'Rough Night' Producer Matt Tolmach on Spider-Man Spinoffs and Remaking His Grandfather's 'Born Free'

Matt Tolmach Executive Suite - Photographed by Adam Amengual - H 2017
Photographed by Adam Amengual

The former Columbia Pictures executive clears up the perception that Amy Pascal pushed him aside as lead producer on 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' and weighs in on Hollywood's dilemma: "Audiences want what feels familiar, but they don't want it to be familiar."

As a Beloit College undergrad, Matt Tolmach received an alarmed call from his grandfather, legendary Hollywood producer and agent Sam Jaffe, who once represented the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and also produced Born Free. "He said, 'Matthew, what's this crap I hear about you being a writer? Come on out to the coast, and I'll get you a job at the Morris office,' " recalls Tolmach, 52. And so Tolmach did, embarking on a Hollywood career in 1986 from the William Morris mailroom. He eventually rose to be co-president of Sony's Columbia Pictures and during his 13 years at the studio helped solidify its standing as a go-to destination for bawdy comedies, shepherding Superbad, Pineapple Express and Talladega Nights. Though it has been seven years since he left the top post, he never strayed from Culver City, setting up a Sony-based production company and tackling the last two Spider-Man movies. But 2017 marks his busiest year yet, with two movies for the hit-starved studio: the Scarlett Johansson starrer Rough Night, opening June 16, and the Dwayne Johnson-Kevin Hart pairing Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle on Dec. 20. In addition, he's an executive producer on the Hulu series Future Man (with longtime collaborators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), and his Spider-Man spinoff Venom just landed Tom Hardy as the lead and Ruben Fleischer to direct. The married father of a 10-year-old son (wife Paige Goldberg Tolmach is co-founder of The Little Seed organic clothing line for kids) sat down with THR at his offices on the Sony lot to discuss his banner year.

Rough Night is a hard R. Was there any pushback from the studio?

No. It was all on the page, so it was very clear what was going to be in the movie. There had been many conversations, but none of them have ever been about toning down. I've lived through those on other movies. And I think in comedy, that's death. Once you start soft-pedaling comedy to broaden the throw, you kill it.

Female-helmed comedies are pretty rare. Was it difficult to get Sony to support first-time feature director Lucia Aniello's Rough Night?

The business needs to wake up and embrace women in the directing chair — in every chair. When she came along with this script she and Paul [Downs] had written, it was undeniable. It was so self-assured and so specifically her point of view. People lined up behind that. But I'm troubled there aren't more female-directed comedies. There is no good answer because shame on us.

The perception is that Amy Pascal pushed you aside as the lead producer on Spider-Man: Homecoming. True? And how did that affect your relationship?

I know that's the perception. People like a simple bullet point. It isn't what happened. You really step back and look at what happened at that point at the studio, with Spider-Man vis-a-vis Marvel [co-producing], and it wasn't at all as simple as that. My relationship with Amy— we have been incredibly close for years; we're making another movie together, Silver & Black. We talk on the phone three times a day. I didn't invent Spider-Man, so I don't feel that weird entitlement.

Were you in the mix for any of the executive positions at Legendary, Paramount and Netflix?

People reached out to me, and I said that I was very flattered, but I chose this life. I walked away from being president of a studio because I wanted to do this. The idea of going back just feels like a chapter that I already read. And I'm loving where I am.

With established producers like Scott Stuber going back to a regular paycheck at Netflix and Michael De Luca flirting with the idea at Paramount, what does that say about the state of the modern producer?

I do think the best executives and producers are people who understand both sides now, when the business has become much more complicated and it is much harder to convince people to go to the movies. It isn't like when we were making movies and there was this incredibly vibrant DVD market that bailed you out. And this sounds cynical, but the tentpole moviemaking process has become more of a corporate endeavor than ever. So there's an organic reason why being a producer and being an executive are interchangeable now.

What's the biggest challenge facing studio-based producers right now?

It's harder to get movies made. The days of taking shots and flyers on movies are gone. The challenge is to understand and accept what it is that the studios are trying to do and to figure out how to make good movies within that. So, if the studio is now making primarily branded tentpole entertainment, what are you doing to provide that? Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a great example of a branded piece of material I knew the studio was going to be excited about. That is the conundrum of where we're living right now: People want what feels familiar, but they don't want it to be familiar.

With your Sony deal, do you get a certain number of guaranteed spots per year?

No. I don't have puts. I'm an old-fashioned producer with a deal on the lot, and I have to hustle for it. I have great relationships and a lot of history here and in town, but I'm chasing material like everybody else and having to twist arms and beg and plead. I have a great deal here, but it's just a deal.

And you get the Spider-Man spinoffs.

I have plenty of those movies that we're working on, which is great.

At one point, Sinister Six was supposed to launch the Spider-Man spinoff wave. What's the status?

Drew [Goddard] and I were making that. It's something that had to go on hold by virtue of the change in the Spider-Man direction [with Marvel]. Now Drew is off doing a movie at Fox. So that's on hold.

How did the Sony hack impact you?

I never looked at anything. Hand to God. I never read one thing [from the leaks], and I don't want to. I don't need to chase bad news or know something that's going to make me feel bad. I came to Sony in 1997 with Amy Pascal from Turner Pictures. Beyond what it was doing to this hilarious movie [The Interview] that my friends made, it was clear that the impact of it was going to be even greater. And then, obviously, Amy became a casualty, at least her job as chairman. So there was the hack and then the ripple effect that this place where I'd lived for 20 years underwent a complete change.

There's a lot of questions about the business model for comedies at Hulu. Namely, that it's next to impossible for the studio to make any backend, and they don't pay Netflix money on the front end. As an executive producer on Future Man, what's the upside?

Honestly, there is a very good business model for the show. And Sony TV is our partner on that and made a deal that is very good for Hulu and for Sony TV. For me personally, I wanted to move into TV. There's a number of different ways to evaluate whether it's a good opportunity. And there is real money to be made for everybody involved. But I think it’s super important in this moment and time that we're all living in to just make something that you believe in, that you can't make somewhere else. This started as a movie. This was a movie script that I developed with these guys. And it was a difficult movie for a studio to sign off on. I might not have made that movie. It made sense as a TV show creatively. And Sony Film was incredibly cool about that because they liked it but they were like, "If you guys wanna do a TV show with our sister, give it a shot."

You made a Lance Armstrong documentary with Alex Gibney and Frank Marshall. And you were developing a narrative feature with Matt Damon as Lance. Any plans to revisit that story?

I feel like that story was told and told and told. And I loved what we did. I loved making the documentary. It's the closest I've ever been to live television. You're making a documentary about somebody and the story, the narrative, is changing in real time. There’s a scene in that movie where I'm literally sitting in the backseat of the car in the race where Lance is with Alberto Contador and I'm there and Alex Gibney said to me, "Here's a camera. If you see anything, shoot it." And I'm in the backseat filming the Tour de France for our movie. I got what I needed. Like there are other stories I need to tell, and I don't think I'll ever have that front-row seat again in a way that would fulfill me as a producer.

As an animal rights activist, are there any plans to remake your grandfather's Born Free?

It's funny you ask that. The answer is emphatically yes. It's a spectacular story that, in many ways, is timeless and timely. I would do it with such love and reverence because that's how he treated that material. It's a Columbia movie, which is also incredibly cool. It would be really great because I miss him dearly. (Chokes back tears.) I apologize. I'm very moved right now. That's my grandpa.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.