Nearing 20-Month Mark, Sony’s Tom Rothman Reviews Progress And Prospects At A Rapidly Changing Movie Studio

Photo by Eric Charbonneau.

Nearly 20 months into his tenure as the chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture group, Thomas E. Rothman reckons he and his peers at the studio are about where Winston Churchill stood in November 1942, as the tides of World War II were turning.

“It is not the end,” said Rothman, paraphrasing Churchill, who spoke as his generals turned back Germany’s Rommel at El Alamein.

“It is not even the beginning of the end,” Rothman continued, speaking in a telephone interview this week. “But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

Melodramatic? A bit. Rothman hastened to make clear that Sony Pictures, when he inherited command from Amy Pascal in February 2015, was hardly a smoking ruin. As recently as 2012, the studio had topped the domestic box office charts with such hits as Skyfall, The Amazing Spider-Man and Men in Black 3. Even the lingering effects of an assault by the activist investor Daniel Loeb and a brutally destructive digital hack didn’t stop Sony from finishing 40-plus percent above Paramount and Lionsgate in last year’s box office standings.

But Sony’s film studio is a very different company than it was a year and a half ago, as became apparent in a review of operations with Rothman — who agreed, albeit reluctantly, to discuss his executive progress at Deadline’s request.

Specifically, he noted, Sony’s film operation, which sometimes struggled with profitability even when market share was high, is making good money. In the past half-year, Miracles From Heaven, The Angry Birds Movie, The Shallows, Sausage Party, The Magnificent Seven, Money Monster and especially Don’t Breathe — a low-cost, high-return horror film — have helped the studio into the black. An all-female Ghostbusters was a financial disappointment and a public relations headache, but its expected loss to the studio is about $30 million, according to people briefed on the film, much less than figures widely reported. “In the last four or five months, we’ve had a terrific box office run, from a profitability point of view,” Rothman said.

As for the grand, strategic viewpoint, Rothman is correct in noting that Sony Pictures, like Great Britain as it muddled through Africa on its way to Italy and France, is within view of a new day — and of all the battles that will come with it.

In wide-ranging recent conversations — some on the record, some not — Rothman and other Sony executives, affiliated producers and people briefed on the studio’s business described a transformation that is putting Rothman’s stamp on a film operation that had been closely identified with Pascal since 1996, when she became its president, and, later, its film group chairman. Both worked under the current Sony Pictures Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton. But each enjoyed considerable latitude in hiring, picture-picking and strategic direction; and as Rothman, a former Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman, works through the second year of his tenure, a much different Sony Pictures is becoming visible.

Some of the changes are an inevitable, and perhaps overdue, response to obvious shifts in the film business.

Rothman’s Sony, for instance, is markedly more global in orientation than was Pascal’s. That became apparent last month as the studio joined China’s Dalian Wanda Group in a deal under which Wanda will invest in Sony films and assist their distribution and marketing in China, while looking to highlight Chinese elements in the movies it takes under wing.

Mostly, the Chinese alliance is a matter of common sense; Rothman, like much of Hollywood, is looking toward a day, near at hand, when China’s box office sales will outstrip those in the United States.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence star in Columbia Pictures' PASSENGERS.

But it is also part of a new, international focus that last week found dozens of Sony marketing and distribution executives, including new managing directors from territories such as China and France, huddling with Rothman at the studio’s Culver City headquarters. While not unprecedented, such gatherings have become more frequent as the studio looks more closely at not just the domestic market — where Pascal often scored hits with gut-driven comedies including Super Bad and Pineapple Express — but at worldwide prospects for planned films like the Stephen King fantasy adventure The Dark Tower or the space thriller Passengers — both of which, if all goes well, should sell even more tickets abroad than at home.

Another change involves the studio’s approach to its “labels” — internal filmmaking units that have considerable autonomy in developing, producing and, to some extent, marketing, their own films.

At Sony, the principal labels include Columbia Pictures, TriStar, Screen Gems, Sony Pictures Classics, Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, a specialty film unit that often is associated with the studio’s forays into faith-based movies. All of those operations, of course, pre-dated Rothman’s arrival from Fox in 2013, when he took charge of a restructured TriStar.

Without a fat wallet to shop for units like Disney’s Pixar, Marvel or Lucasfilm, Rothman instead is pushing several of his inherited labels toward a more distinctive posture.

Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) in Columbia Pictures' THE DARK TOWER.
Sony Pictures

Columbia, under a new, hand-picked president in ex-Fox executive Sanford Panitch, for instance, is supposed to concentrate heavily on the search for global blockbusters. That can mean pairing superstars with a fantasy-oriented script. Such is the play with The Dark Tower, which stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey; Passengers, which pairs Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt; and Jumanji, which revives an old Sony family adventure with Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Dwayne Johnson, who, as The Rock, has strong international appeal. A new Blade Runner sequel is perhaps less about star power (though it features Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford) than brand recognition; Sony is taking foreign rights, while Warner, working with its Alcon partners, distributes in the U.S. Spider-Man: Homecoming, of which Pascal is a producer, has a little-known lead, Tom Holland, and an even lesser-known director, Jon Watts. But a close association with Marvel’s Kevin Feige, who also is producing, is promising to make the film a full-blown superhero event, with appearances by Robert Downey Jr and others from a Marvel universe that mostly now belongs to Disney.

“We had basically the greatest trailer in history,” Rothman says of Disney’s Captain America: Civil War, a Marvel ensemble that featured a well-received Holland as Spider-Man.

The Walk VFX

TriStar, run by Hannah Minghella since Rothman became studio chief, by contrast is supposed to be a directors’ label, built around relatively low-cost films from filmmakers of repute. Its first high-profile movie, The Walk, from Robert Zemeckis, was a daring misfire; portraying a dizzying digital walk between the World Trade Center towers, it took in just $10 million North America (and a little over $50 million abroad) after opening last year. Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash, with Meryl Streep, did less well, with about $41 million worldwide sales. But TriStar is sticking with the formula, first with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a 3D, high-frame-rate visual experiment from Ang Lee, which closes the New York Film Festival on October 14; then with Danny Boyle’s T2: Trainspotting, in February; and then with Edgar Wright’s high-energy caper, Baby Driver, set for March. Last week, TriStar closed a deal to make a film version of The Alchemist, a worldwide best-selling novel by Paul Coehlo, in a partnership with PalmStar Media and Laurence Fishburne, adding the book to a growing roster of development properties.

Adamant in his defense of the TriStar formula, Rothman pointed to T2 as a potential “event” film in Great Britain and Australia, regardless of its performance in the United States. “That movie is Star Wars in the UK,” he said, with a bit of obvious exaggeration.

At Sony Pictures Animation, Rothman’s principal aim is to increase production. The animation unit, by his estimate, had typically delivered a film about once every 18 months. Under Kristine Belson, hired last year from DreamWorks Animation, he expects to see two or three animated films each year, including Smurfs: The Lost Village in April; The Emoji Movie: Express Yourself in August; and The Star, a faith-based animation that tells the Nativity story from a donkey’s point of view, in November 2017.

Sony’s other units, at least for the moment, are likely to operate much as they have. Screen Gems, Sony’s prolific genre operation, remains under the stewardship of its longtime chief Clint Culpepper. Sony Pictures Classics, based in New York, is still the art house preserve of Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. The acquisitions group, which delivered the low-budget horror hit Don’t Breathe, continues under Steve Bersch, a Fox veteran who has been with Sony since 2008.

For all those units, as at Fox, Rothman has insisted on tightening expenditures. An inside joke says that he hasn’t cut the size of the cups and raised prices in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf — “yet.” But the exec insisted that he has squeezed only in the service of screen art.

“A well-run, successful movie company today is one that is financially prudent, so that it can be creatively reckless,” he said.

Such is the theory.

Still, theory, in the film business, is a slippery thing. September 2006 found Rothman, then at Fox, telling a Merrill Lynch media and entertainment conference about a grand strategy that involved the growth of Fox Atomic, deeper ties with the family-oriented Walden Media and the exploitation of synergies with the Fox-associated MySpace.

Ten years later, that array is just a memory. And Rothman, now at Sony, is suddenly looking, like Churchill, past the end of his new beginning and toward the gritty middle of things.

To date, he has been helped by legacy projects, some of which — Ghostbusters notwithstanding — contributed to the studio’s recent profitability. Such was the case with The Magnificent Seven, an Antoine Fuqua-directed Western starring Denzel Washington that unexpectedly broke through the September box office doldrums with a $35 million opening, and more than $100 million in worldwide ticket sales to date.

“Tom could have killed it,” said Todd Black, a producer of the film, who had developed it in close association with Roger Birnbaum and MGM.

“He could have said no to it; but he stood behind it,” continued Black, who said the film got its greenlight almost exactly as Rothman was taking over from Pascal. As the movie was shot, added Black, Rothman’s famous attention to detail — he is known to share strong opinions and sometimes has alienated filmmakers — actually worked in its favor. “We all fully credit him,” said Black, for insisting on shooting an insert, to stretch the tension in a final showdown between Washington and the film’s villain, played by Peter Sarsgaard.

