Amy Pascal’s Hollywood Ending, Complete With Comeback Twist

Amy Pascal’s Hollywood Ending, Complete With Comeback Twist

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She added, “That job was my identity.”

Getting fired is bruising no matter how big the gig, but it packs an extra punch in Hollywood, a realm where power is assessed second by second. To make Ms. Pascal’s situation worse, her mother and father, with whom she was quite close, died in quick succession not long afterward.

Now comes the plot twist.

Ms. Pascal, a 59-year-old woman in an industry rife with sexism and ageism, seems to have emerged stronger and happier, having reinvented herself as a producer through her company, Pascal Pictures. She will deliver three films to three different studios this year, with more than a dozen more movies on the assembly line. On a personal level, after a lot of soul-searching, some in a therapist’s office, she has tried to see the hack as freeing. After all, she has no more secrets.

“My life is better now,” she said, pausing to pat her labradoodle, Sky, as scented candles burned nearby. “I would have never imagined I’d say that. But it’s the truth.”

Only Ms. Pascal knows how she is doing on the inside. But there is no doubt that she has regained her professional footing after her final years at Sony, when she found hits like “22 Jump Street” and “American Hustle” but also backed bombs like “After Earth,” “White House Down” and “How Do You Know.”

From left, Michelle Yeoh, Ms. Pascal and Steven Spielberg at the Hollywood premiere of “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005.

Ms. Pascal was a force behind “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which arrived in blockbuster fashion on Friday from Sony. She and Mark Gordon produced “Molly’s Game,” a movie set in the world of underground poker that is Aaron Sorkin’s directing debut and will roll out through STX Films on Nov. 22, the heart of Oscar season. Ms. Pascal is also producing Steven Spielberg’s next film, a Nixon-era newspaper drama called “The Papers,” which is already white-hot as an Oscar contender, in part because of President Trump’s war with the news media. Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, it will be released by 20th Century Fox on Dec. 22.

Ms. Pascal thinks she has finally cracked “Barbie” as a live-action comedy; negotiations are underway with an Oscar-winning actress for the tonally tricky title role. Pascal Pictures is also working on a “Spider-Man” spinoff called “Silver & Black,” about two female characters, Silver Sable and Black Cat; an adaptation of the hacker novel “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” with Claire Foy (“The Crown”) playing the lead; and a drama directed by Christopher McQuarrie and based on “Blood in the Water,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the 1971 Attica prison uprising.

“Amy has an extremely sharp film mind, but it’s really her passionate advocacy for scripts and for talent that will make her, I believe, one of the best producers this business has ever seen,” said Thomas E. Rothman, who succeeded Ms. Pascal as Sony’s movie chairman. Mr. Rothman, who has known Ms. Pascal for roughly 30 years, since they had adjoining offices at Columbia Pictures as junior executives, added, “Not only is she a survivor, she’s stronger than ever.”

Really? Or was he just being nice?

“I’m not that nice!” Mr. Rothman said with a laugh. “In all seriousness, she has moved on.”

Without question, Ms. Pascal got a running start as a producer. Her Sony exit package, worth as much as $40 million over four years, gave her dibs on some of the studio’s biggest projects, including “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Sony also pays Pascal Pictures an additional $9 million annually for overhead costs and discretionary script acquisition — the kind of rich deal that has largely vanished in a cost-conscious Hollywood.

A still from “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Ms. Pascal was a producer of the film, which arrived in blockbuster fashion on Friday.

Credit
Chuck Zlotnick/Columbia Pictures

Even so, the transition from studio mogul to producer is one of the most difficult pivots in show business. Producing requires hustle in a way that running a studio does not. Mustering the necessary self-motivation often proves impossible for older studio royals used to waving a scepter. The best producers put their own egos aside and let others shine. Climbing corporate rungs usually requires the opposite tactic.

Consider Sidney J. Sheinberg. After decades atop Universal Pictures, where he found megahits like “Jurassic Park” and “Back to the Future,” Mr. Sheinberg stepped aside in 1995 and was given a lavish producing deal. But the skills that made him a successful studio boss did not translate to producing. He floundered, delivering one bomb after another, including “McHale’s Navy” and “Slappy and the Stinkers.”

At least so far, Ms. Pascal has not fallen into a similar trap.

