Before becoming co-head of Fox film production, before launching Fox Searchlight, even before shepherding the early careers of Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, Tom Rothman began fashioning his distinctive studio smarts while working at a boys’ preparatory high school in Connecticut.
“It was very formative,” he says of his days teaching English and coaching sports at the Salisbury School, “because it was very much a community life and a lot of what you do at a film company is about community and team-building.”
In the mid-1980s, Rothman shifted to the New York filmmaking scene for more direct lessons about the movie business from the entertainment law firm Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz. “By day, I worked for the Al Pacinos and Richard Geres of the world,” he says, “and by night, I was piecing together this entire new wave of American cinematic voices.”
This balancing act, between studio and independent, defined the next 10 years of his career.
“It was a vibrant time,” Rothman remembers. “There were all these brand new financing structures; homevideo was just being invented; and I was taking those projects and actualizing them.”
He represented Jarmusch on his debut film, “Stranger Than Paradise,” helped produce his 1986 follow-up “Down by Law,” and worked with other emerging auteurs like Bill Sherwood, Robert Frank and Lee.
“I never knew the Ramones would be successful,” says filmmaker Amos Poe, a Jarmusch contemporary and Rothman
client at the time, “but I knew Tommy was: He had that kind of drive and enthusiasm and he knew how to ingratiate himself to mentor figures.”
In 1987, one such mentor, David Picker, then working with new renegade Columbia chief David Puttnam, asked Rothman to join the revolutionary regime out West. Rothman had barely made partner at FGK&S before he made the move three months hence.
“It was the shortest partnership in the history of our firm,” says Richard Heller, co-chairman of the firm’s Entertainment and Sports Group who interviewed Rothman five years before as a prospective associate from Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst.
To illustrate Rothman’s competitive nature, Heller describes that first encounter: “I said to him, ‘I noticed on your resume that you went to Columbia Law School, and I’ve looked at your transcript, and I see all A’s, except for one B. What about this B?’ At which point Tom Rothman exploded from his chair. ‘I can’t believe what happened to me!’ he said. ‘I would’ve been the valedictorian of the law school class but I was screwed.’ Everything came out of him — the Tom Rothman that we all grew to know, which is a guy who pursues perfection, is exuberant, and instills in his clients great confidence in him.”
Adds Picker now: “Of all the people I knew, Tom had the greatest potential not only because of his business knowledge, but his creative enthusiasm. He is incredibly smart, he knows the independent community, and he cares.”
“Honestly, there was no grand plan,” recalls Rothman of agreeing to make the move. “I was too young to say no to adventure. Indeed, I only sublet my apartment on Duke Ellington Blvd., because I thought I might turn around with my tail between my legs.”
Ironically, Rothman was the only one to stay in Los Angeles. After only a few months, Puttnam and Picker were ousted, but Rothman remained at Columbia for two years working under Dawn Steel. “If Arthur Klein and Jim Jarmusch and David Puttnam were my education in the independent world, Dawn was my education in the world of commercial Hollywood,” says Rothman. “Luckily for me, I had tutorials in both aesthetics.”
“What I learned very quickly at Columbia that I still practice every day is that movies are movies and they are satisfying or not for the same fundamental reasons: Do they move the audience emotionally? And that’s true whether you’re doing ‘Down by Law’ for $750,0000 or ‘Cast Away’ for $100 million.”
After his stint at Columbia, Rothman spent five years back in the independent sector in the late ’80s and early ’90s “when independents were truly independents and everything had to be done on the strength of the films,” he says.
Of his work at the Samuel Goldwyn Company, he explains, “I’m most proud of how many firsts there were”: the first films of Ang Lee and Anthony Minghella; the first mainstream movie about AIDS (“Longtime Companion”); and the first acquisition during the Sundance Film Festival (the lesbian romantic comedy “Go Fish”).
“He was passionate about everything he did,” remembers Samuel Goldwyn Jr. “and that passion was very contagious. He was a competitive Lacrosse player at Brown and he never lost that spirit.”
Rothman’s next move, his formation of Fox Searchlight under Peter Chernin, marks the culmination of the Baltimore native’s early career and his unique ability to marry what were mostly separate businesses at the time. “I had an idea that these two worlds — having worked at Columbia on ‘Ghostbusters 2’ and having worked with Samuel Goldwyn Jr. for five years — could not only co-exist, but could cross-pollinate and help each other,” he explains. “That the big studio could help with distribution, ancillary and international, and that the independent division could help bring new filmmaking voices into the big studio.”
And 10 years later, Rothman proudly declares, “It still functions well that way.”
“I think it’s the best of times for filmmakers with independent sensibilities,” he continues. “In the early years, the pure independents were very fragile and would come and go, but Fox Searchlight is a firmly established company that is here and will always be here.”
While Rothman has now worked for a decade in what he calls “the overtly commercial arena,” he maintains there’s more in common now between Jarmusch and George Lucas than there is not. “They both proceed to execute their vision in an uncompromised way and there’s lots of avenues for that now.”
Rothman hasn’t forgone his grittier past, either, but as always, puts it on the same level playing field. “I believe in movies as entertainment, and that means sometimes to inspire and to provoke,” he says, “and sometimes just to entertain.”