The Player

By Hugh Hart / March / April 2006
April 11th, 2007

In Hollywood you can measure a player's status by the mementos on display. Looking at the ones in Tom Rothman's otherwise bland corporate office at 20th Century Fox's historic Los Angeles headquarters, you can't help but conclude he must be a class-A studio mogul. Perched on a pedestal next to his receptionist's desk is Wilson, the soccer ball that became Tom Hanks's desert island friend in Cast Away. On a credenza behind Rothman's desk sits Puffy, the plaster schnauzer that bit Ben Stiller in There's Something About Mary. Beside it is the eighteenth-century sword Russell Crowe brandished in Master and Commander. Framed on the wall is a miniature Titanic life jacket, which director James Cameron inscribed "To a fellow survivor."

Cochairman since 2000 of Fox Filmed Entertainment, Rothman has taken some of the biggest risks in the business and has brought in some of the biggest returns. Before snagging the cochair position six years ago, Rothman first proved his moxie when he served as the studio's president of production and decided to gamble on Cameron's way-over-budget vision. "Everybody said Titanic was going to be without doubt the most costly flop in history," Rothman says, getting up from behind the desk where he's spent most of the day crowned with a telephone headset while "parallel processing" (his description) some two hundred e-mails. "We were not just thought to be the dumbest studio executives of the year, but the dumbest in the history of the world. Jim Cameron used to go around afterward and say the Fox executives were dressed in their best and prepared to go down as gentlemen."

Joking about it is easy now. Titanic, after all, won eleven Academy Awards and became the highest-grossing film in history, raking in $1.9 billion. Thanks to this kind of success, Rothman, along with cochairman Jim Gianopulos, six years ago assumed leadership of all Fox film productions. How successful have they been? Last year, when movie revenues slumped about 7 percent overall, Fox improved its bottom line 14 percent over the previous year. The studio produced five top-twenty hits (Robots, Fantastic Four, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Phantom Menace, and Walk the Line), earned $1.35 billion, and bested four of its five major studio rivals in market share. And though Johnny Cash's acoustic guitar has yet to turn up in Rothman's office, Walk the Line was nominated for five Academy Awards.

Rothman strives to appeal to both audiences and critics. In a place of honor among his office mementos, a copy of Goethe's Faust is stacked near a hardbound script for the comic book movie X2. A fan of popcorn movies and classic literature alike, Rothman drew on Winston Churchill's trilogy of World War II memoirs as inspiration to give each X-Men sequel a dramatic subtitle of its own. "Every day," he says, "there's this fault line between art and commerce that runs smack through the middle of what I do. You have to have one foot on either side of that line and try to balance. Every single decision you make has both creative and financial implications."

"I grew up in an unusual family in that my father was a trial lawyer but also the founder of Center Stage, one of the best regional theater companies in the country," Rothman rumbles, his hard-r Baltimore accent intact. "My brother went on to become an actor, my sister is a historian, my other sister is a designer-so there was a lot of discussion in my house about literature, film, and theater."

At the same time, Rothman cultivated killer instincts on the playing fields, concluding his high school career as Maryland's top-scoring high school lacrosse player. Shortly afterward, Brown bumped him up from the waiting list and offered him a spot in the class of 1975. "Draw your own conclusions," he chuckles.

Dom Starsia '74, now the head lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia, was on the Brown team with Rothman and later coached him for two years. He describes Rothman as deceptively easygoing off the field. "Tom was this shaggy-haired liberal lacrosse player," Starsia recalls, "and I think he very much did not want to be thought of as a jock. He was a really interesting guy, and I loved talking to him about a variety of subjects. But when the whistle blew, he was going to run right over the top of you, no question about it. He was one of the most competitive guys I'd ever seen."

Starsia remembers how Rothman was sidelined with an injury midway through his last game, against Penn. A few minutes later, Rothman was back in the action, even though X-rays taken later revealed he'd been playing with a broken neck.

