Sony’s Tom Rothman threw a few punches of behalf of the studio’s upcoming release “Concussion” and zeroed in on the issues in the movie business that keep him tossing and turning at night, speaking at one of the final sessions of the Paley Center for Media’s International Council Summit on Friday.
In a broad discussion with ESPN anchor Hannah Storm, Rothman, the chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group, addressed the controversy that arose earlier this fall around “Concussion,” the Christmas release that stars Will Smith as the doctor who identified the link between repeated head trauma and the degenerative brain disease suffered by a number of professional football players. Email exchanges revealed by the Sony hack led to reports that the filmmakers softened some of the film’s content in order to avoid antagonizing the NFL.
Rothman argued that reporters misunderstood the exchanges exposed in those emails — which were part of a rigorous fact-checking process that the film’s content had to undergo, in order for the movie to retain its teeth. “We had teams of lawyers going through it,” Rothman said. “Not so we could pull the punches, but so we could punch them. The movie is incredibly hard hitting, but it’s defendable. Because if it weren’t, we could have been sued for libel.”
Rothman, who joined Sony after 18 years at Fox, also pinpointed his major concerns about the current state of the movie business overall. “What keeps me up at night is that the movie business has become what I call binary,” he said. “The highs and the upside on movies that penetrate the consciousness, and hit the pop culture zeitgeist, is enormous. It’s higher than it’s ever been. But the flip is also true. You have really, terrifically great movies which are being totally ignored.
“The myth that movies are redeemed in ancillary markets is really not true,” he added. “If they ignore it in the theater, they’re going to ignore it later. You’re dead, and then you’re deader.”
As a result, the industry has become what Rothman called “a branded universe” in which the majority of blockbusters are sequels, or adaptations of high-profile, well-known properties with a fervent fanbase (such as Spider-Man, the Marvel comics character depicted in a string of Sony films). “What keeps me up at night is: Where is the room and the place and the viability of purely original content in the movie business anymore?” he asked.
He noted that back when he was at Fox, the ultimate risk inherent in James Cameron’s “Avatar” wasn’t the 3D or the blue-skinned characters with tails or any of the other things people fretted over. “The risk in ‘Avatar’ was it was original,” he said. “It wasn’t based on anything with a core fan base.”
But he said he perceives glimmers of hope in the ways that originality and creativity can work their way into this branded universe. He tipped his hat to Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Rocky” outing, “Creed,” as an example of exciting, young filmmakers tapped to bring new energy to a long-established franchise. He also cited Columbia Pictures’ upcoming “Ghostbusters” film as an example of an old-dog property learning new tricks from an invigorating filmmaker and cast.
In talking up his upcoming project with Ang Lee, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” he described the ways in which new technology, allowing for 120 frames per second — “It looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It looks like depth” — will enhance the movie’s story of a veteran haunted by his experiences in the Iraq.
But he acknowledged that such costly, ambitious, original films can be risks. “We made a film this fall, one of the films I’m most proud of in my career, a film that Robert Zemeckis made called ‘The Walk,’ ” he said. “Got incredible reviews, it was incredibly experiential, it opened the New York Film Festival. And nobody alive gave a f—.”
Toward the end of the discussion, Rothman also addressed the hot topic of diversity and gender parity in Hollywood. He believes the momentum for equality will only grow.
“I actually think the gender progress that’s being made — let’s talk for a second behind the camera, in the creative ranks — is going to get great momentum,” he said. “Not out of a sociopolitical sense, but because Hollywood has always been economically self interested. I believe women are now a more consistently reliable audience, domestically, than men. And you need to program where your audience is.”
In any case, he added, diversity is imperative. “We better do it or die, because the audience is diverse. And because I got the old Jewish guys covered,” he cracked.