“It has been a challenge to be patient and allow myself to learn, especially at this ripe age,” she said. “There’s some discomfort in that. Starting over again means you have to shut up and listen. But you don’t want to because you want to show everybody that you know something even when you don’t.”

She continued: “You think you’re making a movie when you’re a studio executive, but you’re not. The bigger the job you have in Hollywood, the less you are actually connected to the creative process. You’re in budget meetings and talking about head count all day. Your life is reactive.”

In multiple interviews, Ms. Pascal came across as excited and engaged. She was not especially interested in rehashing the hack, but she did not shy away from it, either.

Even with almost three years to make sense of the cyberattack, which foreshadowed corporate and governmental hacking that has now become much more commonplace, Ms. Pascal said the events of late 2014 still seem too absurd to be true. The stealing and dissemination of some 38 million Sony files — medical records, salary lists, five entire movies — was described by the F.B.I. as likely retaliation by North Korea over a Sony comedy, “The Interview,” about the fictional assassination of the dictator Kim Jong-un.

Before the episode was over, Sony became entangled in a censorship fracas, with free-speech advocates and even Mr. Obama criticizing the studio for temporarily shelving “The Interview” as theater chains balked at showing it. Hollywood stood largely silent, allowing Sony and Ms. Pascal to twist in the wind.

Was she upset that more people did not publicly support her at the time?

“People were scared, and I understood that — I understand fear,” she said. “I forgave people, as I hope people forgave me.” She added, “A lot of people did stand by me, including people who didn’t have to.” Oprah Winfrey was one, despite Ms. Pascal’s distasteful jokes about Mr. Obama, which contradicted her long track record in backing black stars and filmmakers. Another was Adam Sandler, whom Ms. Pascal bashed in one hacked email.

Has she sifted through the stolen Sony emails posted online?

“I have never gone through it,” Ms. Pascal said. “But I assume that I’m the only one who hasn’t.”

Ms. Pascal, who is married to Bernard Weinraub, a former New York Times reporter, and has a 17-year-old son, Anthony, said she was thrilled to have more time to spend with her family. She even has a fun new wardrobe. The conservative corporate ensembles and pearls she wore as a studio chief have given way to bohemian outfits like a crushed-velvet wide-legged jumpsuit (worn to the “Spider-Man: Homecoming” premiere) and funky platform sneakers with fat pink laces.

“I’m at peace,” she said.

Ms. Pascal last month at the premiere of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” at TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

Credit
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

I noted that some of her producing projects seemed to suggest otherwise, including an adaptation of “Crash Override,” Zoe Quinn’s account of being targeted by the #GamerGate online mob. Ms. Pascal also has the film rights to Noah Hawley’s novel “Before the Fall,” which she described as being about “the media building you up and then destroying you.”

Maybe she was still working through some issues?

“I will always carry what happened with me,” she said. “There’s no other way. But you scrape as much grace as you possibly can off the ground and you move forward.”

Bryan Lourd, the Creative Artists Agency superagent and one of Ms. Pascal’s closest friends, raised his voice when I asked him whether she seemed fully engaged as a producer. “I literally got nine emails from her yesterday about a phone call that she wanted to set with an actor,” he said. “I finally told her she had to stop.” He sighed. “But did the call get set? Yes, it did.”

Mr. Lourd declined to identify the actor, and so did Ms. Pascal when I followed up with her. But the only question I really cared about was this one: Ms. Pascal is back on email?

“Oh, I went right back to emailing all the time,” she said. “I try not to say stupid things anymore. But what was I going to do? Write letters? Only talk on the phone, which I hate?”

Ms. Pascal climbed from a small production company, where she started as a secretary, to a palatial Sony office that once belonged to Louis B. Mayer. Unlike many of her male counterparts in Hollywood, she did not benefit from family connections. The daughter of a bookstore-running mother and an economist father, Ms. Pascal got her first job by answering a classified ad after attending the University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in international relations, with a specialty in Chinese foreign policy.

As she rose in Hollywood, gaining attention in the late 1980s for spotting the script that became “Earth Girls Are Easy,” with Geena Davis, and working on the drama “Less Than Zero,” Ms. Pascal logged time for a series of relentless bosses. Scott Rudin, the producer, was one, back when he ran production at Fox. (The Sony hack also exposed him as making racial jokes about Mr. Obama’s movie preferences; he and Ms. Pascal traded emails on the subject. Like Ms. Pascal, he apologized.)

