Celebrating Adrian Smith: The Executive Looks Back on Three Decades at Sony Pictures Entertainment

Adrian Smith began his career in the entertainment industry over 40 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father in the exhibition business. Chalk it up to teenage rebellion, but Smith always had his eye on joining the distribution side of the business. “Since I can recall, I always wanted to work at a studio,” he tells Boxoffice. “Not only at a studio, but specifically in distribution.”

As time would tell, distribution was not a fleeting fancy for Smith. The executive has had a distinguished career in that side of the business since joining the sales department of United Artists in 1979. This year, Smith is celebrating his 40th anniversary in distribution and 30th at his current company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, which he originally joined back in 1989 under TriStar. In 2000, Smith was named senior vice president and western division manager for Sony Pictures Releasing. By 2011, he was appointed executive vice president and general sales manager, overseeing domestic sales for the studio. Smith was promoted to president of domestic distribution in 2013.

To mark these milestones, Boxoffice asked Smith to tell us about his 30 years at Sony—and his more than four decades in entertainment.

How did your early experience in exhibition influence your career in distribution?

I always look back on that time as such a great learning experience. In particular, it’s important for those in distribution to have an understanding of the exhibition community and what it’s like to work in a theater. An understanding of what it’s like for exhibitors running their own business, what they’re dealing with on a daily basis on the front lines. I have a great deal of respect for exhibitors and people who work in theaters. They have great impact on creating customers for the future and creating a positive experience for all of our films.

My time in exhibition taught me firsthand about dealing with the public: the good and bad of it. I worked for a couple of gentlemen who had a great work ethic, and I learned a lot from them about being prepared. I remember one manager, Bob Shapiro—this was before cell phones—he used to walk around with index cards in his pockets and would write down the day’s pertinent information: what we grossed that day, the attendance, etc. Whenever the home office or studios called, he had all the information in front of him. He was always prepared. 

I was lucky that I was working at Westwood; everyone that came into the theater worked at a studio. It gave me the opportunity to network with them. Finally, after a couple of years, I got my shot.

That would be your first studio job, at United Artists in 1979. 

I started at United Artists distribution in Los Angeles and started working as a booker. It was a great learning experience for me to get an understanding of how distribution worked. It was a launching pad for me to grow. In that particular time there were more branches; my area was the Los Angeles branch. The industry had not consolidated as much as it has today; at UA I went on to become a sales manager and from there I got my first branch and moved to Detroit for a year. I came back to L.A. a year later to work at 20th Century Fox. In 1985 I made another move, this time to Cannon Releasing.

Cannon in 1985—that must’ve been “interesting” to say the least …

[Laughing] Oh, it was interesting all right. What I will say about those times is that working for an independent like Cannon—you get to be involved in so many different aspects of our business. It was a great place to learn different facets of the industry before going to work for Tristar in 1989.

During another transformative time at the studio, Sony acquired Columbia and TriStar in 1989. What was that transition like?

Before Sony’s acquisition, Columbia and TriStar had mirror operations for Distribution—each label had three-person offices in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, the Midwest, and Canada, supported by Triumph. When Sony purchased both, they merged under Sony Pictures.

I feel very fortunate to have worked over the years with some of the most talented people our industry has to offer, like Jeff Blake, Rory Bruer, and now Josh Greenstein. I’ve gained such a knowledge of our business from Josh; he’s truly inclusive and has been great for me personally.

After three decades at Sony, are there any films or campaigns that stand out in your mind? Any rollouts that you really cherish?

I was looking back and realized I’ve been involved in releasing something like 761 films, which kind of blew me away when I saw the number. It’s kind of staggering. I have to say that I enjoyed seeing our beloved Jumanji from 1995 inspire the success that inspired Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle two decades later. I also think back on being involved in the very first Spider-Man with Toby Maguire and how that inspired Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse last year.

To be honest, I’m excited about what we have coming up: films from some of our treasured IPs like Men in Black:  International, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Zombieland 2: Double Tap, Bad Boys for Life, and Charlie’s Angels that we’re bringing back to the big screen. It’s films like that, that I find really interesting.

You’re also coming off the highest-earning film in Sony’s history, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

It’s something that we’re very proud of at Sony Pictures: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and how long we were able to keep it in theaters. We had a lot of help from the exhibition community; they definitely rallied behind the film and helped us keep it in theaters and relevant to the moviegoing public. 

From your perspective, how has the business changed the most over the past three decades?

The thing that most comes to mind is that the marketplace has become more competitive. The number of films released, finding a release date—it’s a real challenge. Production and marketing costs have increased and I guess it’s fair to say that there are so many quality forms of entertainment available for consumers that never existed years ago. It’s made competing for entertainment dollars more challenging. 

On the bright side, I truly believe that the one thing that has been constant—and will continue to matter—is that audiences have a desire for that shared communal experience of a movie theater. They love going to the movies with 500 of their closest friends they’ve never met before. 

Exhibitors have done a great job, especially in the last couple of years, by enhancing the moviegoing experience and creating an environment attractive for people to leave their homes. To their credit, they’ve invested a substantial amount of capital on premium sound or projection, on reclining seats and food services to improve the moviegoing experience.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities facing theatrical exhibition in the coming years?

The challenge is competing for the entertainment dollars with all the different platforms and opportunities consumers have to be entertained. As an industry we have to continue creating content that will get consumers off their couches and into movie theaters. Exhibitors have to do their part, as they have been and will continue, in creating environments that people really want to watch a movie in. An environment that has more to offer than what they could get at home.

You’ve been very involved in industry charities, including stints on the boards of Variety – the Children’s Charity and the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. In 2017, you were honored at ShowEast with the Salah M. Hassanein Humanitarian Award. What have these charity efforts meant to you, personally?

I feel very fortunate as an individual to work in this business and receive the opportunities I’ve had. I truly believe that I have an obligation to give back and try to help others that are struggling or are maybe less fortunate. I think the Children’s Variety and Will Rogers are really great organizations that have a really sound plan to try to do that.

Looking back, who have been some of the biggest supporters in your career?

I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the industry for over 40 years and to have the support of so many individuals. Without a doubt, my constant supporter and counsel is my wife, Linda. She points me in the right direction every day. 

What does the future hold for you and for Sony Pictures Entertainment?

It’s a really exciting time to be at Sony. Since 2017 we’ve been fortunate to have a great deal of success with films like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, The Emoji Movie, Peter Rabbit, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, The Equalizer 2, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I’ve enjoyed having a front row seat as Tom Rothman has helped move the studio forward in creating a diverse slate rich in content and valuable IPs that speak to and are reflective of the world we live in. Films that aren’t only diverse in subject matter, but also in terms of talent and filmmakers. Forty percent of our films within the next 18 months are directed by women or people of color.

We have a lot of films that I’m really excited about: Men in Black: International, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

What’s your biggest takeaway from being in this business for over 40 years?

It’s an exciting business to be a part of and to be prepared for the unexpected at any moment. Most importantly, at its core, it’s still a relationship business.

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