“The sun is shining on Culver City through the smog,” is how Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Rothman began a call Monday to discuss Sony’s strong Oscar nomination showing. The studio reaped a haul of 20 noms – 10 for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, six for Little Women, a Best Supporting Actor nom for Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, two for the Pedro Almodovar-directed Pain and Glory (Best International Feature and Best Actor for Antonio Banderas).
Even in his years atop Fox with movies like Titanic, Avatar and Life of Pi, Rothman was hard-pressed to recall a bigger haul for a studio he has overseen, and certainly not two Best Picture nominations in the same race, which happened for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Little Women.
Rothman believes the results speak to the viability of the theatrical release in creating zeitgeist global currency, and he also believes that Sony’s hustle has put it in a good position to be the home for what might well be Quentin Tarantino’s final film, when he decides what that is.
Rothman took a risk when he stepped up for Tarantino’s movie. The director had made all his films at either Miramax or The Weinstein Company for Harvey Weinstein, but his film shook loose when that studio collapsed in scandal. Rothman said he and his team believed in the script and committed before the film became a real event, when Tarantino got Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to rejoin him. Sony stepped up big financially.
“In a way it’s extra appropriate on this day, when great movies themselves are recognized, because that is the ultimate movie lover’s movie, made by the ultimate movie lover,” he said. While he lamented that the film’s editor, Fred Raskin, got snubbed, he pointed out another category with no nomination that felt appropriate. “No nomination for visual effects was appropriate, because this was made with old fashioned love and care for craft and it wasn’t about visual effects. To see all those other categories being nominations, and in Quentin’s case they are largely headed by women, for the pure artistry of craft is gratifying, and I know it means much to him.
“From the beginning, when we first brought in 30 Sony people in the room to audition for this project, we always saw it as a movie theater proposition,” Rothman said. “When we committed, neither Leonardo nor Brad were attached and that was one of the big leaps of faith. I always thought the script was so good that it was going to be an exceptional experience for an audience. Unlike the time that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was made, it’s very difficult to pair two superstars; it just doesn’t happen. The pairing of those two guys and the work they did, and the fantastic sense of camaraderie between them…Brad said something smart back at Cannes, that he saw these two characters as halves of one person. I think these two exceptional performances come along once in an era for audiences.”
Rothman said he has no qualms about not pushing Tarantino to make changes to appease the government of China, which reportedly asked for cuts in the scene between Pitt’s Cliff Booth and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee after the late martial artist’s daughter lobbed complaints. Tarantino refused to change a frame and the film did not play in theaters in China.
“I think Quentin did the right thing, and he had our support in doing that,” Rothman said. “Obviously that had financial consequences, but character is tested when things are difficult, and not when they’re easy. When you are in business with singular filmmakers, you have to support those filmmakers. That’s the choice you’ve made, the boat you are on. You have to support the captain. A lot of that was bad luck and timing with everything going on in the world. But I believe he made the right decision.”
As for the hope Tarantino might make what might be his 10th and final film at Sony: “There’s talk, but he’s very much his own man who creates his own stuff and that comes from his own fevered imagination. From everything he has said, he is happy with the results, and the job Sony did for him. So I would like to think we are in pole position. But nothing is imminent; he’s writing a book and there’s other things he’s doing. But I am pretty confident this won’t be the last time we work together.”
Sony scored a second Best Picture nomination with Little Women, but described that film as “bittersweet” in that Greta Gerwig got snubbed for Best Director (she was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay).
“It’s wonderful to see the movie receive Best Picture and for Greta to be nominated as screenwriter, but the movie didn’t direct itself and I would say that Greta is not a great female director, she is a great film director. From a degree-of-difficulty standpoint, to take something the audience thinks it is familiar with and reinvent it with such modernity and verve, it takes a colossally talented director to be able to do that.
“At the end of the day, the nominations for Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan, and being nominated for Best Picture is something she, Amy Pascal, and everyone can take great satisfaction in, and that’s what I choose to focus on. Also, this is a box office hit and the more people who see it, the more realize how startlingly original it feels.”
Rothman was pleased to see Hanks get his first nomination in nearly two decades, the last coming for 2000’s Cast Away, a movie that Robert Zemeckis directed at Fox under Rothman’s watch.
“It’s a masterful performance from a guy who has continued to turn them in since Cast Away and for my money should be nominated every year,” Rothman said. “Marielle Heller directed his performance with vision and deserves a great deal of credit. All of these movies have a strategic commonality, which is, get in business with good filmmakers, and take risks with them and support them.”
Rothman called the twice-nominated Sony Pictures Classics drama Pain and Glory “a beautiful film, and in a very competitive category it is particularly gratifying to see Antonio Banderas get nominated for all of the great performances he has turned in. It is a great credit to Almodovar and Sony Pictures Classics and the consistency of their work to see the nomination in [Best International Feature Film]. This show’s it’s not just a young man’s game; you have to have lived a lifetime to make an exquisite movie like this.”
Rothman also exhorted the studio’s final nom, for the Sony Pictures Animation short Hair Love. “It’s a marvelous film, and the diversity is important. The film is rooted in African American culture and it just works.”
Rothman’s final point about the Sony nominations is that it proves his belief that streaming disruption aside, there is nothing quite like a theatrically released and marketed movie.
“I’m extra optimistic this morning, but the streaming doesn’t worry me much,” he said. “What we have to remember is to make great movies, because if you do, the theatrical experience isn’t going anywhere. Movie theater movies are the ones that make a cultural impact, worldwide, and move audiences en masse. Part of it is exactly because it requires effort on the part of the audience to make a difficult competitive choice that I’m going to get up off my couch and see it on the big screen. Some of it is the enormity of the marketing dollars spent, but it all creates a cultural impact that cannot be duplicated,” he said. “America is always cyclical, but I read that this was a record year at the worldwide box office, for all the doom and gloom that you hear.”