Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: Tom Rothman, Sony’s production chief, has asked me a number of times, “Why does the media like to beat up on me?” He has reason to ask at the moment, and I have several answers for him. First, tough questions are being put to every studio chief from Brad Grey to Lionsgate’s recently departed Rob Friedman. The job is getting tougher. Second, some of the criticisms of Rothman are valid, in my opinion. He is prone to be a bully. He’s tried it on me. On a personal level I like Tom Rothman with all his flaws, but I don’t have to work for him. He is very smart and truly understands the art and business of filmmaking. A few years ago he did an excellent weekly TV series profiling classic movies – what other studio chief ever took on that challenge? Rothman said some very nice things to me about how I helped inspire his TV appearances – but shortly thereafter, when he disliked a piece I wrote about him, he contacted the corporate chiefs of my parent company to get me fired (he failed). Is Rothman a bad guy? No, but he just can’t contain himself. Variety, for one, reported on the impact of this intemperate behavior on Sony employees. Morale has suffered.
FLEMING: Some of this amuses me because I recall that at Variety, you used to dress me down over criticisms Rothman made to you over things I wrote about Fox. It also seems like you have embraced this nameless, faceless narrative that was sold to the trades, and I don’t really understand why it is newsworthy when it was so shadowy and lacking in specificity. Morale was pretty bad at Sony after the hack, so that’s not new: beyond the catty private e-mails, everyone’s Social Security numbers and personal information was made public and Amy Pascal lost her job and the slate looked thin. Michael Lynton had a choice: He could have coronated a combination of Michael De Luca and Doug Belgrad to run the studio. That prospect intrigued many in town who remember Mike’s wunderkind run at New Line, and respect those guys and their complementary skills. Lynton instead gave the job to Rothman. Knowing full well that he is a bottom line-oriented guy who is very hands on — perhaps too much so when he exited Fox, to the point filmmakers bristled at the micro-managing culture — but who also, with Jim Gianopulos, built an enviable infrastructure designed to fully exploit tentpoles on a global platform and return profits to the bottom line.
Rothman is overhauling the culture and changing Sony’s marketing, production and distribution priorities, to maximize global revenues, and that included the Wanda deal that gives its tentpoles a better launch pad in China. Such an undertaking is rarely gentle and it hasn’t been here. De Luca and Belgrad left and running production is Sanford Panitch, who spent the past decade and a half putting together local-language films at Fox and Sony. Rothman has hunted for slates designed to feed these new ambitions, buying foreign territories on the Denis Villenueve-directed Blade Runner 2049 with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, and co-financing the Skydance Mars mission thriller Life with Ryan Gosling and Jake Gyllenhaal when Paramount did not step up. In Sony’s recent earnings call, Rothman’s division is up by $200 million, and would have done better had Lone Star Capital not escaped its co-financing commitment on Ghostbusters (something Deadline revealed in our Wanda deal coverage). But never mind all that; by your logic and the trade coverage, Rothman should be cowed because some unidentified people complained to HR that he is too tough. Well, boo hoo.
BART: Well, I’m sure Rothman will appreciate the wet kiss you just gave him. And I don’t remember killing any story on Rothman’s behest.
FLEMING: You know who gave Rothman a wet kiss? Ang Lee, during the New York Film Festival premiere of Billy Lynn. I mean, a real big one, right on the kisser. This, despite a second Rothman story that they clashed during the making of that film. They have clashed on every movie they’ve made together — for 25 years according to people who know them well. In a lengthy Deadline interview on the night of the NYFF premiere, Ang told Deadline how testy it was. He also noted that he sold Rothman on a film made with 64 frames a second and 2K resolution technology. Then, he and his technical advisers discovered that taking it all the way to 120 and 4K brought revolutionary clarity so the eye sees the images they way it does real life. It made post production easier, something about the math working better. But it requires theaters to spend $100,000 in equipment to show the film in its best form, which Lee calls “The Whole Shebang,” and it has been an abrupt adjustment for some critics.
Is it a big story they had hard conversations? I’m told that reports Rothman rescinded the number of “whole shebang” screens are false, and that they had just as many or more fights on Life Of Pi. If Lee makes his Thrilla In Manila film elsewhere because of Rothman, that is a big story. If Rothman’s style drives out an important executive or filmmaker, same thing. If Sony loses the 007 franchise because they don’t like him, that too is a story, even though it seems to me that the Bond deal is about money and whoever gives the rights-holders the best terms wins distribution rights. Under the last deal Amy Pascal made to keep 007, the rights-holders at Danjaq made more money than Sony, even though the studio put up the budget. MGM got half of the 21 Jump Street franchise, sequels and the upcoming mashup of that film with Men In Black, and MGM gets to put it through its ancillary pipelines, leaving Sony’s loyal foreign distribution partners on the outside. Because of all this, many felt the deal is close to a loss leader. I doubt Rothman will make that deal, and maybe Warner Bros is better positioned to come closest and win the day, as has been widely rumored.
