NEW YORK (AP) — Over a January weekend in 2010, Amy Pascal made one of the most audacious decisions of her long tenure as Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair, a nine-year run that has come to a tumultuous end.
When "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi voiced his unhappiness with plans for a fourth installment of the $2.5 billion franchise Pascal had shepherded, she abruptly changed course, ordering up one of the fastest reboots in blockbuster history.
"I wasn't troubled by it," Pascal matter-of-factly said at the time. "The Amazing Spider-Man," with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, would hit theaters less than five years after "Spider-Man 3."
The episode epitomized Pascal's boldness, a trait that served her well as the most powerful female executive force in the industry, a studio head widely respected for championing women filmmakers (like Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers), producing ambitious awards-winners ("The Social Network"), churning out sharp comedies ("21 Jump Street") and creating some major blockbusters ("Skyfall").
But that same daring also contributed to her undoing. "The Interview," the film that provoked the North Korean hacking attack that precipitate Pascal's departure, was the kind of adventurous, star-driven film she loved to make, the kind other, less colorful executives would have surely balked at.
On Thursday, Sony announced that Pascal will step down in May, transitioning to a new production venture at the studio with a four-year contract. Pascal's contract was due for renewal in March, and her ouster was possible, maybe even likely (the "Spider-man" turnaround, for one, has underperformed and franchise-making is everything in studio-land).
But the timing was obvious enough. Coming just a few months after the massive hack hit Sony, Pascal's exit is the final blow in the messy fallout of the "Interview" scandal kicked off by hacker threats and fueled by embarrassing email leaks. It turned Pascal into a tabloid figure, tailed by TMZ cameras and pleading for forgiveness for racial remarks in emails in which she joked about President Obama's presumed taste in movies.
"In recent months, SPE faced some unprecedented challenges, and I am grateful for Amy's resilience and grace during this period," said Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, who for now becomes the temporary film production head.
Conjecture immediately began swirling at who may succeed Pascal, a Sony executive for nearly 20 years. The parent company in Japan, which has struggled in recent years, may look to shake up its movie business, or it could promote from within.
There are several strong candidates already on Sony's Culver City lot. Among them: Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad, TriStar Pictures head Tom Rothman (head of Fox until 2012), former DreamWorks executive Michael De Luca; and Jeff Robinov, the former Warner Bros. chief whose production company Studio 8 resides at Sony.
No matter who gets the job, a new studio head will have to:
— Set a plan for "Spider-man" (Sony most recently postponed a third installment to instead ready a "Sinister Six" spinoff for next year).
— Decide on the fate of Angelina Jolie's costly "Cleopatra."
— Sort out the studio's relationship with producer Scott Rudin (who famously tussled with Pascal in leaked emails over his Steve Jobs film).
Sony Pictures will finance Pascal's new production company for four years and retain all distribution rights worldwide.
"I have always wanted to be a producer," said Pascal in a statement. "Michael (Lynton) 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."
Though the hacking scandal surely contributed, some viewed Pascal's departure as inevitable more because some of her biggest releases ("White House Down," Will Smith's "After Earth") have struggled in recent years, and because time inevitably catches up to all studio heads.
"The fact that she's lasted this long is a small miracle," said David Poland, editor of MovieCityNews.com. He called her tenure "extraordinary," praising it for its diversity, from women-themed films to ScreenGem's horror releases.
Under Pascal's watch, Sony Pictures has amassed over $46 billion in global theatrical box-office revenue and 315 Academy Award nominations. But Pascal's ways have sometimes seemed outdated, as Sony struggled to build new franchises. The unspectacular $202.8 million domestic gross for "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" caused considerable consternation. "And The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" failed to spawn sequels.
Poland noted that many longtime standbys for Pascal (Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, Cameron Crowe) have either moved on or faded in popularity. "Her base, the power that she had in terms of filmmakers, kind of thinned out," he said.
Still, Damian Thong, an analyst at Macquarie Capital Securities in Tokyo where Sony Corp. is based, believes Pascal's future is bright.
"She's a woman of many talents," Thong said. "She has great relationships that are valuable to Sony in the future."
"Shake-ups are tough but sometimes they're necessary," said Paul Dergarabedian of box office tracker Rentrak. "This might open the door for a really tremendous future for the company."
The future of the corporatized movie studios, though, appears to be increasingly risk-adverse management, overseeing the careful global rollouts of franchises. Perhaps the only things that could have saved Pascal were a few more superheroes besides the web-slinger."
Film Writer Lindsey Bahr in Los Angeles and Business Writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP