One Saturday when he was a seventh-grader in Iselin, N.J., Tom DeSanto blew off a Pop Warner football game and spent the day at a comic book convention in nearby Somerset.
"There were a bunch of other football games, but that convention only came to town twice a year," he recalls. "That was the day my dad figured out I would never become middle linebacker of the Pittsburgh Steelers."
Embracing his inner geek turned out fine for the fresh-faced, 38-year-old movie producer and pop culture junkie.
DeSanto, proud owner of 30,000 comic books, helped revitalize the "X-Men" and "Battlestar Galactica" franchises. Fellow members of the so-called fanboy community are eagerly awaiting Monday's opening of his latest production, "Transformers."
"I was always the kid rushing home from football practice to play 'Dungeons & Dragons,' " DeSanto says over an omelet and green tea at a Larchmont Boulevard bistro. "I'm living proof that reading comic books can pay off."
He could have ended up in a suit and tie. While at Rutgers University, he worked at the JCPenney in Woodbridge, N.J., hustling credit applications for $3.50 a pop and sketching out movie and TV plots on cash register tape when business was slow. He solicited feedback on his ideas from the security guard.
After earning his degree in journalism and mass media, he studied film at night at New York University and during summer workshops at USC.
In 1993, J.C. Penney Co. offered him a promotion that would have meant moving to its Plano, Texas, headquarters. He quit. "I would have ended up 75 years old with a nice bank account but a failure because I hadn't done what I wanted to do."
In L.A., his first job was analyzing movie-of-the-week scripts at NBC. His break came in 1995 when he met director Bryan Singer just before his "The Usual Suspects" was released. Singer hired DeSanto for a two-week stint as an assistant on a project that fell apart, but they became friends. DeSanto co-produced Singer's "Apt Pupil" in 1998 and persuaded the director, who had no interest in comic books, to make "X-Men," based on the classic Marvel superheroes.
In his pitch, DeSanto evoked parallels to the civil rights movement in the tale of mutated humans with special powers who are torn between two leaders -- one urging them to fight for acceptance by any means necessary, Malcolm X-style, the other pushing for a peaceful struggle, like Martin Luther King.
"Tom knew how my mind worked," Singer says. "He needed to frame it in a historical context I could understand rather than pointing out all the cool superhero stuff."
DeSanto was executive producer and earned a story credit on the summer 2000 hit.
But tensions between Singer and DeSanto flared on the Vancouver set of the sequel, "X2: X-Men United," when they got into a heated argument they describe as personal. The New York Post wrote about the spat, but Singer and DeSanto say they patched things up the next day. They plan to work together on "The Mayor of Castro Street," about San Francisco supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who was slain in 1978.
"I'm comfortable around superheroes, robots and aliens," DeSanto says, "but I don't want to be pigeonholed."
The success of "X-Men" gave DeSanto a "window of heat" to pursue other projects. He is raising financing for an entertainment company inspired by George Lucas' empire and hopes to make his directing debut with a thriller he likens to "The Sixth Sense" and "Seven" (presumably not titled "Six and a Half").
DeSanto, who recently bought a house in Beachwood Canyon, says he writes from midnight to 3 a.m. and devotes most of his spare time to pop culture pursuits including newer, highbrow comics such as "Civil War" and "Y: the Last Man." To get away, he hikes Malibu's Point Dume with his BlackBerry turned off.
For "Transformers," which had been a cartoon series and an animated film, DeSanto teamed with producer Don Murphy. Toy maker Hasbro Inc., which popularized the warring, shape-shifting robots in the 1980s, jumped at the pitch, but Hollywood studios passed until DeSanto and Murphy brought it to Michael De Luca, DreamWorks SKG's head of production.
"It was a no-brainer," De Luca says. "I just have a thing for giant robots."
DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg blessed the movie and became executive producer. Paramount Pictures co-produced the project, directed by blow-it-up maestro Michael Bay, with producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ian Bryce aboard.
Test-screening audiences rated "Transformers" higher than anything on Bay's resume, including "Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor," and surveys predict big box-office numbers.
DeSanto says his business savvy is catching up with his enthusiasm for pop culture projects. He made sure he was contractually attached to the "Transformers" franchise in perpetuity -- in the plausible event that sequels are made. And for the first time he is a gross-profit participant, so he won't have to worry about "Hollywood accounting" mucking up his windfall.
(DeSanto says he has net-profit participation on "X-Men" and "X2," which grossed $703 million. "If anyone wants to buy those rights from me," he says, "I'll sell them for $1.")
With his recently acquired rights to the online video game "City of Heroes," DeSanto is ready to build his entertainment kingdom. He says his track record shows he knows where to uncover the sleeping giants. Besides, he has 28 notebooks of ideas with what he calls "mega-brand" potential.
"Nostalgia can be death," he says. "If you're not creating anything for the next generation, where is their 'Star Wars,' 'Star Trek' or 'Indiana Jones'?"
Begin text of infobox
Pop culture junkie
Who: Tom DeSanto
Occupation: Movie producer
Education: Degree in journalism and mass media, Rutgers University; film study at New York University and USC
Hobbies: Video games, comic books, TV, movies, hiking
Favorite films: "The Wizard of Oz," "Network"