Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Tom Rothman of Sony Pictures

“I have a mantra at the companies that I run: ‘The more fiscally conservative you are, the more creatively reckless you can be.’ I'm for reckless creativity.” — Tom Rothman

You might not know the name Tom Rothman, but we’re pretty sure you’ve seen his work. The Devil Wears Prada, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, and Avatar are just a few of the films that have made an indelible mark on the culture—and at the box office—under his leadership. Today Rothman spends his days in Louis B. Mayer’s old office as chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group. He’s also done stints as president of Twentieth Century Fox Film Group, president of Fox Searchlight, and chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, leaving not just a string of hits in his wake but also a commitment to diversifying the senior management at his studios. Before making the leap to lawyer and independent film producer, Rothman was an English teacher, and he remains a passionate supporter of arts education efforts. He’s also a new member of the NEA’s National Council on the Arts, where he wants to help more arts organizations join the digital revolution. Here’s Rothman—who we spoke to just prior to his first council meeting—on why encouraging diversity and mentorship are vital to the health of any company, what he’s looking forward to learning on the National Council of the Arts, and why he feels lucky to work in the film business.

NEA: How'd you end up in the film business?

TOM ROTHMAN: I can either answer that in ten seconds or in two hours. How did I end up in the film business? Well, I grew up down the road in Baltimore in a very art-centric household. My father was a lawyer, but he actually founded Center Stage, which is the nonprofit regional theater in Baltimore. And I always loved the movies. After college, I was an English teacher at first, and then I went to law school, and then I worked as an entertainment lawyer. But my real start was when I started producing independent films. I produced a number of independent films in the early 1980s by a lot of very influential American independent directors, like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee. Around the mid-1980s, I moved to California. I went to work at first at Columbia Pictures and then at an independent company called the Goldwyn Company. Then, I was at Fox for 20 years, and now I'm back right where I started at Columbia Pictures.

NEA: What is it that you think film can do that no other art form can? What’s unique about film as an art form?

ROTHMAN: Well, I wouldn't necessarily say no other art form can do it—music can do it to a degree—but the thing that film does is move culture on a very large, mass, international, global scale. If you take, for example, a film that I was fortunate enough to be involved with, Avatar, that movie did $3 billion worth of business. So that's nearly three-quarters of a billion people worldwide who saw the film all in a relatively short period of time. That’s within actually several months. That movie happened to have a very strong environmental message to it and so that message permeated cultures all around the world. When movies work, when they touch something relatable and universal in the audience, they have tremendous, tremendous cultural power. There are very few art disciplines on earth that can have the scope and the size and scale of impact.

NEA: What do you wish more filmmakers, more artists understood about the business side of film making? 

ROTHMAN: <laughs> Well, I wish they understood the business side of film making. A lot of them don't. Some do. There’s always been, historically, ever since the industry was first birthed, a divide between commercial and artistic imperatives. I think it’s ultimately best that the work itself sorts out that battle. I think the best films come when their makers aren't calculating commercial results, when they're making something from their heart, when they're making something they believe in, when they're pursuing their vision. Responsibility has to be a very important part of it. I have a mantra at the companies that I run: “The more fiscally conservative you are, the more creatively reckless you can be.” I'm for reckless creativity.

NEA: One of your notable achievements as a leader is promoting women to top positions and really respecting mentorship. So I have two questions in that regard: one, why is it important to the health of the company to have a diverse workforce, whether that’s gender, ethnicity, etc., and why is it important to privilege mentorship as a key tenet of an organization?

ROTHMAN: Well, the first question is easy: because we don't sell to a homogeneous audience. We sell to a heterogeneous audience. We sell to an extremely diverse audience. You mention gender diversity? Well, women actually are a driving force at the box office now. Women are more impactful with respect to the box office than men are. And the same is true with respect to ethnic diversity. We live in a diverse country and the world is inherently diverse. We’re in a popular art form, so you better speak to diverse audiences. Now to do that, that means you need a diverse workforce of both creators and employees as well because that's where authenticity comes from. I happen to personally believe in it as a sociopolitical imperative, but I pursue it because it's an economic imperative. And that's why, ultimately—although it's always too slow and never has made the progress that we want and should have made—it's ultimately why I do believe that diversity will come. With effective mentorship, that's basically the only way [to develop diversity]. Unless you practice it aggressively, you are not going to diversify your workforce and you're not going to diversify the range of creators that you have. That’s a fact. I've been in corporate organizations for 30 years and I know that that's what's required. Because even if you work hard at diversifying the mix of population at the entry level, if those individuals aren't mentored on the way up, they're not going to rise in the organization. Nobody does. So you have to practice what you preach.

