Going from co-president of a major movie studio — otherwise known as the guy who holds the purse strings — to a film producer dependent on that person’s largess could be very discombobulating. But Matt Tolmach has turned his experience as a longtime Columbia Pictures executive into more than a billion dollars of box office as a producer.
Over the past decade, he’s produced megahit “Spider-Man” movies, the smash success of “Venom,” and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the latter of which grossed nearly a billion dollars on its own worldwide. His latest, “Jumanji: The Next Level,” arrives in theaters Dec. 13.
For “Jumanji” star Dwayne Johnson, Tolmach’s production talent stems from his boardroom experience.
“Matt comes with a unique and broad 30,000-foot perspective, having been the co-president of Columbia Pictures,” Johnson says. “He’s transitioned into a high-value producer who has the proven skills for delivering successful and highly profitable global movies — an accomplishment that’s very hard to do in today’s business climate.”
Tolmach was born and raised in Washington, D.C., but a Hollywood family lineage nudged him into the movie business.
“My grandfather was a man named Sam Jaffe, a big deal agent who represented Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and all kinds of really fabulous writers. When I was graduating from a small liberal arts college and threatening to go home to Washington, D.C., and write a novel and live in the attic, my mother quickly called my grandfather and said ‘You’ve got to get Matthew a job, this can’t happen.’”
Jaffe called his grandson with 10 days left in his final college semester and said: “What’s this crap about you wanting to become a writer? You’re not a writer. Come on out to the coast and I’ll get you a job at the Morris office.” Tolmach says he had no idea what the “Morris office” meant, “but I interviewed and was hired and found myself in the mailroom at William Morris in 1986.” His novel remains unwritten.
According to Amy Pascal, who ran Sony Pictures during Tolmach’s tenure at Columbia, and now works as a producer: “When we started Turner Pictures, Matt might have been the first person I even hired. And we’ve been working together pretty much ever since.” During their time on the Sony lot in Culver City, she says they spoke on the phone “many, many times a day.”
“He’s really driven,” Pascal adds, “and he works as hard as anyone I’ve ever met. He believes in talent. He finds talent. He makes things happen.”
Pascal says Tolmach’s movies are noteworthy for being “really smart, really entertaining, really ambitious and bold. And, as I think we’ve all seen, really commercial.”
As co-president of Columbia, Tolmach oversaw the production of unlikely hits including “Superbad,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Step Brothers.” Good executives don’t let personal taste dictate their decision-making, but Tolmach says he often found himself fighting for mid-budget comedies. He also thinks they still have a bright future, despite changing audience habits.
“Comedy tends to be a communal experience,” he says. “There’s nothing like that viral experience of hearing an audience doubled-over laughing, and that isn’t going away.”
Seth Rogen, who is executive producer of the Hulu comedy “Future Man” with Tolmach, suggests that he’s an ideal partner for getting comedy projects off the ground.
“Tolmach has been on both sides of the studio infrastructure and that knowledge is priceless,” Rogen says. “He has a remarkable understanding of what it takes to get something made, and he knows everyone, and despite his role in the studio for years, is still very well liked.”
Tolmach’s good reputation stems in part from his nose for hits.
“I like commercial movies that are about characters who are on some kind of journey to figure out who they are. ‘Who am I?’ Maybe that’s a question I’m asking the universe, but every time I’m developing a movie, there’s a note on the page that asks, ‘Who am I?’”
When asked how he’s applied lessons from his time as an executive to his work as a producer, Tolmach says the major lessons learned come from before he embarked on a Hollywood career.
“I feel blessed to have had a really great education,” he says. “I went to a tiny school where I was taught that reading and having a point of view and not being afraid to speak it was the most important thing in the world. It was why I got promoted out of the mail room, and it’s been the thing that’s been most meaningful to me in every incarnation of my professional life.”