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Higher-Profile Role for Ace Picture Picker

Amy Pascal, one of three heads of Sony Pictures, navigates a new landscape

October 22, 2003|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

After delivering her first full-blown business presentation to corporate bosses in New York two weeks ago, Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairwoman Amy Pascal received an unexpected response: a hug from Sony Corp.'s normally reserved chairman, Nobuyuki Idei.

Pascal outlined a three-year plan to cut hundreds of jobs and slash costs by tens of millions of dollars at Sony Pictures' movie studio and other units, which was precisely what Idei wanted to hear, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

The Tokyo-based chairman had mandated that all of Sony's businesses tighten operations to help boost the corporation's depressed earnings and depressed stock price, and was clearly glad to find one of his key Hollywood executives on board. "He responded to the tone and spirit of Amy's presentation," the source said.

But whether such affirmation will ever give Pascal the fuller authority enjoyed by rival studio heads, such as Sherry Lansing of Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures or Dick Cook of Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Studios, remains an open question.

After 73-year-old John Calley retired as chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment early this month, power at the studio and its allied operations was divided among three vice chairpersons: Pascal, who oversees film production; Jeff Blake, who manages marketing and distribution; and Yair Landau, who watches over the company's digital operations and television activities.

The lack of a conventional chief defies tradition in Hollywood, which has generally demanded to know who's the boss at its film companies -- notwithstanding a recent drift toward decision by committee amid escalating costs and risks.

"Sony has one of the more unusual organizational structures and has not felt compelled to have very defined roles," noted media analyst Jeffrey Logsdon of investment bank Harris Nesbitt Gerard.

As Sony's top creative executive, a role she had solidified during a largely successful stint as chairwoman of the company's Columbia Pictures unit, the 45-year-old Pascal might have been Calley's natural successor under filmdom's old rules.

But her boss, New York-based Sony Corp. of America Chairman Howard Stringer, appears bent on withholding the chairman's post in favor of a split regime, at least for now.

"Everything is working fine. I'm not planning on any immediate change," Stringer said in an interview Monday.

The executive added that he was less focused on management roles than on figuring out what a modern movie studio would look like as it integrated with emerging technology.

"I'm more interested in defining how the studio fits into the broadband future," Stringer said. "How the place is structured, I haven't settled on."

Stringer's focus on the future hasn't stopped speculation about some old-fashioned power politics on Sony's Culver City lot.

One hot topic of discussion is who will occupy a master office suite in the studio's Irving Thalberg Building -- once the domain of legendary MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer -- when Calley moves out in coming weeks.

"The engine that pulls the train is production," said Laura Ziskin, a Pascal friend who is based on Columbia's lot and produced the blockbuster hit "Spider-Man." "So, de facto, Amy's the boss and that's why she gets the office."

Others believe Stringer, who is spending more time in Los Angeles lately, may take the big office -- a possibility he declined to discuss.

"I'm not going to talk about real estate," he said.

Pascal, for her part, sidestepped questions about her prospects and ambitions. During a recent interview in her current office, which is more homey than corporate, with vintage mirrors decorating the walls, she parried a query about the Calley suite by talking about accommodations at the studio for her 3 1/2-year-old son, Anthony.

"I have my nursery and my conference room. I'm very set up here," Pascal said.

Whether or not she gets the boss' chair, supporters are quick to point out that Pascal's reach expanded steadily in the last two years, as Calley withdrew from front-line management and she came to the fore as the creative executive responsible for a series of highly successful pictures, including "Spider-Man," "Men in Black 2" and "Mr. Deeds."

"She's the go-to person, and I think she's headed up," said "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi, who is weeks away from wrapping the sequel to his hit movie.

"I just hope she doesn't get promoted out of working with filmmakers," said the director, who credits Pascal with taking a "big risk" on both him and "Spider-Man" star Tobey Maguire at a time when both were best known for making smaller, quirkier movies.

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