Sony CEO Breaks Silence Amid Film Studio Revolt: Tom Rothman Has "Full Support" (Exclusive)

Executive Suite -Tom Rothman-THR Shoot-H 2016
Photographed By Austin Hargrave

Kaz Hirai tells THR he backs Rothman even as the executive's gruff management style leads to unprecedented senior staff complaints and the exit of a longtime top dealmaker.

The employee revolt at Sony Pictures against the management style of film studio chairman Tom Rothman seems to be unprecedented in the memory of industry veterans.

Without disclosing names — which a source shared with The Hollywood Reporter only on the understanding that they would not be divulged — a group that included very senior and professional executives complained, in a coordinated move, to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton as well as to the studio’s human resources department. Not coincidentally, Andrew Gumpert, the respected president of business affairs for the motion picture group, exited Tuesday.

Those who complained about Rothman are not naive people, so surely they were aware that Lynton has been seen as one of the most hands-off executives atop a media company. (One agent calls him “a sphinx.”) They also know while leadership at Sony has changed over the years, the top men at the parent company in Tokyo rarely have shown much inclination to involve themselves heavily in studio matters. It literally took an international incident — the 2014 hack brought on by the ill-judged depiction of the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in The Interview — for Sony to replace studio chief Amy Pascal with Rothman in early 2015 after years of overspending and coddling of filmmakers.

Perhaps that’s because of a Japanese inclination to take a very long view. Perhaps it’s because Sony Corp. had more pressing problems elsewhere. Or perhaps Sony didn’t want to be perceived as meddling too much in the affairs of an American film studio. But presumably aware of this perception, Sony Corp. CEO Kaz Hirai is now breaking his silence on the situation, telling THR in a statement he is “in frequent contact with the Sony Pictures’ senior management team including Michael Lynton and Tom Rothman to discuss all aspects of business.”

More important, Hirai says he backs Rothman, which might disappoint executives, producers and others who may be hoping for a change from Rothman’s famously micromanaging leadership but who are hearing that the blowback is seen in Tokyo as a sign Rothman is a tough executive bringing needed change.

“Tom’s approach to reforming our movie production business, by strengthening our marketing outside of the U.S., augmenting IP, and further enhancing financial discipline, has the full support of myself and the rest of the Sony Corp. management team in Tokyo,” says Hirai. He adds that Rothman’s reforms “have been progressing steadily, but it will not be until next year that the films he has greenlit come to theaters in full force, so I have high hopes that those films will wow moviegoers worldwide.”

Sony’s 2016 has included the disappointing Ghostbusters reboot and midrange animated hits The Angry Birds Movie and Sausage Party. Among the studio’s upcoming big-bet projects: Jennifer Lawrence’s sci-fi romance Passengers in December and next summer’s The Dark Tower and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Sources say Rothman has been told his behavior must improve and that Lynton and the bosses in Japan expect it will. “Tom is making important changes to the motion picture group and is committed to doing so in a way that fosters a culture of collaboration,” Lynton tells THR in a statement. “We fully support him in those efforts and are confident he will be successful.”

The hope at Sony is that, due to a number of factors, Rothman has lapsed — but only temporarily — into the type of overbearing and sometimes disrespectful behavior that ultimately ended his long tenure at 20th Century Fox. The belief is those factors include the very pressure to prove that Fox erred in dismissing him in 2012. Another is that the films he made in his first job at Sony, where he was tasked with reviving the dormant TriStar label, did not get him off to a strong start. Both Rikki and the Flash and The Walk performed poorly. And though Rothman prizes his relationship with Ang Lee, it appears the director is about to deliver a disappointment. Tracking for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, set to bow Friday, looks very soft, and it appears the film may not break into the awards race.

If these pressures have contributed to a toxic environment at the studio, Lynton and the Sony bosses in Tokyo are said to be “cautiously optimistic” that Rothman can do better. They also believe part of the blowback against him is because some at the studio, long used to Pascal’s more indulgent management, are resistant to change. And they intend to give Rothman plenty of time to prove he can execute his business strategy — fiscally cautious with an emphasis on international markets.

One somewhat sympathetic producer with ties to Sony puts it mischievously: “In Tom the Bully’s defense, he has totally restructured the place, and many people have lost their jobs. Amy never did that, and the studio needed to be shaken up.” A less ambivalent Rothman ally says it will take another year to 18 months before a Rothman administration can be judged. “This is a basic turnaround,” he says. “Turnarounds are hard.”

This story also appears in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.