Domestic Driver: Sony Pictures’ Adrian Smith earns humanitarian honor

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Active for years in philanthropic efforts like Variety The Children’s Charity and the Will Rogers Foundation, Adrian Smith, president of domestic distribution for Sony Pictures Releasing, is the recipient of ShowEast 2017’s “Salah M. Hassanein Humanitarian Award.” The honor also recognizes Smith’s great dedication to the industry and to Sony, where, since his appointment to his current post in 2013, he has led the domestic release of 18 number-one movies, includingSpectre, 22 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Magnificent Seven and two Spider-Man outings.

Both a man of the industry and a company man, Smith is also a dedicated son who expresses deep love and gratitude to a father who was long in the business and became his inspiration for his own career.

Based in L.A. on Sony’s Culver City lot, Smith has domestic distribution oversight, including Canada and Puerto Rico, for all Sony Pictures films, including those from the Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Animation labels. Overseeing about 55 to 60 employees, he’s enthusiastic about his team, describing them as “a great group of people and truly talented. They do the heavy lifting and keep me out of trouble.”

Adjusting to the times that, Smith reminds, “have radically changed and continue to evolve,” he observes, “Today we’re in a binary world that has huge successes and films that tremendously underperform. So you have to be more calculated. Either they’re buying or they’re not, so one of the major challenges is to fight for existence in the marketplace and we’re working through this. With release schedules so crowded, it’s gotten harder to find dates.”

Even with these challenges, “the studio is moving in the right direction and we’re coming off one of our best years globally at the summer box office.”

Smith caps his upbeat take by citing as an example the success of Baby Driver. “It’s so much fun and the soundtrack is fabulous. It’s very original and that kind of original content is so important to success at the box office.”

Asked what drew him to the business, he answers that he grew up in it. “After my father moved out to California, he became a stagehand at the Cow Palace, then along the way went to work for Fox West Coast theatres and Mann Theatres. So I really grew up on the theatre side and was immediately interested in it.”

Smith began his career at Mann Theatres in 1976. “I was an usher at the Mann in Westwood, then a manager, but I wanted to get a studio job. So I kept calling Byron Shapiro at MGM and [in 1979] he gave me a job at UA as a booker in the sales department.”

Smith says that one of the most important lessons he took from exhibition to the selling side was “the work ethic. It was seven days a week and holidays. And just being around it all my life and around my dad who is my big hero were so helpful.”

After Smith transitioned to the sales department at United Artists, he joined 20th Century Fox in 1983 and was next appointed branch manager at Cannon Releasing in 1985. The Cannon period was valuable because, he says, “at Cannon you did everything, so there was so much to be learned.”

His Sony Pictures march began in 1989 as Western district manager for TriStar Pictures. Eleven years later, he was named senior VP and Western division manager for Sony Pictures Releasing. In 2011, Smith was appointed executive VP and general sales manager, rising to president two years later.

Smith expresses excitement over two Columbia tentpoles. First is Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (3D), in which four teens are catapulted into a videogame’s jungle setting and emerge as avatars played by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan. The reboot of the 1995 fantasy hit opens wide on Dec. 20. The other Sony film he cites is Blade Runner 2049, its mention not just reflecting Smith’s obvious enthusiasm as a big fan of the franchise but as a dedicated Sony company man, since this sequel, which Sony co-financed and has for overseas, is in Warner Bros.’ hands domestically.

Smith also singles the Oct. 20 release Only the Brave, a patriotic salute to the first-responder Colorado firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Josh Brolin, Miles Teller and Jeff Bridges star. On Nov. 17, Sony Pictures Animation’s The Star hits screens with perfect holiday timing, as its story follows the adventures of some beautiful animals who become part of the Christmas story. November also has what Smith believes is an awards contender: Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq., starring Denzel Washington as a Los Angeles attorney offered a job at a prestigious law firm after the death of his longtime partner and taking on a case that has life-altering repercussions. Nor does Smith shortchange Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (in limited release on Dec. 8), which has Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty.

Early 2018 is packed with promise for a broad range of audience tastes, thanks to the adventure comedy Peter Rabbit, starring James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne, Insidious: The Last Key, Proud Mary and White Boy Rick, among others. Nearing summer, Sony has Slender Man and Sicario 2: Soldado. And Hotel Transylvania 3 (3D) will hopefully cast a spell in mid-July before Barbie works her charms in August.

With so much promising product in the pipeline, Smith still remains aware of “more competition and an audience that is more selective. There are so many things competing for time and entertainment dollars, so one of our primary challenges is to find the right dates week after week for our films entering the marketplace.”

And how might exhibition help with this daunting challenge? Answers Smith, acknowledging that so much has already been done, “The exhibition community has been doing such a great job with things like more comfortable and luxurious seating and better concession offerings. And the service is great!”

Upbeat in a way that seizes so many in this exciting business, Smith expresses his gratitude for being lucky to have grown up in the industry. He’s especially amused at being a Hassanein honoree working at the top of Sony: “Here I am at Sony, working in the Thalberg building, which, back when, was where Byron Shapiro, who gave me my first studio job, was working!”

Established in 1987, the Salah M. Hassanein Humanitarian Award is presented each year to a company or individual in the industry that has made an impact in the philanthropic community. Smith joins an illustrious list of past recipients including Tim Warner, Charley Moss, Kyle Davies, Richie Fay and Kurt Hall.