Can Sony Tony Save Hollywood?

With all the hubbub and machinations ongoing on studio lots these days, there’s nary a month that goes by without seeing some observation or controversy involving its CEOs, especially the ones running the so-called “old school” companies.  We’ve seen time and time again how ubiquitous and sometimes outspoken the likes of Bob Iger and David Zaslav have been.  Universal and Comcast had its share of drama with l’affair Jeff Shell.  And we’re well aware of the Bataan death march that Shari Redstone is leading the once-glorified Paramount toward, with the three-headed “Office of the CEO” hydra babysitting as its fate is under extended discussion.

A sich not lost on the likes of DEADLINE’s Anthony D’Alessandro and Jill Goldsmith.  And the story they dropped on Wednesday reminded us that there’s another CEO out there we haven’t heard from a while.  But this past week was a busy one for the guy who will cheerfully chuckle if you remind him his first name and his company rhyme.

For nearly two weeks it’s been crickets when it comes to the push and pull between Skydance and Sony Pictures Entertainment/Apollo over Paramount Global.

However, making some noise during a Sony investor event tonight (tomorrow morning Tokyo time) was Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra. The chief executive presented business highlights and took some questions, as did the giant conglom’s other division heads.

“We are looking for strategic investments … that complement our strategy. We are not going to go outside the strategy that has been enormously successful for us over the past several years,” he said. “We will not make investments that don’t complement our core strategy, and our strategy is to have more IP, more product, more library to sell. We’re not going to get into other businesses. We’re not going to get into a general entertainment streaming service. We’re not going to be operating other businesses that are outside the strategy that we have defined.”

And while making a rare public appearance at the gala premiere for BAD BOYS 4 the following night, D’Alessandro and yet another sidekick, Natalie Sitek, took the opportunity to ambush Tony V and were able to extract these “updates”:

It’s still progressing.”

That’s what Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra had to say about his studio’s talks with Paramount Global for a potential merger. His comments tonight at the Hollywood premiere for Sony’s Bad Boys: Ride or Die come on a day when Skydance has reportedly sweetened its deal for the Shari Redstone-run conglom. Aside from that Vinciquerra couldn’t disclose any more updates because, ala, he’s under an NDA which Sony signed two weeks ago giving them access to Paramount Global’s books and for deal talks to move ahead.

Deadline also asked Vinciquerra about exhibitors’ fears over a Sony-Paramount merger, and how that might lead to less product in a marketplace that’s already been evaporated by less titles due to double strikes and streaming’s impact on theatrical.

Vinciquerra’s words to theater owners, “They should not be worried.”

Except when one looks at the skill sets that have taken Vinciquerra from a modest career that began as a radio and TV salesman in his native upstate New York to his current role as a studio czar, it’s awfully hard not to be just a touch dubious.

When Vinciquerra took over, ironically from Shell, as CEO of what was then FOX Networks Group in 2002, shortly after joining the company as president of the broadcast network, he immediately instituted a series of cost-cutting measures that had top financial executives personally reviewing expense reports to question if there were cheaper car services or taxi companies available in cities we’d frequently travel to.   The number of extended conversations I was compelled to have to educate our CFO about the limited options in Charlotte, North Carolina after 10 pm at night were more detailed than the ones about the millions of dollars we were spending on ratings services that weren’t accurately measuring our properties.   When we’d screen pilots and presentations for him, he’d rarely ask questions about execution and auspices.  More often than not, his reactions were limited to “That looks pretty expensive”.

To be sure, that’s a formula that’s worked for him.  He spent a decade at FOX and is now in his seventh year at the top of SPE.  And as Zacks Business Report meticulously detailed earlier this month, there was more than a decent amount of positive news eminating from Tokyo, particularly about the businesses under Sony Tony’s purview:

Sony Group Corporation SONY reported fiscal fourth-quarter 2023 net income per share (on a GAAP basis) of ¥153.60, which increased from ¥113.89 a year ago. Adjusted net income came in at ¥175.1 billion compared with ¥141 billion in the prior-year quarter.  Pictures sales increased 13.3% year over year to ¥406.7 billion, mainly due to an increase in theatrical releases and higher revenues for Crunchyroll. Operating income was ¥30.7 billion compared with ¥15.5 billion a year ago.

