Jennifer Lawrence’s Space Romance Launches Rothman Era at Sony

  • ‘Passengers’ could help studio close out 2016 on a high note
  • Big-budget drama set for debut after series of disappointments

After a tough year at the box office, new management at Sony Pictures Entertainment is counting on Jennifer Lawrence in a space drama to build some momentum for 2017.

The Hollywood studio behind letdowns like “The Brothers Grimsby,” “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and the “Ghostbusters” remake is unveiling the first big global release approved by Tom Rothman, who was appointed studio chief almost two years ago. “Passengers” debuts this week, pairing Lawrence with Chris Pratt in the tale of two space travelers who awaken from suspended animation 90 years too early.

’Passengers’

Source: Sony Pictures Entertainment

With the year almost done, Sony remains in fifth place in domestic box-office sales among the six major studios, the same as in 2015. Its last billion-dollar hit was “Skyfall,” the 2012 James Bond film. Next year hinges on at least six remakes or sequels, including new editions of “Spider-Man” and “Jumanji.” “Passengers” will need to shake off negative reviews, overcome tough competition and resonate with fans to succeed.

“Sony is definitely in that rebuilding phase right now,” said Shawn Robbins, an analyst at BoxOfficePro.com. “It is just a fact that they don’t have all the big properties that several other studios do and part of that is cyclical, which will change over time.”

Failure to turn around the Culver City, California-based studio could renew pressure on parent Sony Corp. to make more changes, three years after activist investor Daniel Loeb unsuccessfully pushed the Japanese company to split off its entertainment business. Sony Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai told the trade publication Worldscreen in October that the studio remains important for future growth.

Neither Sequel Nor Spinoff

“Passengers” is the rare 2016 big-budget release that’s not a sequel or a spinoff from a comic book -- and that’s part of Sony’s challenge. In a year when Walt Disney Co. ruled the box office with Marvel superheroes and “Star Wars” galactic battles, Sony had little in the way of familiar fare to guarantee success. “Ghostbusters,” with its all-female cast, was supposed to be a reboot that could spearhead its own series of films, but a disappointing performance made that plan unlikely.

Lawrence is a proven box-office draw, with hits like “The Hunger Games” series, but success at the box office is no sure thing for “Passengers.”

The film received positive reviews from just 33 percent of critics, according to RottenTomatoes.com, and will be up against Disney’s latest “Star Wars” picture’s second weekend in theaters. “Passengers,” which cost $110 million to make and many millions to market, could open with North American sales of $36.7 million over the Christmas weekend, according to Hollywood Stock Exchange.

‘They Need This’

“It is big for Sony,” said analyst Jeff Bock at Exhibitor Relations Co., who estimates the movie will generate about $100 million at the domestic box office. “They really need this.”

Tom Rothman

Photographer: Michael Buckner/Getty Images for CinemaCon

Rothman, 62, became chairman of Sony’s motion picture group in February 2015, after about 18 months running the studio’s Tristar label and a long career at 20th Century Fox. When he took the new role, Sony was still reeling from a cyber-attack that exposed embarrassing e-mails from executives including his predecessor, Amy Pascal.

While Sony’s slate this year has had its duds, there have been some standouts. The animated comedy “Sausage Party” grossed $140 million worldwide on a $19 million production budget, and the horror film “Don’t Breathe” brought in $153 million, more than 15 times its budget.

The studio also showed financial progress in the quarter ended Sept. 30, with revenue up 4.6 percent and a profit compared with a loss a year earlier.

Outlook: Hopeful

Next year looks better for Sony, with a lot riding on “Spider-Man.” The company owns the rights to the comic-book character and is collaborating with Marvel chief Kevin Feige on the revival of the franchise. As part of that, Spider-Man appeared in this year’s Disney release “Captain America: Civil War.” The idea was to help Sony benefit from having Spider-Man join Disney’s popular superheroes, such as Iron Man, and vice versa.

“Spider-Man is going to be huge,” Robbins said. “They can have a lot of confidence with Marvel helping them creatively. They’ve got a lot more blockbuster potential on the horizon.”

Bock thinks “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” set for release July 7, could be Sony’s first $1 billion movie since “Skyfall.” Beyond that picture, “there is no mania for their lineup. Sony does not have that yet,” he said.

Sony sees other reasons to be excited. The studio has been buying international rights for films, such as Paramount Pictures’ “Arrival,” with Rothman working to build a global distribution system. “Passengers” is co-financed by Dalian Wanda Group, as part of a film marketing and financing alliance between Sony and the Chinese company.

The studio is also increasing its animation output, with plans for a new “Smurfs” picture and “The Emoji Movie” next year.

“We are extremely confident in the slate for 2017, which is reflective of the ongoing reorientation of our business to take advantage of the growing global market,” Sony said.

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