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Are Studio Chiefs Becoming an Endangered Species?

In anointing Tom Rothman as his chief movie maven, Michael Lynton has given Sony a new sense of direction, and also has triggered debate on a key question: Is running a film studio a viable job any more, or is it a license to fail?

I’ve been talking with several people who have turned down a top studio post, because they’re convinced the odds would be stacked against them — a situation that did not exist in the past. Their decisions likely would get a nod of agreement from Adam Goodman, who last week was fired as Paramount’s film group chief — and perhaps from Amy Pascal, Rothman’s predecessor.

Rothman’s a tough guy, to be sure. He survived 12 largely successful years at Fox before Rupert Murdoch turned on him. Battle-hardened and contentious, Rothman truly loves good movies and thrives on the combat of making them.

But is he going to succeed at Sony?

I’ve gotten to know many top studio executives over the years, including Bob Daly, Sherry Lansing, Alan Horn, John Calley and Dick Zanuck, who all worked within disparate corporate mandates, but had this in common: There were no boards of directors nattering at them to focus just on event pictures, or on those movies that might pass muster in China or Russia. In short, they got to make films they liked.

Ironically, Rothman’s first jobs in the movie business were to develop art films for David Puttnam at Columbia, and then for Sam Goldwyn Jr. at the Goldwyn Co. At Fox, he championed the Searchlight division. At Sony, however, his most urgent task will be to tease the tentpoles — projects that are in short supply in the Sony pipeline, and that are venerated in Tokyo (and all over Hollywood).

Unlike their Chinese counterparts, the Japanese corporate leaders never quite understood Hollywood’s nuances. Peter Guber, in accepting Rothman’s job just over 25 years ago, carefully explained to his board that only one in four movies could be expected to become hits, to which he was instructed: “Then your job is to make only hits.”

Running a film studio is basically an exercise in risk management, and therein lies the problem. “Management’s mandate is to minimize risk, and to keep the current system operating,” writes John P. Kotter of the Harvard Business School in an essay titled “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” “Change, by definition,” he continues, “requires creating a new system, which in turn demands leadership.” Kotter, considered a leading authority on the subject of leadership and change, is also responsible for the provocatively titled book “The New Rules: How to Succeed in a Post-Corporate World.”

But is Sony ready to embrace being post-corporate? This means throwing out the old rules and even redefining profitability. One icon of post-corporate America is YouTube, which lures 1 billion users a month but has yet to show a profit.

The early film-based portents of 2015 illustrate the need for new rules: The first two megahits, “American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” exemplified out-of-the-box filmmaking and marketing. Yet major releases later in the year — the next “Avengers,” “Star Wars” and “Fast and Furious” films — are seductive examples of how to avoid the demands of the present by repeating the past.

Rothman has never been a fan of avoidance. And if the role of a studio chief is to survive, some post-corporate creativity will have to prevail.

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