Tom Rothman on His Sony Era: "I Prize Stability"
Amy Pascal's replacement reveals his plans for the studio as his Fox experience and a reputation for frugality won over Japan execs.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The new Tom Rothman era at Sony Pictures Entertainment represents a potential sea change at a film studio that had — at least until quite recently — been known to be among the most talent-friendly and free-spending in town.
When it comes to financial discipline, Rothman, 60, is the diametric opposite of exiting SPE co-chairman Amy Pascal, who, it was initially announced, was to remain in her post until May, but who now will cede the job immediately. Rothman led a very profitable and rarely open-handed film studio at Fox for many years, which heartens Wall Street analysts such as Rich Greenfield of BTIG, who says, "We have long been impressed with Tom Rothman's skills in managing a slate of films, particularly his focus on staying away from uneconomical productions and relationships." Adds Daniel Ernst of Hudson Square Research: "It was important to make the decision and move on in a relatively short period of time -- Sony has done that, and that's a positive."
But in Hollywood, there has been considerable fear about the impact of a Rothman regime. "He's going to shut shit down," says one producer who has worked with the executive at Fox. "He's going to lay a very heavy hand on budgets and deals. It's all going to change. He's going to be Tom Rothman."
In an interview with THR, Rothman sends a signal that for now, at least, no big changes are imminent. Among the questions in the wake of the Feb. 24 news of Rothman's ascension to chairman of SPE's film group is whether top execs including Doug Belgrad and Michael De Luca will remain. "I'm very confident in the level of executive talent here, and I prize stability," says Rothman, who met with Belgrad for a few hours on Tuesday.
Rothman long has felt quite strongly that his reputation for micromanaging and budget-pinching is unjustified. "I know that's the cliche about me, and I hope that current and future experiences will continue to belie it," he tells THR. But at the same time, he has in the recent past talked to associates about a less intrusive approach. "He cops to some of what went on at Fox," says a studio insider. "He cops to a reputation that was less than flattering and talks about how mellow and mild he is. The whole Tom story was about the leopard changing its spots. Let's see."
Since he took the job reviving Sony's TriStar label in August 2013, Rothman has assembled several movies with top talent, including Ang Lee (Long Halftime Walk), Robert Zemeckis (The Walk) and Jonathan Demme (Ricki and the Flash) that he hopes will help dispel any negative impressions. (The rebooted TriStar label is expected to continue.) As anxiety mounted over who would replace Pascal, many in Hollywood — both inside and outside the studio — were hoping the well-regarded Belgrad would wind up in the top job. "Doug is a very good guy and a very capable guy, but he suffered from the fact that he's been there and subordinate to Amy all those years," says a top agent. This person sees Rothman as a compelling choice: "I'm not his apologist, but he has a good track record."
Even those who are anxious about what it will be like to deal with Rothman acknowledge that he brings brains and dedication to the job. "He may be difficult, he may be brutal on his staff, but he does do the work," says a producer who has made a film with Rothman. "In terms of engagement, he's in the top 5 percent." Another industry veteran says Rothman "needs a media person whose job it is to create a new persona. I don't think there's anyone who doesn't think he's smart and he has good taste. He started Fox Searchlight."
Some insiders say Pascal had told them she believed Belgrad would be promoted because of the potential negative reaction to a Rothman appointment. "Amy said it wasn't going to be Rothman," says one executive, noting that it seemed for a time that the studio would install a triumvirate in the style of Warner Bros. But this person says Pascal also had expressed support for Rothman: "She's told everybody, 'You're the one that I want.' It's just Amy. She gets caught up in the moment."
The overwhelming consensus is that Rothman, who was out of the Fox job for nearly a year before Pascal gave him the opportunity to revive TriStar, will be protective of Pascal as she moves into a producing role at Sony. "Tom will be forever in Amy's debt," says a former Sony insider. Adds the agent, "He will definitely take care of her." Indeed, Rothman and Pascal were spotted having lunch at the Sony commissary on Tuesday.
As part of her rich producing deal, Pascal already has been cut into projects including the all-female Ghostbusters and the Marvel Studios-assisted reboot of Spider-Man. Producer Scott Rudin, who engaged in infamous email exchanges with Pascal that were revealed in the Sony hack, also has welcomed her as producer on a planned Cleopatra remake starring Angelina Jolie, though one source is skeptical the film will go forward in the Rothman era, joking, "I wouldn't go shopping for an outfit for that premiere."
Another source with close ties to the studio says he believes Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment, intended for Rothman to succeed Pascal ever since Rothman joined the company. This person believes that Lynton, who on Feb. 23 extended his contract for an undisclosed period, will have little involvement in film studio affairs going forward. "Michael is moving to New York," says this person. "I don't believe it will be the Tom and Michael show the way it was the Amy and Michael show."
One unanswered question is to what degree executives at Sony's Japanese parent company were involved in the choice of Rothman. Sony Corp. CEO Kaz Hirai met with Rothman when he was in town to attend the Oscars. Certainly the company's influential chief financial officer, Kenichiro Yoshida, is known to be focused on controlling costs, and the Sony hack revealed last year that he had pushed Lynton to give "serious consideration to modifying the Entertainment executives' compensation plans." It's easy to imagine that an executive with Rothman's track record would appeal to Yoshida.
Still, it doesn't appear that Sony was holding the purse strings tight when it gave Pascal her exit deal — which The New York Times values at between $30 million and $40 million over four years — and one veteran producer doesn't expect the culture to change in one key way. "One thing we know about Sony is that if the movies don't work, you don't get fired," he says. "And if you do get fired, you make a lot of money."
Paul Bond contributed to this report.