Sony gives literary film division, axed by Disney, a second life

The film executive behind book-to-film blockbusters like “Life of Pi” and “The Devil Wears Prada” will rebuild her operation at Sony Pictures after being jettisoned by Walt Disney Studios.

Sony and HarperCollins Publishers said Monday that they would finance a yet-to-be-named venture run by the executive, Elizabeth Gabler, who is considered Hollywood’s foremost bridge to the New York publishing world. Gabler, 63, was previously president of Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, which Disney absorbed in March as part of a $71.3 billion deal with Rupert Murdoch.

In addition to “Life of Pi” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” Fox 2000 hits include “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Hidden Figures,” “Marley & Me” and the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.

To the surprise of many in Hollywood — Gabler in particular — Disney immediately pulled the plug on Fox 2000; Disney had signalled for months that it intended to keep it running. Disney insiders asserted that Gabler’s operation was too expensive and that her track record at the box office had grown spotty amid the film industry’s shift toward fantasy franchises.

“The Hate U Give” was one recent Fox 2000 disappointment, costing roughly $50 million to make and market and collecting $35 million worldwide last year, about half of which went to theatre owners.

“This re-establishes us as a big buyer,” Gabler said, referring to her all-female Fox 2000 team, which she will take with her to the new division.

Gabler emphasised that her new Sony label would also develop films based on books from publishers other than HarperCollins and that she could make movies for third-party distributors if Sony passed. For the first time, she will also be able to develop books for television, including Netflix and other streaming services.

Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, came up with the idea of joining forces with Sony.

“We thought we could play a greater role as a facilitator, increasing the odds that HarperCollins authors could see their books turned into compelling films, television, streaming opportunities,” Murray said. With the rise of streaming, there has been a steep increase in the number of books being developed for films or shows, he noted. Netflix alone will spend roughly $8 billion on original content next year, according to BTIG Research. Hulu and Amazon are expected to spend an estimated $3 billion apiece.

Sony said Gabler’s focus on new books as sources for modestly budgeted films made her a must-have executive, complementing the studio’s primary business of big-budget remakes, spinoffs and sequels. Sony’s most recent movie, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” is on a pace to collect at least $1.1 billion worldwide.

“We love our superheroes, but new intellectual property is also really important, and throughout the history of Hollywood, literary intellectual property has always flourished,” Thomas E. Rothman, chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group, said. “This is an innovative way to give Sony early access to HarperCollins authors. To work with Elizabeth, who is a superstar, makes authors feel not just comfortable but fortunate.”

Rothman, who has orchestrated a turnaround at Sony in recent years, beat out a competing bid from Paramount Pictures, which has been working on a comeback of its own.

Gabler is expected to take a half-dozen projects from Fox 2000 with her. On Aug. 9, Disney will release a completed film she left behind, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” based on Garth Stein’s 2008 novel, which was published by HarperCollins.

Gabler acknowledged that the box office had shifted toward franchise spectacles in the Netflix age, making it harder for dramas and comedies based on books to break through. But she rejected the notion that such films were no longer viable in theatres.

“A bestselling book brings enormous audience pre-awareness,” she said, noting that Stein’s “Art of Racing in the Rain” had sold more than 8 million copies.

Gabler previously worked for Rothman, who resigned as chairman of Fox’s movie group in 2012 after a long run. HarperCollins, part of Murdoch’s News Corp., was a corporate sibling to Fox in that era, but there was not an official system of funnelling books to the studio, Rothman said.

“I’ve wanted this equivalent of a Disneyland FastPass for a long time,” he said, referring to the new setup with HarperCollins.

One of the big five publishers, HarperCollins has had several breakout hits recently, including Rachel Hollis’ self-help books “Girl, Wash Your Face” and “Girl, Stop Apologising.” In its recent earnings for the third quarter of the 2019 fiscal year, HarperCollins reported a 29% rise in earnings from the same period in 2018.