Tom Rothman on 'Spider-Man' Plans and Loving 'Ghostbusters' Trolls: "Can We Please Get Some More Haters to Say Stupid Things?"
Sony’s movie chief believes the men against his movie are doing the marketing for him, bets big on ghosts, Jennifer Lawrence and a global strategy.
There’s an an empty space on the wall above Tom Rothman’s desk in the vast office he occupies at Sony, once Louis B. Mayer’s. Rothman, 61, hasn’t had time to hang a picture in the 15 months since he was promoted to chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture group following Amy Pascal’s departure.
He’s had a lot to deal with. When he moved into this office, Sony had been battered by a series of flops and an astonishing email attack believed to have been perpetrated by the North Korean government. Morale was low — and the recent departure of movie division president Doug Belgrad has left many feeling shaky.
Rothman thinks that will improve when Sony has a turnaround at the box office, and the year ahead will test whether he can match the success he had at 20th Century Fox, which he chaired for 12 years (with Jim Gianopulos) before leaving in 2012.
His next wave of releases will include pictures greenlighted by his predecessor (among them, Ghostbusters on July 15) before his own movies appear this year. He bubbles over with excitement talking about such projects as the Jennifer Lawrence-Chris Pratt space drama Passengers (Dec. 21) and Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Nov. 11), which he made after joining Sony as president of its TriStar label in late 2013. (His initial TriStar releases include disappointments The Walk and Ricki and the Flash.)
Rothman knows how difficult it is to make a good movie. A sword in a glass box, a gift from director Peter Weir, is a testament to the years he spent battling to make 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a personal favorite. But when he’s asked which film he would want on a desert island, he names Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). “That’s so I could see my wife,” he says, with a laugh. (His wife, actress Jessica Harper, with whom he has two daughters, is in the film.)
The executive talked to THR about running a studio with 3,500 employees.
What was your initial conversation with Sony Corp. president and CEO Kazuo Hirai and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton when they approached you to take this job?
I asked how committed they were to the business long-term. They said they were extremely committed, that they in no way, shape or form are sellers. They believe it’s a growth engine for them. And number two, I said, “Look, I’ve done this before.” Because when I took over Fox with Jim [Gianopulos], it was in a worse situation by far than here, and I know it takes time and investment. And were they willing to [invest]? You don’t cut your way to profitability in the movie business. The answer to both those questions was a decided yes.
When you looked at the landscape at Sony, what was your strategy?
I thought we needed a more global focus, because that’s where the growth area is. And we have to invest a lot high up in the funnel, meaning earlier in the development process. The studio may have had a hard run, but there were and are tremendous assets in our IP. It’s a misnomer and a myth out there that Sony doesn’t have IP. Ghostbusters is going to come out in a month, and [that’s part of Sony’s IP].
How do you think the Ghostbusters online bashing will impact the film?
It’s the greatest thing that ever happened. Are you kidding me? We’re in the national debate, thank you. Can we please get some more haters to say stupid things?
What does it have to make to be as success?
Oh, I don't know. I don't comment about that. The good news is, you can feel the momentum of the movie. We had a thing last week where Bill Murray, who had just seen the movie, came out and said how great it was. You just could feel the cultural excitement.
How else are you changing your strategy?
We must think from the world back to Hollywood, not from Hollywood out to the world. Because, while what I said to you is true domestically, it is not true internationally. There is still explosive audience growth globally — in China, of course, which will be the No. 1 market within a year or so, but also in the mature markets. So we need to have an international orientation. That has not always been the case at Sony. Sony's split rights, Sony sold off rights. We're not a rights seller any more; we're a rights buyer. I’ll give you an example. We fought tooth and nail to get the Blade Runner sequel that Denis Villeneuve is doing. Domestic was not available because of Alcon's deal with Warners. So we have the entire world outside the U.S. That would have been very unusual in the past. And Trainspotting is not a U.S.-driven film. It's a United Kingdom- and European-driven film. So we are in the worldwide business. We're not in the split rights business anymore.
Does global mean thinking locally, too?
