New Sony Chief Tom Rothman on His Plan to Get the Studio Back in the Game

Tom Rothman Sony Pictures Studios
Tim McDonagh for Variety

COVER STORY: After being pushed to the margins of power when he was unceremoniously dumped from the top job at Fox Filmed Entertainment, Tom Rothman is back.

Back greenlighting films, haggling over budgets, and coming off as the smartest, and, his detractors say, cockiest, person in the room — in his latest role as chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group.

Every studio eventually becomes a reflection of the man or woman running it, so in the case of Sony, that image stands to be a blur of contradictions. Rothman is a cineaste who launched arthouse label Fox Searchlight, and the man who greenlit “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.” An executive of expansive vision, and petty grievances. A risk taker and penny-pincher. A creative force who often clashes with talent.

Tim McDonagh for Variety

Rothman’s second rise to the top of a major studio is not a comeback everyone in Hollywood was expecting — or lining up to see. But now the drama is unfolding daily in Culver City, where Sony is based.

Rothman has unnerved, if unwittingly, some seasoned executives on the team he inherited at Sony after taking over for ousted studio chief Amy Pascal in February. Many are worried about their futures, said studio insiders, who declined to be identified out of fear for their jobs. Another blow came shortly after Rothman’s ascension, when Michael De Luca, the respected production boss of Columbia Pictures, decamped to Universal Pictures with a lucrative producer deal.

Never one to stand still, Rothman has plowed ahead. He quickly moved to try to lure some of his former Fox associates to Sony — succeeding in recruiting Sanford Panitch, who oversees film and TV local-language efforts and global co-productions, but failing to land others, including Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler, international distribution topper Craig Dehmel and worldwide marketing and distribution co-president Tomas Jegeus. (Rothman wooed the latter when he was still topper of Sony’s Tri-Star label.)

Attempting to prop up morale after extensive layoffs prior to his appointment, Rothman told an all-hands meeting of Sony employees that he had no intention of slashing jobs, and had not directed downsizing in any of his previous positions.

During the CinemaCon theater owners convention in Las Vegas in April, Rothman gave Variety his first sitdown interview in his new incarnation.

“Is this glamourous or what?” the newly minted studio chief cracked as he plopped his 6-foot-plus frame into a rolling chair in a drab, windowless office in the bowels of Caesars Palace.

In a little over an hour, Rothman would be taking the stage in the cavernous Colosseum auditorium to deliver his first public remarks as the face of Sony’s movie operation. It was a high-stakes moment for someone who relishes living on the knife’s edge, yet he seemed utterly calm.

“I’ve always tried to approach these jobs — and I’ve been in one way or another doing this for 30 years — strategically,” Rothman said. “I think it’s very important to spend a lot of time and effort thinking that strategy through, and then enacting it.”

Rothman has been tasked with making peace with theater owners, some of whom were miffed when Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton opted to release “The Interview” digitally and on demand in the wake of a terrorist threat at the studio launched by North Korea. Rothman first thanked exhibitors for sticking by Sony in those difficult days, before waxing Churchillian.

“We have more than survived,” Rothman said. “We have thrived.”

Rothman’s words were loudly applauded by the CinemaCon crowd, but the second part of his statement strains credulity. Sony is mired in seventh place among its rivals in terms of market share. Its franchises, such as they are, pale in comparison with the ones developed by Disney, Warner Bros. and other studios. This summer is filled with question marks for the studio, with Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” “Ricki and the Flash” with Meryl Streep, and Adam Sandler’s “Pixels” the standouts in a thin field of box office contenders.

“Sony has to break out into a broader array of films that can start to compete with other studios more effectively,” said media analyst Hal Vogel. “They are stuck in ‘Spider-Man’ jail if you will. They are locked into it and will keep trying to reprise it, but that alone is not the answer to changing the direction of earnings.”

Moreover, the studio has been under serious scrutiny from Tokyo-based parent Sony Corp. following harsh criticism in 2013 by activist investor Daniel Loeb (an investor in Variety parent Penske Media Corporation, who no longer owns Sony stock) that the movie division was profligate, needed to change management, and be spun off.

That’s to say nothing of the hack attack that laid the studio’s inner workings bare, exposing a series of racially and talent-insensitive emails between Pascal and producer Scott Rudin.