Another perhaps surprising tribute comes from Michael De Luca, a producer who resigned as a Sony executive following Rothman’s arrival, after having joined Minghella in a 10-month campaign to refresh the studio’s bank of potential film franchises by cultivating filmmakers purchasing material for them.

“It was heartbreaking,” said De Luca, speaking of his own abortive push to bolster the studio’s seemingly thin bank of potential film franchises. But, he said, Rothman and his new executives — including Panitch, who replaced studio president Doug Belgrad — have “picked up that baton.” In an interview last week, De Luca added: “Tom loves movies. He is one of the few remaining CEOS who do. I’m pulling for him.”

(A bespectacled film fan whose intensity hits the vibration point at times, Rothman, now 61, once told the Los Angeles Times of having decided to work in Hollywood after spotting Jessica Harper in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise in the 1970s — and then married her in 1989.)

Rothman, for his part, challenged the notion that Sony lacks franchises; the studio, he maintained, simply needs to do more with properties that are potentially as valuable as any at, say, Universal or Fox. Ron Howard’s Inferno, a next entry in the Da Vinci Code series, counts among the legacy projects; set for domestic release on October 28, it came together with De Luca’s help. But what becomes of Men in Black and Jump Street, for instance, is a hot topic at Sony. The studio currently is developing new films based on each but also is working on the script for a project that would combine the two. Whether Ghostbusters will yield a new live-action movie anytime soon is yet to be decided. But plans remain in the works for an animated series and feature. The biggest question, of course, is the James Bond series, Sony’s rights to which have expired. Rothman flatly declined to describe the studio’s posture toward Bond, saying that discussion would be premature. But it is clear that Sony, having prospered in partnership with Eon Productions, MGM and others with films like Skyfall and Spectre, will join the bidding for the next round of Bonds and likely will point to its Wanda alliance as an example of new strength it can bring to the table.

Pascal, now a producer with a portfolio of Sony projects, did not respond to queries. But people familiar with her current operation say she is at peace with her status as one of the studio’s prime producers and largelyhas  pushed away those who would complain of Rothman’s somewhat heavier touch.

Privately, Sony-affiliated producers say Rothman has given marketing considerations a much stronger role in determining which films get a green light. That can be a turn-off for filmmakers, who would prefer that a studio figure out how to sell their vision rather than ask them to envision what can sell.

Yet Rothman describes his approach somewhat differently. Every film, he says, should come with a sense of “real urgency” for its intended target, whether that is a deep, horror-attuned audience — as with Don’t Breathe, which the studio estimates will take in about $140 million on a budget of $10 million — or a tentpole like Spider-Man, which now is reattached to the crowd-attracting Marvel universe.

Sony Pictures

To cultivate urgency, Rothman, working with his marketing chief, Josh Greenstein, has sometimes shifted spending toward digital media. Fully half the marketing budget for Don’t Breathe went to digital outlets, compared to 10 perncet or 20 percent on other such films.

In other cases, he apparently is willing to be “creatively reckless” and find urgency in the filmmakers’ daring.

That approach is driving The Solutrean, an unusually difficult film being financed and produced by Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8, a Sony-affiliated company. Directed by Albert Hughes with 20-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee in a lead role, the film is set 20,000 years in the past and tells the story of an Ice Age hunter who is injured and separated from his tribe. Alone, he wounds, then befriends, an attacking wolf. The ensuing adventure, according to people familiar with the film, might recall The Revenant — but its dialogue is in an imagined past language, and The Solutrean’s prehistoric beasts are considerably more challenging than Leo’s grizzly bear.

Another challenge, of course, is Billy Lynn, which Lee shot in 3D and in an ultra-high, 120 frames-per-second format that creates a radically heightened visual experience but can only be displayed in its full glory on a handful of screens.

Viewers in Los Angeles and New York, said Rothman, certainly will be able to see Billy Lynn in its full format. Most people around the world, he added, will see it at an elevated frame rate and in 3D, while others might see it in a more traditional format. But all, he noted, will experience the effect of the director’s unusual, high-speed “capture” technique.

The financial risk to Sony, in any case, is modest. The budget, of about $40 million, was shared with partners that include Studio 8 and China’s Bona Film Group. And that bit of creative recklessness, said Rothman, is good for the movies.

As an industry, “we need to be doing more to compel people to look up from their devices,” he said.

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