“I never forgot that early training,” Ms. Pascal said. “When in doubt, work.”

So, when she lost the Sony throne, Ms. Pascal dove into producing as a remedy. Yes, she spent some time licking her wounds and leaning on family for support, including her younger sister, Jenny Pascal, a Los Angeles psychotherapist. But she set up a new office within days of her Sony departure and joined Ivan Reitman to remake “Ghostbusters.” It steered her mind away from self-pity, kept her focused on the future and soothed her bruised ego.

“Ghostbusters” did so-so at the box office, collecting $229 million worldwide, in part because online trolls attacked the film for casting women in the lead roles. But Ms. Pascal already had her next project, joining the Marvel wunderkind Kevin Feige to restart the “Spider-Man” series. Viewed as a risk — Spidey has been an overworked superhero — “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has the makings of a hit. Analysts say the film could take in $700 million worldwide, and a sequel is already planned with Ms. Pascal returning as a producer. (She is also producing an animated “Spider-Man” spinoff.)

Mr. Feige, who runs Marvel Studios, said Hollywood now sees Ms. Pascal as a role model for dealing with adversity. “There were times when someone would email us about something, and she would respond with detailed notes at 2 a.m. before I even had a chance to look,” he said. “She’s Amy Pascal. She has nothing to prove. But she believes she does.”

For her part, Ms. Pascal described her collaboration with Mr. Feige as an apprenticeship. “I learned about ‘plussing’ on this movie,” she said. “That’s Marvel’s favorite term. They look at something that is pretty good and figure out how to make it even better.”

Wait. Wasn’t it her job at Sony to make the best movies possible?

“Marvel is unique because it specializes,” she said. “When you’re running a big studio, you’re pulled in a thousand different directions and you sometimes forget that the most important thing is the movie. I don’t like saying that, but it’s the truth.”

Ms. Pascal’s producing projects are varied: superhero movies (“Silver & Black”), prestige-minded dramas (“The Papers”), bouncy comedies (“Barbie”). But almost every film on her docket involves female empowerment.

Embarrassed by media attention on its stark gender imbalance and encouraged by blockbuster results for movies like “Wonder Woman,” Hollywood is racing to champion female directors and characters. Ms. Pascal was often at her best as a studio executive when she was pushing ahead films dismissed by male counterparts as “chick flicks”: “A League of Their Own” (1992, a home run); “Little Women” (1994, Winona Ryder at her peak); “Charlie’s Angels” (2000, a sequel-spawning hit); “Julie & Julia” (2009, Meryl Streep’s 16th Oscar nomination.)

“I’m not trying to correct or counterbalance,” Ms. Pascal said, referring to male-dominated Hollywood. “I’m interested in women because I am a woman, and that’s what I understand.”

To illustrate her point, she turned to “The Papers,” which stars Ms. Streep as Katharine Graham, who hesitantly took over The Washington Post after her husband’s suicide in 1963. The screenplay finds Ms. Graham trying to catch up to The New York Times, which published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, enraging President Richard M. Nixon and leading to a landmark First Amendment court case, which prohibited the government from ordering that leaked information not be published.

“It’s first and foremost a movie about Katharine Graham, a woman who went from being a little bit of a mouse to a lion,” Ms. Pascal said. “And that, to me, was obviously really interesting. She had to struggle to decide to speak up.”

She added: “I know that woman. I’ve been that woman.”

I asked her to elaborate.

“You’re sitting in a business meeting, and you censor yourself because you don’t want the men sitting all around you to think that you are upstaging them,” she said. “You talk around your point. You find ways to make the men feel good even when they’re wrong.”

She laughed when I asked (full well knowing the answer) if she had experienced sexism in her career. “Yes, yes, yes,” she said. “You can’t be a woman in Hollywood and not experience sexism.” Discrimination? “It’s never overt,” she said.

Ms. Pascal began reminiscing about her career. Her love of movies may have come from her father, who took her to matinees growing up in Los Angeles. (Afterward, they would go to Philippe’s for French dip sandwiches.) But Ms. Pascal said it was women like Nora Ephron and the studio executive Dawn Steel who inspired her to slug it out in the heavily male studio ranks.

“I loved that job,” Ms. Pascal said of running Sony. “I never wanted to let it go. I loved it so much, to be honest, that I didn’t allow myself to believe that the movie business had moved on. But it had moved.”

She smiled. “And, now, so have I.”

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