Though decisions that led to Sony’s box office dry spell pre-date him, Rothman argues that the picture at the studio is not as bleak as the one painted by its critics. He points to plans to team with Marvel on a third “Spider-Man” reboot, a forthcoming all-female “Ghostbusters” spinoff from Paul Feig, and an adaptation of Dan Brown’s “Inferno” as evidence that the cupboard isn’t bare, even as he acknowledges that Sony is in a race to bolster its core group of franchises.

“There is no secret, hidden door that you can open, with a cache of wonderful IP that everybody doesn’t know about,” Rothman said. “We’re all in the race. You’ve just got to compete harder and fiercer and better.”

Sony’s quest for film series that will spawn toy lines and lead to merchandising riches comes as the studio is nearing the end of its deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to co-finance and distribute the James Bond films. That pact expires with the November release of “Spectre,” and there is speculation that the close relationship between MGM chief Gary Barber and Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara could result in 007 shaking his future martinis at the Burbank studio.

“The reality is that Sony’s had a fantastic run with the Bonds,” said Rothman, adding, “Sure we’re going to compete for (the rights), but let’s be honest, so is everybody in the business.”

To gain ground, Rothman has identified a few key areas where he will focus. He plans to strengthen Sony’s international operations by picking projects that play well overseas. “I don’t think we’ve controlled enough rights in enough pictures enough of the time,” he said. “The balance of the slate was perhaps more domestically oriented than globally oriented.”

Rothman is also pushing the studio to snap up more novels and best-sellers to adapt. He moved aggressively to close a deal to bring “The Dark Tower,” Stephen King’s series of fantasy novels, to Sony, after an earlier attempt at Universal was abandoned in 2011 over cost concerns. “It’s sprawling and challenging,” Rothman said of the source material, but added that Sony had come up with a “creative solution” that “unlocked the power” of the material, much as Peter Jackson figured out how to make a film from “The Lord of the Rings.”

To the chagrin of some executives, he has also pushed confidently into Sony’s marketing operations, ruling on the details of campaigns that Pascal tended to oversee with much less interference and scrutiny, insiders said. Those packaging the July videogame comedy “Pixels” thought they had come up with winning trailers. But Rothman disagreed. “Then there were many, many revisions, despite the fact they tested pretty well,” said one executive, who asked not to be named. “It’s his right. He is the big cheese, and many of the points he raised were smart. But, still, it can get frustrating.”

Sony corporate has been faulted in the past for not being more synergistic in matching its technology holdings with the studio, and that’s an area where Rothman believes opportunities exist. He’s eager to make films based on PlayStation properties, and to work more closely with the company’s music division, something the studio plans to do with “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” (The pop icon’s catalog is largely owned by Sony/ATV).

The major issue for Sony is that a handful of studios, particularly Disney with its Lucasfilm, Pixar and Marvel divisions, have a monopoly on the Tiffany brands. That’s left Sony in a hole.

Rothman dubbed Disney a “fearsome competitor,” adding, “They’re an awesome company, and certainly in that universe of familiarity … they have some of the best assets on Earth. But you can’t hang your head and cry in your soup. The Yankees don’t win the World Series every year.”

The last line is vintage Rothman. The former college lacrosse player loves to use sports metaphors to motivate his staff, current and former colleagues say.

“He’s like the manager of a baseball team,” said Joe Pichirallo, chair of NYU’s undergraduate film and TV department and a former colleague from Rothman’s days running Fox Searchlight. “He’s very driven and competitive, and he plays to win.”

One top agent said the jury remains out on Rothman’s ultimate impact at Sony, but that news he was taking over for Pascal rocked the film world. “Tom is a much better decider than he is a listener,” the agent said. “He is not a guy who says, ‘What do you think?’ He feels like a person who is always waiting for the other person to stop talking so he can start talking again. It’s hard to build a great team in that regard.”

A veteran producer said that an oft-repeated phrase heard on the Culver City lot is: “It’s the Tom Show.” That’s in marked contrast to Pascal, who most found to be personable and solicitous.

Reports of Rothman’s assertive personality didn’t phase Lynton, who hand-picked Rothman to succeed Pascal. “He’s a very passionate guy,” said Lynton. “That comes across when first meeting him, but it’s not passion for passion’s sake. It’s in service of the film and the company.”

