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This story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By that definition, Sony’s new film studio chief Tom Rothman is one of the smartest people in Hollywood, as even his harshest critics would admit. The two opposed ideas in Rothman’s mind are that he has changed into a mellower and less micromanaging executive than he was during his long tenure at the Fox film studio and, at the same time, that he does not need to change because he did a consistently outstanding job there.
Those who have dealt with Rothman, 60, in the nearly two months since he was tapped to replace Amy Pascal as chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group on Feb. 24 see glimpses of both sides of Rothman’s mind, though most expect the Fox version of Rothman — a very successful incarnation in terms of achieving consistent profit — will become dominant.
“There’s a tremendous amount of energy and focus on making movies,” says Sony-based producer Matt Tolmach. “As a producer, what more do you want?” Another source says Rothman is the right medicine for Sony, which was moving toward greater fiscal discipline before Rothman arrived but needs to travel further in that direction. “Tom is fearless,” he says. “There’s a lot that needs to be done, and he has the courage to do it.”
Still, several filmmakers are said to be leery of working under Rothman’s detail-oriented management. Sources say the studio had to soothe the anxieties of The Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum, who is set to direct the space drama Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Also said to be nervous are 22 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whom Rothman, for obvious reasons, very much wants to keep in the fold. Sources also speculate that Jump Street producer Neal Moritz, who is hands-on in marketing his films, might clash with Rothman, also known for his own heavy hand in marketing. “I am extremely involved in all my films, and I will continue to be, and there’s been nothing to lead me to believe that that’s not going to continue to be the case with Tom Rothman,” Moritz tells THR. “I hope to have as good a relationship with this version of Sony as I have had in the past.” Rothman has a special incentive to make it work given that he is said to have a particular interest in melding the Jump Street franchise with the studio’s Men in Black property.
On the financial front, Rothman already has managed to tighten the budget on Paul Feig‘s all-female Ghostbusters, planned for July 2016, without any apparent bloodshed (despite earlier friction with Feig when the director made The Heat at Fox). The Ghostbusters price tag when greenlit by Pascal was a hefty $169 million, with rich deals for talent, including $14 million for Melissa McCarthy and north of $10 million for Feig. Rothman couldn’t do anything about those fees, but sources say Feig made tweaks to the script to reduce the cost to $154 million — just a few million above Rothman’s target of $150 million.
Those who may be wary of Rothman might be encouraged by the words of Robert Zemeckis, whose film The Walk, about high-wire artist Philippe Petit, was one of Rothman’s first greenlights during his tenure at Sony’s TriStar Pictures unit before he got the big job and is set to open in October. “Tom had the tremendous courage to greenlight this picture, and he has been 100 percent supportive of my process,” Zemeckis tells THR. “My collaboration with him has been just as great as it was when we made Cast Away together [at Fox].”
It appears that Rothman is ready to relinquish Sony’s already shaky relationship with uber-producer Scott Rudin, who has a nonexclusive deal with the studio through 2018 and who produced such hits for Sony as The Social Network and Captain Phillips. A perennial Oscar contender, Rudin only has made one film that crossed the $300 million mark (1996’s Ransom) and would seem a questionable fit for Rothman’s budget-conscious regime. Under Pascal, Rudin’s Steve Jobs movie left Sony for Universal (the tortured process was detailed in the hacked studio emails), and now Sony has dropped Rudin’s Little House on the Prairie project, which had a budget in the mid-40s. Rudin is said to be in talks to sign a television deal with Fox and could be eyeing that studio for a film deal as well. (Rudin declined to comment.) As one producer with ties to both studios says, “Fox is becoming the new Sony, and Sony is becoming the new Fox.”
In more ways than one, Rothman clearly is looking to bolster Sony in the international area. On April 13, the studio poached Sanford Panitch from Fox to head up efforts in that area. Though Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton had been working toward luring Panitch long before Pascal’s job was in jeopardy, Rothman — who was Panitch’s boss at Fox for two decades — was key to sealing the deal. The shift enlarges Panitch’s domain to include not just film but television — something he had attempted to do at Fox but could not execute since that studio’s film and television divisions operate very separately. (Panitch reports to Lynton.)
Rothman has done some more shopping at Fox: In recent weeks, he approached Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler to run TriStar but was rebuffed, and he also tried to lure two senior Fox production executives. Even before taking the top Sony job, he worked behind the scenes to woo Tomas Jegeus, co-president of worldwide marketing and distribution at Fox. (Jegeus was interested but decided to re-up at Fox.)
At the same time, Rothman lost studio co-president Michael De Luca to a Universal producer deal despite efforts to keep him, and there is plenty of curiosity about how he’ll interact with other important Sony executives, including Clint Culpepper, who is used to having considerable latitude and success running the studio’s Screen Gems label.
The same applies to Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who are said to want to be left to run Sony Pictures Classics autonomously, as they have since 1991. It seems likely that Rothman, with deep roots in independent film, will want to compete aggressively with Fox Searchlight, which he helped found while at Fox. Ironically, Barker and Bernard are known for their thrift, which in this one instance might not be consistent with Rothman’s vision.
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