And the DEADLINE duo underscored how much faith and support Crunchyroll has in Vinciquerra’s world:

“Crunchyroll is going to be a primary driver of growth over the next few years,” he said about the studio’s anime division while also touting Crunchyroll’s 13M subscribers.

“We’re going to launch in India and Southeast Asia soon on Amazon channels,” said Vinciquerra who said the m.o. is to build up content for that region.

Asked about AI, he said a challenging studio business is always looking to save and will use the technology as it can to that end.

So great news if you’re an investor or a shareholder, or if you’re an anime fan.  Pixels don’t strike and they don’t require substantial negotiations.

But when it comes to human beings being employed, let’s just say that tends to take a back seat.  And what went down on the Culver City lot yesterday didn’t exactly enhance any creative’s confidence.  The intrepid Nellie Andreeva created still more clickbait for DEADLINE with this recap:

After a nine-year revival, Sony’s TriStar Television label is being phased out again. Its two top executives, EVP Jennifer Turner, who ran the unit for the past two and a half years, and SVP Nicole Norwood, will be departing the studio. TriStar Television has no current series on the air. Its development slate will be taken over by Sony Pictures Television’s drama development team.  This marks the second such move of centralizing development under Katherine Pope since she became President of Sony Pictures TV in July 2022. The TV studio’s other boutique label, Gemstone, was folded into SPT in November 2022.

Make no mistake, Pope is acting directly on her superiors’ mandates, starting with Vinciquerra.  Andreeva noted that Tri-Star did have several cracks at bat:

Over its current nine-year run, the TriStar TV generated six series, Prime Video’s Good Girls Revolt, Hulu’s Shut Eye, Prime Video’s The Last Tycoon, Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Apple TV+’s The Afterparty and AMC’s Lucky Hank .

You probably don’t remember most of them; bluntly, none made it past two seasons.  But was that a function of the production or the business models of the platforms they aired on?  Having been directly involved in several of them, I can tell you the latter was far and away the bigger reason.

And I can also tell you that Turner was one of the more educated, informed and yes, diverse-minded executives in Vinciquerra’s fold.  Championing concepts other than going back to the same IP wells that have dominated the mindsets of old school CEOs of late.

BAD BOYS is a worthy franchise that no doubt is being targeted to a diverse community, and its most recent theatrical iteration, released in early 2020 just before lockdown, was a smashing success.  But its TV series extension, L.A.’s FINEST, was no more succcessful nor resonant than anything that eminated from TriStar TV.  And thanks to the likes of Gabrielle Union, a LOT more expensive.  We spent a LOT of time discussing in detail her expense reports and, may I tell you, she used way more expensive car services than I ever did.

More importantly, Vinciquerra has not only made it clear that he is disinterested in Paramount+ (rightfully, to be sure), he legally cannot return to running the CBS interests once under his purview.   Their theatrical releases, save for TOP GUN MAVERICK, have been largely misses of late.  So while the IP and bulk are tempting, the track record of both studios of late isn’t necessarily reassuring for theatre owners.

And if you’ve ever seen the various versions of BEWITCHED that have been under consideration in the last few years, let’s just say the executives that remain employed while the likes of Turner depart don’t exactly offer any more reassurance of their own.   Probably not a BARBIE, an OPPENHEIMER or even a CHALLENGERS in that camp.

So should Sony Tony prevail in his quixotic quest for the Paramount studio, with the goal of consolidation and profitability first and foremost, we may get stuff to fill screens.  But will it be epic or inventive enough to get an increasingly lethargic public to care?

I can’t say I’m brimming with optimism.  But hey, at least he’ll have reason to be getting out more often.  And let’s hope he’ll at least choose to drive himself to the premieres.  Those car services can really add up.

Until next time…

 

 

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