefitting from us taking our shot. Venom is the start of that story that allows Top Gun to do the kind of business it did. These things don’t happen overnight. It’s a seeding.”

This summer, Sony continues to zig where other studios zag. In a popcorn-movie season littered with megabudget sequels, reboots, and spinoffs, the studio is counterprogramming by putting out two original films: the Brad Pitt–starring and David Leitch–directed action-fantasy shoot-‘em-up Bullet Train (due in theaters August 5) and an adaptation of the megaselling murder-mystery novel Where the Crawdads Sing produced by Reese Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine (July 15). “We believe adults are a huge, important part of our business,” says Greenstein, implicitly contrasting the Gen-Z, fanboy, and Gentleminion crowds more commonly affiliated with popcorn-movie season to older-skewing viewers who turned out in droves for Sandra Bullock’s The Lost City. “We feel the success Crawdads had as a big hit book would be perfect programming for adults in the middle of summer.”

While big-ticket intellectual property will always be Hollywood’s coin of the realm — Sony’s encompasses the Jumanji films, the Spider-Man universe (set to include Kraven the Hunter, Madame Web, and back-to-back Into the Spider-Verse sequels), as well as the Bad Boys, Men in Black, and Equalizer franchises and another Ghostbusters installment recently dated for December 2023 — Sony seems to be following a top-down mandate from studio chairman Tom Rothman. He famously remarked from the stage at CinemaCon in April: “We love sequels, and we love superheroes. But we do not believe the common wisdom that the future is only sequels and superheroes.”

“IP has and always will be incredibly valuable for a film; however, we also have a significant priority for the company to participate in originality too,” Panitch says, pointing to Sony’s pre-pandemic release of a Quentin Tarrantino movie that grossed $374 million worldwide. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not a sequel. It’s not a superhero film. It’s not based on a film from 50 years ago. It’s a wholly original piece of content with an incredible director and two movie stars. With Bullet Train, I think we’re the only original thriller of the whole summer.” He’s not entirely wrong. The Gray Man, another thriller that will see a limited release in theaters for a mere seven days this summer before premiering on Netflix on July 22, is based on a series of novels of the same name and arrives predigested as the start of its own franchise.

Also finding a home on Netflix: Sony’s Kevin Hart–Woody Harrelson action-comedy The Man From Toronto, which was acquired by the streamer in April and moved from a theatrical to a streaming release in June, furthering an impression within certain industry quadrants that Sony might be taking its eye off the theatrical ball once again. Both executives grow quietly exasperated when I ask them about Sony’s penchant for systematically “selling off” movie inventory to streamers during the pandemic and when I point out its so-called “pay one” deal signed with Netflix in April 2021, which gives the platform first dibs on the studio’s output (a certain amount of which Netflix is required to act on) but doesn’t prevent Sony from selling its stuff elsewhere. That deal, they emphasize, is a licensing deal. They refuse to specify how long the licenses last but point out that, after they expire, Sony will again be free to resell or reboot all the titles involved — a long-term value proposition. “When you’re dealing with licensing versus selling, it’s actually a major distinction,” says Panitch. “Because it really is just a part-time distribution where we get it back in our library.”

Ultimately, Panitch and Greenstein maintain that multiplex rollouts are still the lifeblood of business on Washington Boulevard and that the great Netflix correction — when the company laid off a total of 450 employees following the announcement that the company had lost 200,000 subscribers during its first quarter of 2022 — has only underscored the turbulence of operating a streaming service in modern Hollywood. However, other industry onlookers are skeptical. Richard Rushfield, editor-in-chief of the Ankler, has significant doubts about the sustainability of Sony’s “sell off the presumed flops to streaming” business model, noting that there will likely come a day when OTT platforms no longer have to rely on anyone but themselves to generate original content. But he concedes that, for now, Sony has the hard-won admiration of other studios for delivering a cavalcade of hits while unburdened by the responsibility of maintaining its own streaming platform. “Any time you’re on a hot streak, people are going to be jealous of that, and they definitely are. People are definitely giving them credit,” Rushfield says. “They made some gutsy release decisions in the midst of the pandemic, and people give them credit for that.”

Nonetheless, two-plus years into a new industry reality the question of theatricality — of which movies belong inside theaters and, more crucially, which don’t — still looms large for Sony and its back-lot competition. Rather than go on record about precisely what makes the theatrical cut (and risk having to eat those words when everything changes again), the executives remain vague. “Obviously that is a moving target,” Greenstein says. But they are adamant about one aspect of theatricality, citing the overperformance of a certain friendly neighborhood web-slinger just a year and a half after Universal winnowed the window between a film’s theatrical rollout and its debut on home video to just 17 days. “Our biggest hit ever, the last Spider-Man movie, had our longest theatrical window at 88, 89 days,” says Greenstein. “The misconception people in the industry had: A shorter window will add to the value downstream. No. The bigger a hit it is theatrically is what adds to its value downstream.”

By Harriet