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How Did Sony Animation Hire An Exec Who Bought An Emoji Movie Pitch?

Kristine Belson has led Sony Picture Animation's animation division since January.
Kristine Belson has led Sony Picture Animation’s animation division since January.

Few big-studio animation projects have generated as much mockery and derision as Sony’s recent announcement that it would develop an animated feature based around emoji. The news even entered the mainstream, becoming the subject of a sketch on the late-night talkshow Jimmy Kimmel Live, an ignominious achievement for a project that hasn’t even begun development much less been greenlit:

The criticism is, of course, premature. Next to nothing is known about the project at this moment, and audiences will have to wait for some time before being able to assess whether the film (if it even gets that far) can transcend its concept like Warner Bros.’ The Lego Movie or if it’ll be another Sony bomb like Pixels.

Just one thing is clear at this point: all the credit (or blame) will fall on the shoulders of Sony Pictures Animation’s new president Kristine Belson, who bought the idea from Tony Leondis, late of DreamWorks Animation, where they were both working together on the aborted B.O.O.: Bureau Of Otherworldly Operations. While execs develop many films that never reach the screen, this project had the unfortunate distinction of being her first publicly announced project since taking over Sony Animation’s animation division from the ineffectual Bob Osher last January.

With so much discussion surrounding Belson’s first announced project, I thought it would be interesting to explore how she wound up getting the job in the first place. Belson, as we already know thanks to the Sony leaks, was not the studio’s first choice: they wanted Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who turned down the job.

But there’s much more to the story that hasn’t been discussed. A previously unreported email from the Sony leak, now available in the Sony archive on Wikileaks, reveals a frank discussion between Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairwoman Amy Pascal and Sony TriStar head Tom Rothman as they batted around possible candidates to run their animation division. The email exchange from last November sheds unprecedented insights into how live-action studio executives approach the hiring of feature animation executives.

Tom Rothman and Amy Pascal. (Photos: Shutterstock.com)
Tom Rothman and Amy Pascal. (Photos: Shutterstock.com)

Pascal opened the conversation by suggesting that Sony’s top animation spot could go to Karen Rosenfelt, an executive producer on the Alvin and the Chipmunks theatrical series, as well as the Twilight series and other assorted films like Yogi Bear, Marley & Me, and The Devil Wears Prada.

Rothman immediately nixed the idea, responding just seven minutes later:

I think she is a good, old school, dogged, studio system, material driven producer. She gets material and then she pushes up the hill and keeps pushing. And she never gives up. But nor does she really add any other value. No meaningful talent relationships eg. Not particularly brilliant developer.

If you are thinking about her for the animation job, id say def no. Not remotely imaginative enough…

Pascal followed up with an email identifying the key traits that she was looking for in a top animation exec. Those traits were:

  • Someone special
  • A lot to prove
  • Ultra creative
  • Knows animation and visual effects
  • Speaks the right language
  • Producer personality
  • Would get confidence of my guys Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord], Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg, who are creating the feature Sausage Party], Simon Cowell [who is developing a film at Sony called Finn], [Adam] Sandler, RUSSOS [referring to Anthony and Joe Russo who directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier]
  • Really ambitious

She then identified her problem: most animation studios are led by owners or key individuals who were there from the beginning: Ed Catmull and John Lasseter at Pixar, Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks, Chris Meledandri at Illumination. “So I gotta come at it different,” Pascal concluded.

Rothman agreed with Pascal saying that the person Pascal wanted “is almost imposs[ible] to ‘hire.'” Rothman used his own experience from his lengthy run as the head of 20th Century Fox, explaining that all of Fox Animation and Blue Sky’s key talent was grown inside the studio “up through the ranks,” not recruited from the outside. As examples, he cites Blue Sky directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, former Fox Animation president Chris Meledandri and current president Vanessa Morrison.

Rothman said that’s how Pixar and DreamWorks Animation do it too because animation is “such a unique discipline and live action folks just don’t get it.” Rothman then offered Pascal four options:

1.Is there anyone in the current operation who could step up?

2.Otherwise, I think you prob have to try to raid Jeffrey [Katzenberg], tho I don’t know who there is really all around star since he does everything himself…

3.What if you offered Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord] “ownership” somehow? They are, by far and way, the home run solution.

4.What about hanna [Minghella] taking it over? Is she driven enough? A great, driven, creatively energetic, strategic, passionate exec can do it.

Hannah Minghella, the 36-year-old daughter of director Anthony Minghella, seems like a particularly odd choice. She was Sony Animation’s president of production between 2008 and 2010, and has no obvious animation qualifications, credits, or experience beyond that stint. Yet, in the inscrutable world of Hollywood politics, she seems to be an all-star candidate to run an animation division. Regarding Minghella, Pascal says that she “begged hanna but because that is where she came from she really sees it as a step backward.”

Rothman responds that Minghella doesn’t understand the possibilities of the role:

She is so wrong. She would be RUNNING IT. (you would have to part with bob [Osher]). And there is no place for her to go UP inside this studio, or others for that matter, as she doesn’t have the full skill set to run a whole studio. Its actually the single best shot for her future, and in a pure growth area.

And that’s the end of the email thread.

A lot has happened since these emails were sent. For starters, Pascal stepped down from her position after the fallout from the leak, and Rothman took over the top spot at Sony.

Rothman’s suggestion of raiding Katzenberg’s studio appears to have been Sony’s eventual course of action. By acquiring Belson, they brought aboard a producer involved with some of DreamWorks’ most popular recent efforts like The Croods and How to Train Your Dragon. (It’s interesting to note that Belson, like the other two women candidates mentioned by name — Minghella and Rosenfelt — comes from a Hollywood family with a father who held a prominent position in the film business.)

Rothman, especially, appears to understand well the challenges of building an animation management team. The most remarkable part of the email exchange is when he writes that live-action people “just don’t get” animation, something that no major studio executive would dare to ever utter publicly.

However, for all of Rothman’s shrewd understanding of the film world, his discussions with Pascal revolve around a shallow and uninspiring pool of candidates like Minghella and Rosenfelt who epitomize the live-action execs who don’t get animation. Lord and Miller would have been interesting choices, but seeing their passion to produce and direct their own ideas, they are obviously not ready to settle down into a management role. Belson, for the moment, seems to be a promising, albeit safe, choice. She has multiple well regarded animation features under her belt and could yet make a positive impact on Sony’s animation division, especially if she buries the emoji idea before it’s too late.

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