Conversations: MICHAEL LYNTON

Michael Lynton, chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, visited Wesleyan in the spring to talk to students interested in working in the film and television industry at a luncheon arranged by the Wesleyan Career Center. Lynton, who is married to Jamie Alter ’81, manages Sony Pictures’ overall global operations and spoke to Wesleyan magazine about some current trends in the film business.

David Low: What do you think is the most disruptive or interesting change taking place in the film industry now?

Michael Lynton: Two things: On the distribution side, streaming movies is an enormous factor going forward. I don’t think it will fundamentally change the business. It may be less or more profitable than the DVD or pay television window. And it will certainly not replace the theater, which is the primary way people initially see movies. But it will definitely be a major factor.

From an artistic standpoint, I think that 3D is probably going to be a hugely defining technology for movies, and from what we’ve seen to date, there are some movies that have obviously done it with great artistry and great effect. There are others that have been tack-ons done to increase the box office. We’re basically at the infancy of what 3D will be in movies.

Martin Scorsese is making his first movie in 3D. Steven Spielberg is making a movie now in 3D. You’re going to see directors who embrace it and those who don’t. I’m not suggesting that everything will be 3D, but it will definitely change the kinds of movies that are being made and how people see them.

DL: How quickly do you think this is going to happen?

ML: I think it will sneak up on us. Clearly, movies like Avatar have defined a certain standard for 3D. I haven’t seen Scorsese’s movie yet, and I’m intrigued because he is doing live action and that will be entirely different.

DL: Not only is Scorsese doing it, but now The Great Gatsby is going to be filmed in 3D by Baz Luhrmann. This is really a shift in direction in terms of dramatic films.

ML: I believe that the aspiration of these directors is to heighten the emotional elements of drama through 3D. We have to see is whether that is the case or not because up until now, the best 3D has been where you immerse yourself in an environment. But it hasn’t necessarily added to the dramatic effect of two characters having a conversation or having an emotional relationship with one another, and I think that’s another step along the way.

DL: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which you developed, may lead to two more movies based on the books. Sony also is involved with the recent James Bond movies. How do you know when you have a project that will work as a franchise?

ML: James Bond is unique in the world of franchises. But franchises have become increasingly important to the studios. Primarily because of the way the economics of the business is set up today, you really need movies that work not just in a big way here in the United States, but also in a big way all over the world. What we have lost in DVD revenue over the last few years, we have to make up in international box office. Fortunately, certain markets have grown enormously, including Russia and Korea and now China.

It’s typically these big franchise movies that do exactly that. Particularly outside the United States, brands are incredibly important—whether those brands are the titles of the movies or the big movie stars. When you have one of them, you never know that it’s going to be successful, but at least you have a better shot at it being big.

How do you know whether it’s going to be a franchise? I would argue you don’t until all of a sudden you have one on your hands. You don’t know that something is going to become very big or even midsize until the audience shows up, and you realize that you can make a sequel. We have a couple of midsize franchises, like Resident Evil or Underworld. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is obviously a different case because you’ve got three hugely popular books sitting there. Presumably, readers are curious to know how those characters are going to be portrayed in the movie.

DL: Would you talk about how Sony got involved with The Social Network?

ML: We all fell in love with the script, my partner [co-chairman] Amy Pascal, in particular. It was a difficult one to get our arms around for a lot of reasons. There’s no clear sympathetic character. It deals with moral ambiguity clearly. There are multiple truths in the movie, multiple points of view. So you’re never sure who is right and who is wrong. You’re also working with people who are very much alive today and a phenomenon that’s sort of taken over the world.

I think everybody successfully navigated those waters to create a really fine movie with great performances. And the audience found the movie. We marketed the movie, but the movie spoke for itself. The most surprising thing to me was not just the fact that the audience found the movie here domestically, but that they found it in an even bigger way internationally because it’s a very talky movie. Right out of the gate, it’s nothing but dialogue. And typically any movie that’s dialogue heavy and action free is not going to attract an audience outside the United States.

DL: Do you think a film’s success today has less to do with big stars than in the past?

ML: Outside the United States—and we had this experience with The Tourist—movie stars, the big movie stars who are genuinely worldwide box office stars, still have enormous appeal and resonance. In this case, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp will probably do twice the business outside the United States compared to what we did inside the United States.

I think the universe of people who are genuinely movie stars is quite small. It’s probably at most 10 people, or less than that. There was a period when there may have been more or we in Hollywood may have kidded ourselves into believing that there were more.

I think also there are roles that movie stars are great in and that people want to come and see them in. If stars at times decide that they for whatever artistic reason want to try something else, which is not what their audience wants them to do, that audience won’t necessarily show up even for an enormous movie star.

DL: What do you think about the role of film studies in liberal arts education?

ML: I would have thought that with the advent of DVDs and the ability for everybody to see anything they want at any time, film literacy would have gone up in the last 10 or 15 years, and quite the opposite is the case. What we find is that young people who are coming to visit us for jobs at the studio are remarkably ignorant about some of the great filmmakers—Hitchcock or Cukor, the list goes on and on and on.

Given the film illiteracy that I’m witnessing among this generation, it’s incumbent on liberal arts colleges to teach it. Because what happens now is young people show up in our office or in the office of other studios or various other places around Los Angeles, and the first thing is they’re given 100 to 150 movies on DVD and they’re told to watch them. People are going to reference these movies when you’re developing a script or when you’re making a movie and the fact that you don’t know these movies, that’s just not proper preparation.

I would argue that the liberal arts education is so important because it really does come down to storytelling—to having a narrative. The more stories you’ve read, whether or not you’re a literature major, or the more you know about history, or the more you understand about science, which introduces itself into movies all the time, the better perspective you’re going to bring to the process of making movies, or TV shows for that matter. The person who shows up with a really good liberal arts education who can speak intelligently about a lot of different things has enormous assets to bring. UPFRONT