"I knew who I was," says Starsia. "I was a jock. But in those days at Brown, there were guys who worked very hard not to come across as athletes because they didn't want to be thought of just as jocks. They wanted to be recognized for other interests, and justifiably so, because they had lots of other talents." Rothman was one of those guys.

"That's very true," Rothman says. "I was sort of a Shakespeare geek, and I was the only varsity athlete who took modern dance, although it's true, as my own children have accused me, that I only did it to meet girls."

When he wasn't on the lacrosse field or reading Milton in the library, Rothman could often be found at the Avon Theater on Thayer Street, watching Casablanca or catching up on the latest French New Wave epic. "The cinematheque exposed me to a much wider range of films," he says. "Today you can go to the video store or click online and get a movie sent to you. Back then you had to go to the revival house to see not just the international directors but also the American classics. That really broadened my horizons."

After graduating, Rothman briefly taught English at a New England prep school, then he earned a law degree at Columbia, clerked for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and went to work for Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein, and Selz, a show-business law firm. "That's when the other half of my split personality kicked in," he recalls. Rothman had intended to work at the firm only briefly, as he waited for a slot to open up in the Southern District of New York's U.S. Attorney's Office. "But the job turned out to be a gas," he says, "and suddenly there was this whole world that I'd always been interested in."

"I couldn't get anybody to go out with me anyway, so at night I'd work for free trying to raise financing for these filmmakers. It turned out-and it serves me well to this day-that I had a pretty good eye for who was the genuine article and who wasn't."

Jim Jarmusch, Rothman decided, was the real thing. He represented Jarmusch's film debut, Stranger Than Paradise, and coproduced Down by Law, which he accompanied to the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. There, Rothman made a strong impression on movie producer David Puttnam. After Puttnam became president of Columbia Pictures a few months later, he invited Rothman to join him. Rothman moved to California, where he championed Spike Lee's School Daze while working for Puttnam. In 1989, he moved to Samuel Goldwyn Pictures.

"This was the golden period of entrepreneurial, truly independent film companies," Rothman recalls. "It was all about the excitement and the energy and the filmmakers." Goldwyn released early films by Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet), Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply), and David Lynch (Wild at Heart). "We broke some of the voices that continue to make tremendous movies, and we also made the first mainstream commercially released film on AIDS, Longtime Companion," in 1990. Now, Rothman says about Longtime Companion, "it seems, 'What's the big deal?' Believe me, then it was a big deal, and it's the thing I'm most proud of from that period."

But the cash-strapped indie era ended abruptly in 1993, when the Walt Disney Company bought Miramax. "That was seismic," Rothman says. "Up until then, we'd all been undercapitalized, so it was hand-to-mouth. You scrambled around, desperate, crazy: 'What were the grosses gonna be on Henry V?' We heard all the jokes: 'What is this, the sequel to Henry IV? With Ken who?' You were living on a knife's edge, but what made it fair was, so was everybody else.

"Then all of a sudden, somebody else had a massive amount of capital behind them."

Rothman responded to the Disney-Miramax juggernaut with typical bravado. "I wrote down three paragraphs on this piece of paper, this prŽcis I guess you'd call it: What if you could bring an independent aesthetic to the power of major-studio worldwide distribution? What if we didn't have to presell all the [foreign] territories to get money to make the movies, like we did at Goldwyn? Instead of begging somebody to put out your videocassettes, what if you had a real distribution organization? Wow."

Nobody shared Rothman's enthusiasm for corporately funded art-house cinema, he says, except Peter Chernin, who was then chairman of Fox and who is now president and chief operating officer of its parent company, News Corporation. "I went in and quoted Peter a shockingly small number for overhead and said: "You give me that and a year, and I will make for you what Disney just paid $80 million for." Chernin bit, and in 1994, Rothman founded Fox Searchlight. "I moved onto the lot-me and a Rolodex-and that was it."

