LOS ANGELES – When activist investor Daniel Loeb announced in October he’d sold his Sony Corp. stake, executives at the company’s Culver City, California, studio lot expressed relief.
“Sit by the side of the river long enough, and the bodies of your enemies will float by,” Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s TriStar Productions venture, wrote in an Oct. 21 email to Michael Lynton, Sony’s top U.S. executive, and Amy Pascal, who runs the film business. The message is among thousands of documents released this month by hackers who targeted the entertainment unit.
“Champagne for all,” wrote Sony Pictures Chief Financial Officer David Hendler on Oct. 9 after finding out that Loeb had sold.
Any comfort taken from the exit of Loeb, who agitated for cost cuts, restructuring and better governance at Tokyo-based Sony, may have been premature. Earlier that month, Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai and CFO Kenichiro Yoshida scheduled lunch with Lynton to discuss lowering overhead and streamlining the electronics company’s global structure.
“This email is to inform you in advance the topics of discussion,” Yoshida wrote in an Oct. 3 email to Lynton.
Among the agenda items:
Whether to make structural changes at Sony Entertainment, the film, television and music unit that Lynton leads as CEO, as part of a global plan to streamline Sony;
Under the topic Business Portfolio: Yoshida wanted Lynton’s thoughts on Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the joint venture with Michael Jackson’s estate, “which has a rather complex capital and governance structure, and is impacted by the market shift to streaming”;
Modifying the compensation plans of Sony Entertainment executives to introduce mid-range incentives; and
The future of Sony Corp. of America, the unit that sits atop Sony’s U.S. video-game, electronics, mobile-phone, and entertainment businesses as part of an overlapping corporate structure.
“They want to disband SCA,” Lynton wrote in an email to Pascal, referring to Sony Corp. of America.
Spokesmen for Sony Corp., Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony Music declined to comment.
After the Oct. 8 meeting, Lynton sent Pascal a follow-up: “Meeting pretty rough,” said one email. “We are just not making enough money.” “As a company.” “Too much overhead. Not enough hits.”
Sony Entertainment has been under pressure since May 2013, when Loeb bought a stake in Sony and proposed a partial spinoff of the entertainment unit. As an independent company, the maker of “Spider-Man” movies would benefit from more disciplined management, investor attention and fatter profits, and lift Sony’s market value by ¥724 billion, Loeb wrote in a letter to Hirai at the time.
Hirai was able to fend off the plan, but committed Sony Entertainment to increasing its financial disclosure and about ¥35.6 billion of annual cost cuts by March 2016. Third Point, based in New York, reported on Oct. 21 that it had exited its Sony investment. By then, the demands Loeb had made months earlier were already a major influence within Sony.
“We are virtually a public company and we have made promises to Sony and the Street as to what we will deliver for the next three years,” Lynton wrote in an Oct. 3 email with “a reflection” in the subject line. “I did not want to be in this situation, but events have overtaken us and so here we are.”
In an email, Loeb declined to comment.
In the Oct. 3 email, Lynton directs Pascal not to take any “risky or marginal bets” on the film slate in 2016 until the studio has built a “bedrock” of major movies that include “Ghostbusters” and “Inferno,” a thriller planned for October of that year.
Weeks later, Sony reported a ¥142.4 billion quarterly loss that was seven times greater than a year earlier after the company lost ground to rivals in the mobile-phone market.
On Nov. 18, Sony said its pictures unit would increase revenue to between ¥1.18 trillion and ¥1.30 trillion in the year ending in March 2018, from ¥96.1 billion now, and it would boost operating-profit margin to as much as 8 percent from 6.6 percent.
Sony Pictures includes the film and TV content businesses.
“Aiming for top-line growth in pictures is positive, but its profit levels remain low compared to overseas rivals,” Masahiro Ono, an analyst with Morgan Stanley MUFG Research Japan, said in a Nov. 19 research note. “This will continue to be a valuation discount factor.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.