Shortly after Tom Rothman replaced Amy Pascal as the new chairman of Sony Picture Entertainment he told Variety his goal was to answer the following question: “What is it that’s going to galvanize audiences who aren’t interested in comic books? They can’t be the only viewers.”
Sadly, he still hasn’t figured it out. Thus, within the past 7 days Sony has randomly resuscitated its long-dormant Venom and Black Cat/Silver Sable comic book movies, the former now granted a late 2018 release date and the latter hiring Thor: Ragnarok’s Chris Yost to perform a re-write on the Lisa Joy Nolan script they’ve had lying around since 2014.
At first glance, these announcements are head-scratchers in that they came out of nowhere and indicate Sony’s executives are again looking too far ahead when the problem in front of them is making sure Spider-Man: Homecoming is a success and that the 2018 animated Spider-Man movie makes its Christmas release date. In truth, though, Sony is in far more turmoil than you might realize, and the standalone Venom and Black Cat/Silver Sable projects (as well as the recently announced Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sequel/revival) reflect that in their utter desperation.
Rothman came into the studio intent on gobbling up the rights to all manner of promising novels (like Dark Tower), leading the way in innovation (like high-frame rates), backing filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis and Ang Lee and pursuing a diversified release slate designed to give audiences something a little different than the increasingly Disneyfied blockbuster world. Thus far, some of his smaller bets (Don’t Breathe, The Shallows, Sausage Party) have paid off, but almost nothing else has (Ghostbusters, The Walk, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ricki and The Flash, Magnificent Seven, Passengers), at least not financially.
More egregiously, his micro-managing ways and gruff demeanor led to key departures in the senior ranks and an attempted coup in the form of a damning group complaint leveled against him with the studio’s HR Department last November. The head of the entire Sony corporation stepped forward to publicly support Rothman, but two months later Rothman’s boss, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, the man who somehow managed to fail upward after the Sony hacking scandal, quietly landed a gig on the Snapchat Board and then promptly announced his exit from Sony. As of this writing, he is still serving out an agreed-upon 6 month stretch where he is still nominally in charge until a replacement can be named, but the reality is that Sony’s entire Entertainment division is rudderless.
Rothman’s the movie guy with literal decades of experience with Fox, where he oversaw both Titanic and Avatar. His instincts told him Sony needed to push hard into Dark Tower and other projects and not be so dependent on Spider-Man. However, now things are in the hands of Sony’s spreadsheet watchers who know all too well that the comic book movie is the coin of the realm. An insider told THR in January:
A major initiative for Sony’s film studio has been finding ways to make movies based not just on Spider-Man but more of the 800 Marvel characters that it controls, such as Venom, Silver Sable, Black Cat and Sinister Six. That content could have strong appeal to many of the gamers who own PlayStations. Disney-owned Marvel controls consumer products associated with its characters, and it is likely Sony will work out partnerships there, as it did with Spider-Man.
Now, we are seeing that in action, and, really, you can’t blame them. Ever since Rothman took over, Sony has been in an annual competition with Paramount for the lowest market share among the 6 major film studios (the other four being Disney, Universal, Warner Bros. and Fox). Luckily, Sony still manages to beat lowly Paramount, but that might not be enough. The industry appears to be heading toward a period of movie studio contraction or buy-outs, and both Sony and Paramount are prime targets to be sold off by parent corporations who neither need nor want the hassle anymore.
2017 will go a long way to determining what becomes of Sony as a film studio. Life opens tomorrow, and the rest of the year will bring a new Smurfs movie, Homecoming and Dark Tower in July, The Emoji Movie and Baby Driver in August and Jumanji in December. The losses can’t keep piling up. What is it that’s going to galvanize audiences who aren’t interested in comic books? Lots of things, potentially, but while you’re figuring that out you should also remember to keep churning out comic book movies.