Lynton said the veteran executive had impressed colleagues on the lot during his time at TriStar. “He has remarkable taste, and works across a wide assortment of pictures,” Lynton said. “He understands every aspect of the business from marketing to production.”

At Fox, Rothman helped oversee massive, high-cost hits such as “Titanic” and “Avatar,” but his emphasis on keeping most budgets low alienated some filmmakers. Though the 60-year-old studio chief insists he’s mellowed with age, he has ruffled some feathers at Sony by nixing a number of existing projects. Among those killed since Rothman took over are a bigscreen adaptation of “Little House on the Prairie,” to be produced by Rudin, over concerns about its $45 million pricetag; Roland Emmerich’s “Singularity,”­ due to creative differences over the direction of the nanotechnology thriller; Lorenzo­ di Bonaventura’s “Five Against a Bullet,”­ which was scrapped because it was too similar to a remake of “The Professional”; and “Christian the Lion” a family film from producer Neal Moritz, which Rothman­ felt would be too difficult to slot into a key release date, since the best windows for family viewing are already dominated by big animated features from other studios.

Rothman also worked tirelessly to shave the budget on “Ghostbusters,” and is weighing the future of “The Dishonorables” from producer Joe Roth, believing it may be too reminiscent of the 2003 historical fantasy film he made at Fox, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which, ironically, Fox just announced plans to reboot.

You won’t find Lynton, the Sony brass in Tokyo or Wall Street faulting Rothman’s fiscally motivated decisions. This is what investors are looking for, given that Pascal was faulted for being too free-spending.

Rich Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG, said Rothman does not have enough history at Sony yet to have made an impression, but that his time at Fox bodes well for the future.

“What Tom is known for is creating quality content without blowing up budgets,” Greenfield said.

Jessica Reif Cohen, senior analyst for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said Rothman’s record at Fox showed he has the tools to help a studio succeed for the long run. “(He and Fox co-chief Jim Gianopulos) ran Fox like it was their own money, and they had better margins than just about anyone,” she said.

Rothman doesn’t deny that he’s interested in profitability, but he balks at claims that he’s only focused on the bottom line.

“I’ve tried to pair together real fiscal responsibility with great creative ambition,” he said.

Some filmmakers who have had dealings with Rothman at Sony say they are pleased with his approach, among them Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are working on an animated spinoff of “Spider-Man” and a third film in the “21 Jump Street” series that will include a “Men in Black” crossover.

“We wanted to take ‘Jump Street’ in an insane direction,” said Lord. “It was a bold approach we were trying at Sony before Tom came, and we weren’t sure what his appetite would be for making a movie like that, but he got it right away.”

Robert Zemeckis, who Rothman tapped to direct “The Walk,” a 3D biopic about high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 balancing act between New York’s Twin Towers, also praised the studio chief’s creative daring.

“‘The Walk’ is a very risky film,” he said. “One of the things I admire about Tom is he doesn’t just make the safe bet.”

“The Walk” was initiated during the year and a half Rothman spent re-launching and running Sony’s TriStar Pictures. That film and Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which is being shot at the highest frame rate ever used on a feature, represent some of the ways that Rothman hopes Sony will differentiate itself from Disney and others. He wants to use technology to create films that have to be experienced on the bigscreen, much as James Cameron did with “Avatar” and director Alfonso Cuaron did in Warner Bros.’ “Gravity.”

Discovering the next big thing in film could provide a capstone to a career that’s seen Rothman scale peaks and plunge into valleys.

“I don’t really know that the long-term future of the movie business is the sequelization of life,” Rothman said. “I’m not really sure that the studio that will be the market leader a decade from now will be the one with the most sequels as opposed to the most innovative one or the one that finds what a new event is.

“I genuinely believe there are audiences out there for other, big worldwide event films, and I think the studio in the next few years that manages to innovate and capture them — that may be the single most important nut to crack,” said Rothman. “What is it that’s going to galvanize audiences who aren’t interested in comicbooks. They can’t be the only viewers.”

Lifting Sony out of the basement could result in the kind of rapturous headlines that Fox received last year, partly on the strength of films he helped Gianopulos nurture, such as “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” But that will require bold decisions, and earning the trust of filmmakers and his own staff.

For Rothman, the ultimate question is how well his own sequel will play out on Hollywood’s big stage.