Tom Rothman brings an un-Pascal sensibility to top Sony job

Tom Rothman practiced a different style at Fox than Amy Pascal did at Sony. How will his vision translate?

Sony Pictures didn't waste much time replacing Amy Pascal. On Tuesday the company named Tom Rothman, the longtime Fox chief, the next chairman of Sony's motion picture group.

Before joining Sony in 2013 to lead its TriStar unit, Rothman spent 18 years at Fox, and ran the film studio from 2000 through 2012 with Jim Gianopulos.

Though Rothman and Pascal are close, the two take rather different approaches to filmmaking, and the new chief could steer the studio in directions that will be felt by film fans.

Rothman has a reputation for keeping a very close eye on budgets and taking a hands-on approach with filmmakers, both in contrast to Pascal's less numbers-centric approach and more deferential attitude to directors.

During Rothman's time at Fox, the studio was known for a kind of populist movie that used stars to draw audiences but also kept a tight lid on costs, so that even a bomb was rarely ever a bust. "Tooth Fairy" and "Max Payne" were both Fox films of this sort -- unabashedly commercial, reliant on leading men and low on financial risk.

Several of these Rothman tendencies were manifest in "Unstoppable," the Tony Scott-Denzel Washington action movie circa 2010. The film hit a number of development speed bumps, as Rothman played hardball with filmmakers to keep the budget down; the movie was even on the verge of falling apart several times as Rothman held the line with some of Hollywood's most influential personalities. (The movie was eventually made and performed reasonably well at the box office.)

Reports also abounded of Rothman clashing with Gavin Hood during production of 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," though Hood at the time sought to downplay their differences.

Whatever the P.R. implications or lost currency with auteurs, the attention to the commercial side of filmmaking would often pan out for Rothman at Fox. The executive's tenure at the studio saw the launch of a number of lucrative franchises, including the $3-billion "X-Men" superhero series. Other profitable examples include "Night at the Museum" and, on the animated side, the "Ice Age" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies.

Rothman did take some more visionary swings from time to time, most notably with James Cameron. "Avatar" and "Titanic," two of the highest-grossing movies of all time as well as some of the most decorated, were both made under Rothman (the former while he was head of Fox, the latter while he was Fox's production president, with the film co-financed by Paramount). The two movies received a total of 23 Oscar nominations.

Indeed, despite his aggressively populist reputation, Rothman does have some prestigious bona fides, most notably with his founding of Fox Searchlight nearly two decades ago. He left the company several years later for bigger roles at Fox, but since that time the specialty division has evolved into an awards powerhouse (it won top honors at this year's and last year's Oscars thanks to "Birdman" and "12 Years a Slave") and is responsible for some of the biggest art-house hits of the modern era.

Some larger Fox gambles, however, didn't pan out, even on the commercial side. "Knight & Day," a summer action movie boasting a starry duo in Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, cost $117 million to make but underperformed in the U.S. upon release in 2010, grossing $76 million (it fared better overseas).

"Australia" was a particularly expensive misstep: Baz Luhrmann's Western-tinged romance starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman had a $130-million production budget and rode into the 2008 award season with very high hopes. It failed to cross the $50-million mark in the U.S. and came away with just one below-the-line Oscar nomination.

Rothman, hungry like many execs for franchises, also attempted to revive some library properties. But those efforts yielded mixed results, especially with the sequel "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" and the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," both of which underperformed.

It's hard to assess exactly how much credit or blame a top studio executive is due for a given project -- success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, the adage goes -- but examining some of the hits, misses and other notable movies Rothman presided over at Fox may offer clues about what to expect from the new Sony.

The Japanese-owned studio is coming off a period when, at least to some Wall Street observers, Pascal made some wrong choices and lacked a certain kind of corporate discipline. Rothman practiced a different style at Fox. After Tuesday's news, we'll see how much that approach at Sony will benefit both the bottom line and the culture of film.

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