We’re developing a big local-language business. That's what Sanford [Panitch, newly named president of Columbia Pictures] was brought here to do. We have the top Chinese movie ever, The Mermaid, in all the rest of Asia. The second answer lies in the label strategy: whatever movie you decide to make and for whatever audience has to be calibrated in cost to the potential audience and has to have tremendous urgency for that audience. When [Screen Gems] does Resident Evil, it's done in a way that, for that audience has urgency. Just look at the success they had last weekend with Me Before You. It's a very good example. Strong best-seller, wasn't expensive. Very urgent for the people who read the book. That’s what The Rosie Project will be that (TriStar president) Hannah Minghella's doing, and that's what Nightingale will be. What you have to do is: you have to set a very high bar for the audience you’re aiming at. And then you build up a slate, and the slate is across the range. And on some it's easy, Spider-Man and Inferno and Magnificent Seven. But the environment is really challenging now. It makes it interesting in my old age.
You began in the independent arena, went to Fox Searchlight and then made big, commercial movies at the main Fox. Did your tastes change?
No. I never changed. I believe in serving a diversity of audiences, and I like a diversity of films.
What’s your policy with Sony Classics? It has been less production-oriented than Searchlight.
Tom Bernard and Michael Barker [who report to Rothman] are experienced executives whom I admire tremendously, and they know what they're doing. They're fortunate that someone like myself took over who's a big believer, still, in the specialized business, and a big believer in the importance of maintaining an adult business. And actually even they are pretty much the only company left in the country, pretty much, still doing foreign language business. And I believe in all of that. So I'm a cheerleader and supporter of theirs. And I think that they know very well, they know really what they're doing really well. They have a very modest overhead, and they’re not a production operation. For us, that stuff fits more into TriStar. But I’ve asked them to pitch in on things: We had a big hit over Christmas with The Lady in the Van, which TriStar made for $2.5 million with the BBC, and the movie’s done more than $40 million worldwide.
Do you plan to keep the same label structure with TriStar, Columbia, Sony Classics, Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Animation?
Peter Chernin created the label strategy [at Fox], but I believed in it, and I believe in it here. We have Columbia, which will focus on the tentpole product. TriStar is filmmaker-driven, with a lot of literary stuff — The Nightingale, The Rosie Project— and movies for adults. And Screen Gems is probably the best genre label in the business. And then there’s SPA, which I’ve invested a great deal of resources in and which has gone from having an intermittent output to a full-on production operation.
Animation is so competitive right now. How do you make something stand out?
It's competitive because it's very lucrative, right? You can't run that business without a view toward the costs. Those movies do not have to cost $150 million.
Can they cost half of that?
Yes, they can cost half of that.
Is that a rule?
No, not at all. We’ll make more expensive ones — particularly sequels — and we’ve had back-to-back successes, with Hotel Transylvania 2 and Angry Birds, which is going to be the fourth highest-grossing American animated movie in China ever. The sequel's in the works and we have the next four or five movies lined up. We have Smurfs all animated coming out next year. For the first time, we'll actually have three animated movies in the same year, [along with] The Emoji movie. And then the third animated movie will be at Christmas, an extension of our very good faith business. We're making an animated Nativity story, called The Star, from the animals' point of view. It's really sweet and lovely and that's a much lower cost. And we have dated Christmas 2018 for what I believe is truly going to be a breakthrough animated sensation. Lord and Miller, who did the Lego movies, are doing an animated Spider-Man. And it has a very breakthrough look to it, and a fantastic story, and it's independent from our Marvel Spider-Man.
How have the changes at the top of the company affected morale?
Of late, morale’s really pretty good. Morale at movie companies, when you have disappointing results at the box office, is tough. Everybody works just as hard and as long on a Brothers Grimsby as they do on an Angry Birds, right? You don’t work any less hard when it doesn’t work out. So it’s no secret we had a tough run. But luckily for us, that’s turned around significantly. Miracles from Heaven was an extremely profitable film. Angry Birds, great result. Money Monster will do $100 million worldwide on a modestly priced negative. And we’re heading into what — knock on wood — I believe is going to be a very, very good second half of the year.
Belgrad was involved with many of those pictures. Why did he leave?
I adore Doug, and he and I work very, very well together. But Doug has been wanting to strike out on his own for some time. When he made a new deal two years ago, there were provisions entitling him to do that. I asked him to please stay through the finishing of Ghostbusters, which he was deeply involved in. And as those conversations started, I also started a conversation with Sanford, whom I’d known from Fox. Right now, they’re working together making that transition.
