It took less than three months for Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal to get the sacrificial axe after her manic, controversial, caps lock-happy leaked emails made her the biggest target at the top of the Sony Pictures food chain during the studio’s Christmastime cyber-terrorism crisis.
Come May, the woman who worked her way up from production secretary to development exec to co-lead Sony’s film and television branches to over $46 billion in global box office and 315 Oscar nominations will still be on the Culver City lot. But she’ll be relegated to rolling solo as a producer with her own shingle, in a four-year contract financed by the studio she ran with Michael Lynton for nearly a decade.
“Ms. Pascal who joined Columbia Pictures in 1988, said that after several decades as a senior executive at Sony Pictures, she had decided to launch her own company that would focus on movies, television and theater,” Sony surprise-announced Thursday morning.
The studio even framed the move as a voluntary life choice, in terms more often used for the dearly departed: “Pascal will transition to the new venture in May 2015.”
The timing may have taken Tinseltown by surprise but Pascal’s departure came as a shock to no one. And if Pascal was nervous to drop her news bomb Thursday morning, she didn’t show it 12 hours earlier as she addressed a crowd of predominantly black journalists and filmmakers Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
The exiting Sony exec was all smiles as she sat with longtime pal and colleague Stephanie Allain—just a few tables away from Selma director Ava DuVernay, who in December called Pascal and Rudin’s Obama comments “sickening and sad.”
Presenting Hustle & Flow producer and LA Film Festival director Allain with a special achievement award, Pascal took a trip down memory lane to the late ‘80s when the two women met while working at 20th Century Fox, where Pascal was a junior exec. “I didn’t last very long at Fox,” she laughed.
“I worked for Scott Rudin. And since you all know about my relationship with Scott Rudin you can imagine how much fun that was,” Pascal joked, referencing her infamous leaked emails.
In that era Pascal and Allain stood on the shoulders of mentor Dawn Steel, one of the first women to head production at a major Hollywood studio. Steel became President of Columbia Pictures in 1987, and Pascal followed.
“This was about 1988 and studios were a little different then,” Pascal recalled of her time coming up with fellow execs like Allain and Tom Rothman, who would go on to head 20th Century Fox and create Fox Searchlight. “We would go on retreats… I remember one retreat, jumping over a fence and going skinny dipping. We were younger, and it was different.”
“We watched Dawn in action and she was a sight to behold,” Pascal said. “She could make grown men cry. She made everybody cry, actually, but we loved her. That was a very different time in our business because women were not well respected, or treated very well.”
Steel’s tumultuous tenure at Columbia was famously short-lived. She departed after two years and formed her own production company, Atlas Entertainment, with fellow producer Charles Roven.
“By this time, Scott Rudin had been fired from Fox and he was a producer on our lot… and then Dawn got fired,” said Pascal.
“It’s a great job, if you’re interested,” she quipped sarcastically.
With the business-minded Michael Lynton acting as the left brain to her right, Pascal has served since 2006 as co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment as well as chairman of Sony’s film studio, guiding blockbuster hits including the James Bond films Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, The Da Vinci Code, and the nearly $4 billion-grossing Spider-Man franchise. She also made Sony a filmmaker-friendly home for auteurs like Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), David Fincher (The Social Network), and David O. Russell (American Hustle), bringing Oscar gold and artistic cred to Sony.
But 2013 rang in a year of expensive box office fails, like the $130 million-budgeted Will Smith sci-fier After Earth and the Presidential actioner White House Down—two prominent flops that then-7 percent Sony stakeholder Daniel Loeb used to lambast Lynton and Pascal’s leadership.
And then Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Kim Jong Un-skewering The Interview inched closer to release, and the hackers struck.
Pascal’s breezy use of emails to do business was made embarrassingly public last winter by cyber terrorists who waged a takedown of Sony by leaking the company’s trade secrets, snarky shade from Pascal’s inbox thrown at the likes of Angelina Jolie and Kevin Hart, and the compromised personal data of more than 47,000 past and current Sony employees.
The coup de grâce, of course, came in the form of leaked emails between Pascal and producer Scott Rudin mocking President Obama, which set off a firestorm of racism accusations and successfully diverted the Sony hack story into a media frenzy. The reportedly horrified Pascal apologized publicly but never fully recovered from the PR blow.
Color of Change, a civil rights organization behind a petition to fire Pascal that collected nearly 40,000 signatures, on Thursday applauded the news of Pascal’s exit as “the right decision” and “an important step” toward progress. To many it was the only ceremonial offering Sony Corporation CEO Kaz Hirai could make to begin rebuilding Sony out of the digital rubble.
Now, like Steel, Rudin, and more recently Rothman—who resigned as chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment in 2012, joined the Sony fold heading the relaunched TriStar Productions, and is now reportedly one of several would-be successors who could replace Pascal—the exiting studio boss is taking the most golden of parachutes as Sony starts piecing its business back together.
Although the well-liked Pascal’s departure came as a surprise even to Sony employees Thursday, she’ll continue to work on Sony projects including the all-female Ghostbusters reboot she helped Paul Feig dream-cast and the continuing Spider-Man franchise.
“I have spent almost my entire professional life at Sony Pictures and I am energized to be starting this new chapter based at the company I call home,” said Pascal in her statement Thursday morning. “I have always wanted to be a producer. Michael and I have been talking about this transition for quite some time and I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to pursue my long-held dream and for providing unparalleled support. As the slate for the next 2 years has come together, it felt like the right time to transition into this new role. I am so grateful to my team, some of whom I have worked with for the last 20 years and others who have joined more recently. I am leaving the studio in great hands. I am so proud of what we have all done together and I look forward to a whole lot more.”