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Tom Rothman on New Sony Pictures Job: ‘I Love a Challenge’

Tom Rothman takes over Sony Pictures as the studio is trying to revitalize and relaunch key franchises such as “Ghostbusters” and “Spider-Man.”

It’s an experience that the former Fox Filmed Entertainment chief is familiar with, because when he assumed leadership at that studio in 2000, it had yet to mount many of its biggest series and reboots, such as “X-Men” and “Planet of the Apes.”

His ability to replenish Fox’s blockbuster cupboard, as well as his ties to A-list talent such as Ang Lee, George Clooney and Jodie Foster, is a major reason he was selected to run Sony over such potential candidates as production chief Michael De Luca and motion picture group president Doug Belgrad, according to individuals with knowledge.

“Every studio needs franchises,” Rothman told Variety. “That was the case when we took over at Fox and that took time to build it up and it will take time here. It’s very important but it’s equally important to have a diverse slate of films that perform profitably.”

Rothman, 60, has been on the Sony lot for many months now, having taken over the studio’s TriStar Pictures label in 2013. That exposure allowed him to create a comfort level with executives in Culver City.

“I’ve had the benefit of working here for a year,” Rothman said. “I know the people very well and I like them very much.”

At Fox, Rothman had a reputation for being tough. The movies that he and Jim Gianopulos greenlit may have done $40 billion in box office and scored 150 Academy Award nominations, but Rothman’s emphasis on keeping costs in check and his hands-on approach rubbed some people the wrong way.

In an interview with Variety, Rothman declined to address his reputation for being prickly and controlling, but he did hit back at claims that he is obsessed with cost-cutting. “You need to be financially prudent, but creatively ambitious,” he said.

Rothman’s selection for the post happened quickly and secretly. He spoke to Kazuo “Kaz” Hirai, CEO of parent Sony Corp. before being promoted to the executive suite. But his final selection was left to Sony Pictures Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton, who made the decision final over the weekend, according to Sony insiders.

Rothman said he came away from his meeting with the Sony brass convinced he would have the support he needed, getting assurances that the studio was committed to the content business for the long term.

Key to Lynton’s decision was Rothman’s prior experience running a studio. Sony is still recovering from a devastating hack attack launched by North Korea in retaliation for the release of “The Interview,” a comedy about an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un. The cyber attack led to the exposure of many executive emails, among them Amy Pascal, the ousted studio chief that Rothman replaces. In the messages, Pascal wrote disparagingly of movie stars such as Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Rothman’s Rolodex is seen as critical to restoring some of those ties to top talent. His experience as a studio chief was also critical because Lynton is planning to spend more time away from Hollywood in New York, where he oversees Sony’s music businesses.

With Rothman named to the top job in Sony’s film universe, Pascal’s planned May departure from her executive chair will be accelerated. She will begin immediately to help Rothman make his transition before segueing into a lucrative production deal on the Sony lot.

At TriStar, Rothman has been busy lining up films such as “The Walk,” a Robert Zemeckis-directed look at World Trade Center tightrope walker Philippe Petit, and “Money Monster,” a financial thriller starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney. These are modestly-budgeted productions aimed at adults that Rothman insists will still have a place at Sony despite the emphasis on tentpole creation.

Part of the reason for that is that Sony has a divisional structure. Units such as TriStar, Sony Animation, Screen Gems, specialty arm Sony Pictures Classics and Studio 8 — former Warner Bros. film chief Jeff Robinov’s new venture — are tasked with fielding movies from a range of genres and budgets. Maintaining and strengthening that infrastructure will be a priority for Rothman, who oversaw a similar portfolio at Fox.

Taking the job at Sony carries significant risks for Rothman, but the veteran executive claims that’s part of what attracted him to the gig.

“I love a challenge and I think there’s a fabulous base in place here,” he said. “This is a really good company with great potential.”

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