Fox Searchlight acquired The Brothers McMullen at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. A new breed of major-studio specialty divisions-Paramount Classics, Universal's Focus Features, and Warner Independent-would later emulate Rothman's so-called integrated-independent business model, which tethered small films to big media conglomerates through auteur-friendly subsidiaries. Pointing to Searchlight releases Boys Don't Cry, The Full Monty, Bend It Like Beckham, Kinsey, and 2004 Oscar Best Picture nominee Sideways, Rothman says, "I like to think we have the most stable, specialized distribution business in the world."

Rothman's wife for the past seventeen years has been actress Jessica Harper, who appeared in the original production of Hair and performed in Stardust Memories and Pennies from Heaven. The couple has two daughters, Elizabeth, sixteen, and Nora, fourteen. "It's really good to come home to that," Rothman says. "Because Jessica has been in the business for a long time, she understands what you go through."

Richard Zanuck, who was president of Fox for most of the 1960s, also understands. "You have to have a steel stomach to withstand the pressure," he says. "Every Friday, when you get the box office numbers, you can either sleep well that night or feel like you've just been kicked in the gut. You need the fortitude, and Tom has it."

Rothman has been particularly successful at collaborating with strong-willed talent. Steven Spielberg remembers his first meeting with Rothman when they worked together on the 2002 science-fiction movie Minority Report. "Tom listens to everybody's ideas before offering any of his own, and when he does make a suggestion it's usually so damn good it's almost impossible to ignore," Spielberg noted in an e-mail interview. "Tom is also one tough cookie when it comes to limiting budgets or deciding to go the other way. He's come close to selling the farm several times on films that needed to be extraordinarily expensive but [that] returned millions to 20th Century Fox because Tom had the guts to gamble with Rupert Murdoch's money."

Minority Report was one such gamble. The picture raked in $358 million worldwide. A year later, Fox released the equally expensive superhero sequel X2, which earned $400 million, about $100 million more than its predecessor, X-Men. Avi Arad, president of Marvel Studios, credits Rothman with orchestrating X2's publicity campaign. "For someone with such an extensive law background it's surprising, but Tom is one hell of a promoter," Arad says. "He's become quite the master in the big event film, and he's very hands-on, sometimes to the point of being a pain in the neck. The day Tom moved into his freshly painted new office, I met him and he said, ÔEducate me: who are X-Men?' So Tom came into it more from the intellectual, literary world of films, but now he really understands the [Marvel] universe and how to expand it."

Of course, not all blockbusters have literary merit, and Rothman readily admits that commercial considerations sometimes trump personal taste when he approves a project. "People ask me if it's hard to make movies that you don't personally like or care about, and the answer is, no, actually they're the easiest. When Dude, Where's My Car? is a big hit for us, I have as big a smile on my face as when Cast Away is. Part of my job is to bring my experience to bear on the passions of other people."

As an example, Rothman cites Dodgeball, the 2004 surprise-hit comedy that Fox picked up after rival DreamWorks passed on it. "I can't pretend for a second that Dodgeball was my own personal taste," Rothman explains. "But we had a young executive here, Debbie Liebling, who thought it was hilarious, and so did all the younger people here, so I thought, ÔWell, it isn't a movie made for me, but they totally believe in this.' We have, I believe, the best material executives in the world, so when they're passionate about something, you ignore that passion at your own peril."

Robert Newman, who represents director Baz Luhrmann, director of the 2001 Oscar-nominated and Fox-financed musical Moulin Rouge, sees Rothman as an astute number cruncher blessed with close to perfect pitch for tuning into the Next Big Thing. "Tom is unquestionably the greatest pure deal maker amongst studio chiefs because he has a keen understanding of publicity, marketing, all the ancillary revenues," Newman says. "But the thing that truly sets him apart is that he's exceedingly in tune with the culture and where it's going. That's why he's been able to pilot such a profitable studio. He's able to go after the kinds of stories and storytellers that are necessary to achieve big results for his company."

