What Tom Rothman's TriStar Move Means for Sony Pictures (Analysis)

Tom Rothman - H 2013
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Tom Rothman - H 2013

Activist investor Daniel Loeb should like Rothman's fiscally conservative reputation though one observer notes "it's an odd time to start a new label"

The surprise announcement that former Fox film studio co-chairman Tom Rothman will preside over a revitalized TriStar production company at Sony Pictures has some industry insiders wondering whether the hire is the forerunner of more change at the company.

As hedge-fund billionaire and Sony investor Daniel Loeb continues to agitate about the studio's spending — he recently complained, with colorful exaggeration, that with After Earth and White House Down, Sony had released "2013's versions of Waterworld and Ishtar back to back" — the news of Rothman's new deal set off furious speculation. What is clear to industry veterans is that Rothman is a seasoned executive with a well-established reputation for fiscal discipline that should please Loeb, even if many filmmakers and agents chafed while he was at the Fox studio. His deal at Sony calls for him to make up to four movies a year.

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Inevitably, some are beginning to speculate whether Rothman could play a larger role at Sony Pictures. Others believe that longtime Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal (who, along with  Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment announced the hire) simply wanted to work with Rothman. "Amy is very, very close to Tom," says a top executive at a production company with no ties to Sony. "He consulted with her after he left Fox to try to get a handle on overhead and operations. I think she wanted him there. Not to say that if there were changes, he wouldn't be considered, but I don't think this is anyone telling Amy to bring him in or that he would go behind her back. This is just unfortunate timing because of Daniel Loeb."

After a period when Sony was seeking to trim costs, some industry observers note that it seems counter-intuitive that the studio would ramp up production at TriStar, which in recent years has been largely a distribution banner rather than a production entity. "It's an odd time to start a new label," says a top executive at a rival studio. THR reported last fall that Sony was under financial constraints for months to come and had been forced to redo deals with its major producers. At that time, agency sources also confirmed that the studio was seeking partners for some projects or abandoning others. Sony had to share George Clooney's upcoming World War II film Monuments Men with Fox and it watched longtime Sony favorite Adam Sandler make a deal for his next films at Warner Bros. and Paramount.

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Pascal has a reputation for embracing filmmakers and making quality movies of the type that many major studios are now reluctant to back (recent examples include The Social Network, Moneyball and this fall's Captain Phillips). But Sony also has long been known for spending more lavishly than other studios, a notion that Loeb has turned into a rallying cry for stockholders. The activist investor on Monday called Sony's development pipeline “bleak, despite overspending on numerous projects” and said that Sony CEO Kaz Hirai was giving Pascal and Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton "free passes." 

Rothman presents a striking contrast. In an interview with THR, he declines to detail exactly what kind of movies he will make, but he suggests they won't be big-budget event films, a number of which have disappointed over the past few months. "In terms of our strategy, I believe there is a lot to learn from this summer," Rothman says. "Throughout my career, I have always tended to zig when other people zagged and that's what I'm going to try to do here." Rothman, who is a joint venture partner with Sony in the relaunched Tristar, also will be empowered to develop television shows via Sony Pictures TV.

One prominent producer notes that "Tom was not a popular guy at Fox or a popular guy in the town, but he ran the company well." Another believes that Rothman is "obviously a possible replacement" for Pascal in the future. "That doesn't mean it's the first thing on the agenda but it certainly is a possibility and he'll be locked up just in case."

But in the interview with THR, Rothman says his production entity is intended to "be complementary, not competitive, with the existing Sony labels. They do a fantastic job."

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.