Sony woes stir studio concerns

By Published on .

Sony Pictures Entertainment's well-publicized marketing debacle is causing concern in the industry that the incident may draw heat from regulators.

"It does scare me," said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures. "The best defense we had against government regulation is that we are a self-regulated industry. However, if we start to prove we are imbeciles, that's a large invitation for the government to step in and do it for us."

Sony's black eye came after revelations that its marketing executives were making up comments and attributing them to a fictitious critic named David Manning of the Ridgefield Press (a real Connecticut newspaper) for at least four movies over last year-"The Animal," "A Knight's Tale," "Vertical Limit," and "Hollow Man."

Additionally, it was discovered that Sony used its own employees in on-air testimonials to promote last year's summer movie, "The Patriot." (Separately, it was reported that Fox Searchlight did something similar in 1998 for "Waking Ned Devine.")

Sony's questionable movie-marketing practices have led the Federal Trade Commission, which rarely comments on advertising cases, to take the unusual step of issuing a statement. "While we can't comment on any particular case or company, clearly if the alleged conduct is true, it is troubling," said Lee Peeler, associate director of advertising practices. The Connecticut state attorney general is also looking into the matter, and a class-action suit has been filed in Los Angeles against Sony.

BEYOND SONY

The situation reflects on the industry beyond Sony, however, said Mr. Shmuger. "This is about a whole larger cultural issue in which the whole business is about never taking no for an answer," said Mr. Shmuger. "It is about, `If the rules are in the way, you need to break them."'

The brouhaha could affect two of Sony's upcoming movies, "Final Fantasy," based on a video game, and "American Sweethearts," a Julia Roberts romantic comedy directed by Joe Roth, who runs Revolution Studios, which has a distribution deal with Sony. Executives said the marketing of these films could be hampered as the studio's every advertising decision will now be scrutinized.

Other studios are also paying closer attention to even mundane marketing details for their current releases. Many studio marketing departments, such as Universal, have already held department-wide meetings urging their staff to think twice about cutting corners.

The Sony situation bears down particularly on Jeff Blake, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Sony Pictures Entertainment, who has had a hands-off attitude in taking over Sony's marketing department after the ouster of Bob Levin, president of marketing, last fall. (Mr. Levin is now president-worldwide theatrical marketing and distribution for MGM Distribution Co.) Mr. Blake wouldn't talk to Advertising Age concerning this article; a Sony spokeswoman had no comment.

After the David Manning debacle, Mr. Blake gave a 30-day suspension to Josh Goldstine, Sony's senior executive VP-marketing, as well as Director of Creative Advertising Matthew Cramer, for their alleged parts in creating comments from the fictitious critic. Sony said neither executive had a comment for this article. There is a David Manning, but he is reportedly a college friend of Mr. Cramer and not a critic.

That's led to speculation that Mr. Goldstine wasn't culpable. "Josh wasn't involved, but Josh took the fall, and frankly so should have Jeff Blake," said Chris Pula, former president of marketing at New Line Cinema, Buena Vista Pictures, and Warner Bros.

Executives say Mr. Goldstine demanded to take a lie-detector test to prove his innocence, but Sony executives refused.

Indications point to Sony hiring a new chief marketing executive to help restore stability to the department. Industry executives cite Geoffrey Ammer, who is the head of marketing/publicity for Revolution Studios, as a good candidate because his boss, Mr. Roth, wields big power at Sony, and could be in line for the top executive job at the studio.

However, there may be a problem with that theory. Revolution's "The Animal" used a David Manning quote in one of its print ads-and Mr. Ammer, as well as Blaise Noto, exec VP-publicity, promotions and field operations for Sony Pictures, should have had to approve the quote, according to industry executives. "I want to know why Geoffrey Ammer and Blaise Noto didn't know," asked Mr. Pula. "They are supposed to check [the quotes]." Mr. Ammer didn't want to comment; Mr. Noto didn't return phone calls by press time.

Still another marketing executive didn't believe there was any wrongdoing by either Mr. Noto or Mr. Ammer, noting that both could have been vetoed by more-senior-level executives. "I am convinced this was a joke," said the marketing executive. "You don't need a quote to sell a movie like `The Animal.' It was joke by someone at Sony, so they could say they got their friend's name in the newspapers."

Contributing: Ira Teinowitz

In this article:
Most Popular