Did Michael Lynton discuss Steve Mosko’s exit with you?
No. Nothing to do with me. That's not in my reporting line.
Where do discussions stand on the next James Bond film?
I’m not going to comment on that, other than to say that we remain very interested in continuing that excellent and important relationship. And I think we have certain advantages as the incumbent. No discussions have started yet.
Since you teamed with Marvel, do you plan to make a whole Spider-Man universe? Do you have plans for more work with Marvel?
Yes to both those questions. It’s been fantastic, our relationship with Marvel.
Who has greenlight authority?
Sony has the ultimate authority. But we have deferred the creative lead to Marvel, because they know what they’re doing. We start shooting the new Spider-Man in Atlanta [in mid-June].
Do you want to trim the costs of that franchise?
I don’t want to trim costs. I want to make money. And sometimes you make money by trimming costs and sometimes by investing in things that are profitable. A movie like Spider-Man by Marvel, that’s not inexpensive. But it’s a great investment. Knowing that Marvel has such a clear, creative vision, I sleep very well at night.
What keeps you awake?
One, the extreme Dickensian nature of the business right now, in that it is the best of times and the worst of times. The business has become completely binary. When the audience is in, the upside is enormous. But when the audience is out, there’s no floor. And more and more [audiences] are deciding out.
People go less and less “to the movies.” More and more they go to a particular movie. We used to be counter-recessionary because we were the affordable leisure activity, but not today. And we’ve empowered Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, the OTT revolution. We have to deal with it. There’s no going back. Change is only going to accelerate.
Have the shootings in Orlando impacted your feelings about your job and movie violence?
Not specifically with respect to Orlando, because Orlando is just the latest and worst example of what is continually happening in this country and around the world. It's long been on my mind, as someone with partial responsibility for programming, part of our culture: the issue of violence and the issue of ideas, and the strength and the power of ideas, and do we have a social responsibility beyond merely to entertain? It's no secret that I’m particularly sensitive about gratuitous violence in movies. I don't personally care for it. But I recognize its value in certain storytelling. We have Billy Lin's Long Halftime Walk, and there's a lot of violence in the film. It's about the war and the difficulty that these very young men and women have adjusting to civilian life. So inevitably, there's violence in the movie, but it's in service of a very meaningful idea. Look, we're here to provide entertainment, not morality. But if you can put good out in the world, it's better than not.
Is there a connection between violence in the media and violence in society?
Not a literal, one-to-one connection, but there is a connection in general. There’s a generalized desensitization in everything. I don't think that's just movies and television and video games— it's life. But ultimately filmmakers have to be supported in expressing their ideas the way they want to express them.
What did you learn from Rupert Murdoch?
Rupert Murdoch, whatever one thinks of his politics — and I do not share one iota of his politics — happens to be a brilliant manager of a creative asset business. He fundamentally understands creative risk. And I learned that if you believe in something, then you go for it. Murdoch has guts and he has the courage of his convictions. And in these jobs, that's what you need, the courage of your convictions. And when he gets knocked down, he gets back up again. And you need that here, too. 'Cause believe me, you're going to get knocked down. I worked for Rupert for almost 19 years, running a very volatile business. And I have nothing but great things to say about him. And this is the other thing I learned: Do not try to bullshit him — or, by the way, any boss. As long as you told it to him straight, as long as you owned your own mistakes, he was great to work for.
What did you learn from your experience at Fox?
I learned two fundamental rules, I suppose: that talent follows material and great filmmakers make great films.
What about personally?
What I realized was that I hadn’t spent 30 years in the movie business by accident. I realized both that I loved it and that it suited me. That it fit me. That the particular combination that it takes, a combination of creative and financial decisions — the integration of those two things suited my particular cockamamie brain. And I had an adult lifetime of experience. And what I realized was, should I be lucky enough that another company would want to have me come there, that I would rediscover the joy of it.
So you lost that joy?
Yes. I would say that in the last years — not in the beginning, but in the last years, in the grind of having to top yourself year after year — I lost a lot of the joy that I had when I began and was building up. That, in many ways, was more fun, more exciting, than to continue making the doughnuts one after another. So now we’re building again. And it’s a thrill and a privilege.
This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.