And you never killed one of my stories because of Rothman, but you certainly called me a few times after he dissected what I wrote about things like the derailment of the Jay Roach-directed film Used Guys with Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller. You only killed a story on me once, when I interviewed Howard Stern on his bitter legal battle with Les Moonves. I gave a courtesy heads up to CBS corporate, which never called me back, but clearly Moonves called you and suddenly the story was dead as disco.
BART: I don’t recall that, either.
FLEMING: It’s old history and I don’t bring it up to throw it in your face, though it certainly bothered me at the time. Stern discussed it on his Sirius show, which I love, but was gracious enough not to roll me under the bus after I wasted his time. I only bring it up for this reason: you had the right to choose battles for Variety. If I didn’t like it, I could have exited. But you also allowed me to cover the Hollywood film industry in the Dish column from my house on Long Island (which I still do), when such a thing was unheard of. I will be forever grateful. Swinging back to our original discussion, I wonder if Lee delivered that smooch at NYFF because he too got what he wanted: an unprecedented cinematic accomplishment that was his dream. It took exactly the form he wanted it to, and probably no studio chief other than Rothman would have done that when two or so theaters will show it in that “Whole Shebang” form. I was gobsmacked by the results, and exhibitors really ought to look hard at the 120 frame, 4K 3D version as a possible future for them. Lee told me it can’t be replicated on an iPhone or streaming device, and could be the exclusive domain of the theatrical moviegoing experience at a time when film seems to be standing still while TV and streaming are running circles around it with technological innovations. If Rothman rode herd to keep that film on its $40 million budget so the studio won’t get hurt on this experimental film, is that so bad?
BART: Here’s the rub: It’s impossible to be loved if you’re the boss of production. Too many tough decisions cross your desk. Rothman’s predecessor, Pascal, once appeared on my own TV show (with Peter Guber) and chronicled the problems of the job – the habit of some filmmakers, for example, to agree up front on budget and story points only to abandon their pledges once they got the green light. Over the years I’ve known and worked with some studio chief who, despite their keen talent, were unable to control their tempers (Stanley Jaffe) or greed (David Begelman) or egoes (Robert Evans). Some production chiefs, however, have been gifted at making stars and star filmmakers feel that, whatever the challenges, they were on their side: John Calley and Sherry Lansing were the classic examples in proving that you could still make the tough decisions without making filmmakers feel stomped on. Tom Rothman perhaps needs to ponder their philosophies.
FLEMING: How things have changed. I imagine every studio chief is steely tough when needed. We just watched Stacey Snider, marginalized when she left DreamWorks for Fox, getting Rupert Murdoch’s sons to back her as the future of Fox. Before you know it, Gianopulos is out and executives are leaving there in droves as she overhauls one of the most stable studios in town. You think Donna Langley or Ron Meyer were nice when things went awry with Adam Fogelson and he was blindsided on that flight back from the Toronto Film Festival and deposed as chairman? These people are survivors. Past studios chiefs wore toughness on their sleeves. Remember when Jaffe screamed so hard in a meeting that his nose bled? Or how, after clashing with Paramount exec David Kirkpatrick on School Ties, Jaffe became his boss and Kirkpatrick found his office furniture deposited on the lawn outside? Now, those were some good stories, because there were specifics tied to them. By comparison, the Rothman stuff feels a bit vague. It sends a message he needs to dial it back, but ultimately he’ll be judged on whether or not his vision for Sony’s film operations work, creatively and in the bottom line, and we won’t know that answer for a while, when his slates either work or don’t. That is my point.
BART: Next subject. In taking on the job as Oscar show producers, Jennifer Todd and Michael De Luca stressed that they wanted their telecast to “celebrate diversity.” Chris Rock’s one-liner calling the Oscars “the white People’s Choice Awards” still resonates with them apparently. Here’s my caution, however: In view of the formidable outpouring of black films and TV shows, I wonder whether the producers shouldn’t let the product speak for itself. At least two movies with major black casting, Fences and Moonlight, are front-runners for awards consideration, not to mention Hidden Figures, Loving and the troubled Birth Of A Nation. In television, a wave of new shows like Atlanta (FX), Luke Cage (Netflix), Insecure (HBO) and Queen Sugar (OWN) not only have strong black casts but are coming up with promising ratings.
FLEMING: De Luca and Todd might well have been chosen for the last Oscarcast, but they were too busy doing the PGA Awards. They’ve clearly thought about this, they love movies and I bet they stress that as opposed to some political agenda. I haven’t seen Moonlight or Hidden Figures yet, and it feels like The Birth Of A Nation faded, but I did see Fences and it was overwhelming and might well be the film to beat in all the major categories.
BART: In view of all this, arguably it would be a good idea for the Academy to avoid boasting about its own steps toward diversifying membership. Of the Academy’s new members, 41% are people of color and 46% are female. All these are important steps. To crow about diversity on national television, however, may seem more shrill and defensive rather than to let the results speak for themselves.
FLEMING: I don’t think that’s going to be the narrative, though it might come down to who they select as host. They certainly should look hard at Kevin Hart, not because he is black but because of how funny he was in his Oscar stint, and because his films have mass appeal. How about pairing him with his Central Intelligence co-star Dwayne Johnson, and turn the Oscars from elitist into an Academy Award celebration for the masses. Now, that would be disruptive.