NEA: In addition to everything else you do, you were also the host of a show called Fox Legacy. Can you tell us about that project?

ROTHMAN: Well, that was fun. I'm sort of a student of old Hollywood and a movie buff. I'm a very fortunate person in the world in that my vocation and my avocation are the same, which is what my father always recommended. He didn't love his job, and he always encouraged his children to work in something they really loved. I've been fortunate enough to do that. This is my second historic studio that I've run. Most of the time in my adult life, I’ve sat in two offices: the first office belonged to Darryl Zanuck, and the office I sit in today belongs to Louis B. Mayer. So if you're going to do that, you need, I believe, to have a consciousness of and a reverence for the history of film. That's what makes a studio a studio—its history.

When they asked me to do that project on our old films at Fox—the television show that you're referring to, Fox Legacy—I was really interested because it overlaps with all my passions. What was quite revealing for me and fascinating, why I kept going—we did over 50 episodes on 50 different films—was how amazingly similar the problems and the issues and the controversies and the divides that the so-called “great moguls” of the ‘30s and the ‘40s and the ‘50s faced to what the more-professional operating executives running studios today face. The money was different. The system was different because it was the studio system and all the talent worked for them, and in the current world, none of the talent works for us. But that basic divide that I referred to earlier—the fault line between art and commerce—has always persisted. The issues and the struggles that they have are very similar to the ones that we have. So what I always tried to do in doing those episodes was to give some look—a less typical behind-the-scenes look—to try to elucidate for the audience what some of the pressures and push-and-pull were over getting movies made. What’s really interesting is it’s not much different today than it was then. As we still say, "Buckle up, cause it's gonna be a bumpy ride." <laughs>

NEA: You mentioned earlier that you started as an English teacher, which is a core subject, but also an arts subject. Why do you think it’s important to have arts education as a part of the school curriculum?

ROTHMAN: I live in Los Angeles and so I do a fair amount of charitable work with respect to the Los Angeles Unified School District. Of course, there are terrible funding problems there—as there are in many big city school systems—and always one of the first things to get cut is funding for arts education. And it's horrible. In my judgment, [arts education] is not an option or an add-on or something that would be nice. It's an essential to becoming a well-formed, well-rounded, fully realized citizen. There are lots of private organizations and charities that are working to try to help augment it, but I think it’s essential [to keep arts in schools] or the arts will lose both their creators and their audience. And that would be an irredeemable tragedy.

NEA: We’re here because you are now a member of the National Council on the Arts. So what do you hope to accomplish and what do you hope to learn?

ROTHMAN: I hope to learn a lot—that part will be easy. I especially look forward to learning a lot about disciplines that I don't know about. I have a lot of background myself in media arts and theater and literature, but not really in music and folk art and dance and a lot of other things. So I look forward to broadening my own arts awareness. As to what I hope to bring: I guess maybe a few good jokes, or maybe a few jokes that at least some people haven't heard before. I have one overall focus, which is that I believe that, in general, the NEA and arts organizations worldwide are not cognizant enough of the wonderful potentiality that the digital revolution can bring to the arts. I think there is a much greater potential for accessibility and for impact of the organizations and the projects that the NEA supports by truly thinking about them in an integrated, creative fashion from a digital point of view. This was a transition that we had to go through in my business. It was a hard one; it's a hard thing to learn. But I actually believe there's great potential to expand the impact by use of digital media that didn't exist before. And if we're funding things like what a small dance company is doing in a small town somewhere in America, there's no reason that work can't be accessed and seen and appreciated by audiences all over the country and, indeed, all over the world. So, I think my consciousness of that is something that I hope I can share a little with the council.

NEA: And the final question: why do the arts matter?

ROTHMAN: Life is rich and complex. And the soul isn't really complete without an artistic component. Both people and societies, as a whole, unite around artistic commonality and if the arts diminish, I think our humanity diminishes.

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