Sony Pictures Entertainment Group Motion Pictures Chairman Tom Rothman was understandably in a very good mood after Tuesday night’s smash Cannes Film Festival world premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one of his studio’s key hopes not only for this summer (July 26 domestic release) but also for Oscar season. In fact, when I caught up with him at the J.W. Marriott rooftop party at Terrasse by Albane, he already had changed into a T shirt under his tux jacket that figures into part of the film’s costume design (!).
Rothman told me the key reason Sony Pictures (after previous Tarantino film distributor Harvey Weinstein’s downfall) won the rights from writer-director-producer Quentin Tarantino, a fierce believer in the big-screen experience and a theater owner himself (L.A.’s repertory haven, the New Beverly) was his studio’s shared belief. “We are very, very committed to the theatrical experience,” he said. “[Tarantino] just told me at dinner tonight that that was the thing — to use his phrase — that, quote, ‘rung his bell most,’ was that Sony is very, very committed to the theatrical proposition, by which I mean movies in theaters.” Rothman also emphasized the studio’s belief in “originality,” which certainly is something you don’t always hear a major studio chief emphasizing in this era of sequels, franchises, reboots and remakes.
“We always felt that there still is room for originality as long as there’s cultural urgency that goes with it,” he told me. “And there was a great screenplay, he’s a great director. I think it is really important for major studios to fight to not let originality go extinct.” Rothman added that it is a big commercial bet with the fact it has two huge movie stars in Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, comparing it to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in their prime. “In the modern movie business you don’t get two-big-star pictures — I was going to say ‘often,’ but it is actually almost never. The audience gets a chance to have two for one.” He says the film succeeds creatively because it is very character-driven and has very mature themes in it, a story about coming to terms of what you are in life and what you are not. It’s very relatable, he thinks.
A key point with Tarantino — both in the anti-spoiler Instagram he put out on Monday and with Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux’s unprecedented introduction of the film and its stars and director at the Gala — is that audiences and critics keep the key twists and turns of the movie to themselves. No spoilers on this one. Rothman agrees and thinks maybe people are starting to get the point. “When you see what happened with Avengers: Endgame and even Game of Thrones, I think you have to trust that the large majority of the audience don’t want to have it spoiled,” the exec said. “So I think if you aren’t looking for spoilers, you’re not gonna be spoiled. The audience themselves want that first-time experience. It’s more fun. So you just don’t look at the bride’s dress before you marry her, that’s all,” he added, laughing at his own pure Rothmanism.
The party was packed with a lot of other very happy players including Pitt and DiCaprio, both now Tarantino veterans, with Leo pointing out that QT likes shining a light on characters like the fading TV star Rick Dalton, on actors who don’t often get that big chance to succeed in maybe the way they had hoped. That’s a key theme as stated by Rothman that permeates the movie: hopes and dreams clashing with reality.
When I caught up with Tarantino in a corner of the party, he was huddled with fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez but obviously was happy with the response. Being a native Angeleno, I told him my favorite scene was a poignant one where we see a montage of landmark places in the 1960s era lighting up their signs for the night. He loved that too — a clear homage to the town in which he grew up. I pointed out the homage he gave, sort of, to his own current theater, The New Beverly, but that in 1969 it was a porn house and in the scene Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate sees klieg lights down the street and wonders why a porn theatre would be having a premiere. Tarantino laughed and immediately told me the detailed sordid past of the spot where his own 35MM-film-only movie palace now stands, and that the incident really happened earlier the night Tate was murdered.
I also talked to QT’s fellow producers, Shannon McIntosh, who said they had been working with five different cuts of the film before unspooling the one in Cannes, and David Heyman (Harry Potter, Gravity), who said QT had approached him to do a film previously. He couldn’t at the time, but then when this opportunity came up he jumped at the chance, having been a real admirer of Tarantino’s career. Fremaux, a busy Cannes man who is not much of a fixture at these afterparties, definitely came to this one after presenting the second film of the night (Bong Joon- Ho’s terrific Parasite) and made his way to talk to QT. I asked him if this was the first time he had ever made a no-spoiler announcement, followed by personally introducing the cast members and director himself. Usually at the galas only the director is audibly introduced with fanfare and a voice-over announcement, never anyone else from the film. He confirmed this was a first for a competition movie, at least for him.
Reaction I got afterward was very thumbs-up. Sony Pictures Classics President Michael Barker was effusive about the fact that Sony not only has Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from the big studio but also SPC’s extremely well-received Pedro Almodovar pic Pain and Glory — very personal films for both directors coming out of Cannes and heading to the Oscars, no doubt. IMDb founder Col Needham, who gives an instant numerical ranking to every film he sees anywhere, told me he gave this one a 10, something he never does on first viewing. “It is not only my favorite film of the year so far, it will be my favorite film no matter what comes along,” he predicted. Kodak’s Steve Bellamy called the big set piece that concludes the film (shhhhhh, no spoilers) “the best I have ever seen in any movie.”
Of course, you can go on Twitter and get plenty of other reactions, both pro and not-so-pro, as always with any movie in Cannes. This one seems largely pro. It certainly is from my POV. I am told a big premiere is scheduled for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood before its July 26 opening, on Hollywood Boulevard, naturally. Can’t wait for that, but this Cannes debut will be hard to beat, coming as it did on the exact 25th anniversary of the Cannes premiere of Palme d’Or winner Pulp Fiction. QT does it again.