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Where the Crawdads Sing is exactly the sort of movie that isn’t supposed to work anymore on the big screen. Yet the summer release speared more than $140 million globally, including $90 million domestically. That’s a small fortune for a literary adaptation that was made for $30 million — and a big win for Tom Rothman, Sony’s movie studio chairman and theatrical evangelist. The Woman King likewise defied the odds in earning $92.3 million worldwide after staging its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Most other high-profile titles coming out of the fall fest circuit have struggled badly at the box office.
As 2022 wraps, Rothman, 68, has plenty to celebrate seven years after being asked by then Sony Pictures Entertainment Michael Lynton to rebuild the studio following its devastating hack. Sony’s Motion Picture Group has swung to three years of record profits. The past fiscal year hit an all-time high, led by Spider-Man: No Way Home, which grossed $1.92 billion globally since its release in mid-December 2021.
Rothman and his team remain focused on building a varied menu of movies, versus only relying on a diet of branded IP (although he’s made headway in that space, too). “I genuinely believe if we don’t keep taking chances on the Crawdads of the world or The Woman King, that is the threat to theatrical,” says Rothman, who extended his contract in mid-June 2021 and added CEO to his title. “COVID was terrible. But at some point, the audience will move beyond it. I don’t believe that streaming is a death threat to movies. Lack of originality could be.”
Meanwhile, as the profitability of streaming comes under scrutiny, the fact that Rothman doesn’t have to feed a sister Sony service is looking like an advantage — as is his penchant for frugality.
“I consider him to be the most valuable studio chief currently working, as well as in the last quarter-plus century. Tom consistently makes pictures for a lower negative cost than his peers while maintaining the quality of his slate,” says Joe Singer, a producer and financier who brokers deals between the studios and private equity.
“Theatrical is Tom’s religion. He’s zealous on this topic,” says Nicole Brown, who heads up Sony’s TriStar label, home of The Woman King and the upcoming biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which opens in theaters nationwide on Dec. 23.
Rothman and by current SPE chair Vinciquerra held out when streamers came calling during the pandemic. “We were offered a king’s ransom for a number of our big movies, which we declined,” Rothman says. “Instead, we kept the faith.” Sony did sell off several other titles to streamers during the heart of the pandemic, including the animated The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which was acquired by Netflix. And Rothman struck a deal for Netflix to finance Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, but retained theatrical rights in the U.K. and Ireland, where Matilda is a beloved property and grossed more than $5 million during an exclusive run at the Thanksgiving box office. The movie debuts everywhere else on Netflix over Christmas.
Rothman doesn’t suffer fools — and can have a hard time hiding his frustration — but he inspires lasting loyalty among filmmakers and execs. “He fosters a very entrepreneurial environment. If you want the ball, he’ll give it to you, but you’d better do something with it,” says Emma Watts, who worked under Rothman at 20th Century Fox before rising to vice chairman of the studio after he departed. “And people forget that Tom started Fox Searchlight [in 1994], so he comes from a grassroots style of filmmaking, where a nose for material and talent is everything.”
Another Rothman loyalist is Elizabeth Gabler, who for years ran Fox 2000 at 20th Century. After the literary film division was shuttered following the Disney-Fox merger, she had her pick in terms of where to land. She opted to follow Rothman to Sony and launch 3000 Pictures, home of Crawdads as well as the recently announced Bruce Lee biopic from Ang Lee. “Tom is a brilliant strategist. I find that to be very rare,” says Gabler. “He’s very analytical. His brain never stops.”
Lee is among a cadre of notable filmmakers whom Rothman has worked repeatedly with (including on The Ice Storm at Searchlight). Others include Steven Spielberg, Baz Luhrmann and Danny Boyle. And he formed a bond with Quentin Tarantino after winning a bidding war to make 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “The best filmmakers, the people you really want to be in business with, don’t want to be yessed to death. You must be very supportive, and yet be honest,” says Rothman. “They want experience, which is undervalued in Hollywood. One of the things I’m really proud of is I do a lot of repeat business.”
On the IP front, Rothman backed this year’s Uncharted, based on Sony’s PlayStation video game, which grossed a better-than-expected $401 million, and refitted the Jumanji and Ghostbuster franchises. He credits his motion picture group president Sanford Panitch, whom he’s worked with for 20 years, for exploiting characters in the Spidey universe, resulting in Venom and the 2024 pic Madame Web, not to mention Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s animated Spider-Verse (a sequel is due out in 2023). There’s no official word regarding when the next live-action Spider-Man will hit theaters, but it’s a no-brainer. “You bet,” he says. “When you can expect it, I don’t know. Serve no wine before it’s time.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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