Although Fox did well last year, the studio will not be forever immune to the trend toward declining box-office receipts in an increasingly fragmented media landscape. "I don't think the easy, manufactured event is going to be as readily accepted," Rothman says about the emerging landscape. "We're moving toward a return, probably, to more complicated stories and maybe a return to a greater level of reality.

"Look," he continues, "I am not a Luddite. There will be digital cinema before too many more years, there will be high-definition video." Still, he says, content will remain key. "The big challenge in features is to remain relevant and generate in the audience a strong want-to-see [factor] whatever the platform may be."

To address the proliferation of "multiple distribution channels and alternative media choices," Rothman recently announced a new, as yet unnamed youth-oriented film division that he predicts will set the pace for rival studios much as his approach at Fox Searchlight did during the 1990s. "It's aimed consciously at teen and young-adult audiences, who are the most frequent moviegoers," he says. "In my opinion, they're also the most demanding media consumers."

Teens have a completely different aesthetic than older film audiences, Rothman observes, and the new division aims to reach them with demographically specific content and marketing. "If it succeeds," Rothman says, "it wouldn't surprise me if in five years we'll see the other studios programming demographically. That's where I think the business is going."

"Jim and I approach this as a partnership," Rothman explains. "Since I came up from the production side, that's my area of expertise, and Jim comes from distribution, so we do tend to lean more on our respective areas of expertise. But we make the major decisions together."

Writer-director Peter Farrelly, who-with brother Bobby-has made several Fox comedies, including There's Something About Mary, told Variety, "If we have a major creative question, we'll tend to go to Tom. If we want the bigger picture-how to sell it, where to take it abroad-we'll probably go to Jim."

Somehow, Rothman has managed to avoid the administrative burnout that often besets executives in his position. He attributes his longevity in the business to an idealism that goes all the way back to those hours of movie watching at the Avon. "I feel very close to what always was most interesting to me about filmmaking, and that is the commerce of ideas," he says. "Our job is to move the culture. When we make Moulin Rouge or Master and Commander or, goodness gracious, Dodgeball, we are making an impact. In fact, I'll show you something interesting."

Hopping off the couch in his office, Rothman rifles through a stack of framed articles piled on the floor and pulls out an edition of the Financial Observer bearing the election headline: "Dodgeball: Bush Versus Clinton." Nearby is an Economist cover story captioned with a play on words alluding to I, Robot, Fox's 2004 movie starring Will Smith. Then Rothman finds a 1976 newspaper clipping that includes a photograph of a skinny, long-haired lacrosse player, his arms raised in a victory salute. It is, of course, his younger self, celebrating a game-winning point.

"The two best things about Hollywood," he says, "are that you get to work with creative, very interesting people and that every once in a while, if you're lucky, you get to have a cultural impact on a very large scale, whether it's a Walk the Line or Cast Away or Moulin Rouge. And that's fabulous fun."

Rothman recently re-upped for another five years at Fox, so he's not planning to leave show business any time soon. Still, he fantasizes about a third act, completely unrelated to entertainment-working with kids, perhaps, or in the environmental field.

But that's the future. "Nobody's gonna wheel me out of here just yet," he chuckles. "I have a lot left that I hope to do here in terms of setting up 20th Century Fox as the studio for the 21st century."

For now, count on Rothman to keep slugging it out-gloves off. One day this January, he was up until the wee hours helping negotiate a record-setting acquisition at the Sundance Film Festival. He urged Fox Searchlight executives to muscle their way past rivals Harvey Weinstein, Focus Features, and Paramount Classics to secure rights to a hot new movie, Little Miss Sunshine.

"I had the film's producer on the phone before he was out of the building," Rothman laughs. "The things you learn playing sports as a kid definitely stay relevant in life. Let's just say that the game is usually going to go to the aggressor."

Journalist Hugh Hart covers the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.

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March / April 2006