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With 'The Walk,' Baltimore-born Sony head Tom Rothman reaches new heights

Sony Pictures head and Mount Washington native Tom Rothman is pictured by the water on Lancaster Street in Baltimore.
Sony Pictures head and Mount Washington native Tom Rothman is pictured by the water on Lancaster Street in Baltimore. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Heading a major Hollywood movie studio is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Unless you're Tom Rothman. Then, it's a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and counting.

The Baltimore-born Rothman, who spent 12 years as head of 20th Century Fox before being pushed out in September 2012 (his actual title was chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment), was named this past February to head Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group. Which means that, in a film-business career that stretches back to the 1980s, Rothman has sat in the chairs once occupied by 20th Century Fox founder Darryl F. Zanuck and Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia (which was purchased by Sony in 1989). He even gets to work out of the same Culver City, Calif., office that fabled MGM chief Louis B. Mayer long inhabited.

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Rothman knows he's one of the lucky ones. "I spent a good part of my career sitting in Darryl Zanuck's old office, and now I sit in Louis B. Mayer's old office," he says. "That's a big responsibility. … There are only six historic studios, and I will have run two of them."

The 60-year-old Rothman, back in his hometown recently for a Maryland Film Festival benefit screening of Sony's "The Walk," opening Oct. 9, maintains he had no idea the Fox hierarchy was going to let him go three years ago. (Technically, he resigned in advance of being fired). The studio under his leadership was plenty profitable, and he was hard at work on a new slate of films. Movies made under his watch included such popular and critical favorites as "Avatar," "Slumdog Millionaire," "Life of Pi" and the "X-Men" franchise.

"I was caught unawares, I had no clue," he says. "Nobody in the business had any clue, because we were the most successful studio. I'd never had a (losing) quarter, and we'd just completed a year with the highest operating profits in the business."

Industry scuttlebutt had Rothman being let go for several reasons, including his resistance to a deal between Fox and DreamWorks Animation (the deal was announced a month before his departure) and rumors that he was seeking a top job at Universal (he says the talks "were never as serious as some might say").

Rothman admits to enduring "a hard couple of months" following his departure from Fox. But as time passed, two things became clear, he says. One, he was not ready to retire; "that is the one thought that would truly strike terror in my heart," Rothman says. And two, he was far from ready to abandon a career in the movies. "I felt I had another race to run," is how he puts it.

Thus, when Rothman was approached in July 2013 to head a revived TriStar production company at Sony, he jumped at the chance. Nineteen months later, he was placed in charge of the entire studio, replacing Amy Pascal. The change occurred just a couple months after Pascal was heavily embarrassed by leaked emails — part of the computer hack preceding Sony's planned release of "The Interview," which some have blamed on North Korea — critical of some high-profile Hollywood talent.

Today, safely ensconced at the head of a studio with roots dating back over a century, Rothman can look back on his departure from Fox with more benign eyes. Things, he insists, have worked out just fine.

"Maybe in the last couple of years there, I hadn't been personally happy. And I think maybe I had grown a little stale," he says. "It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened. I got re-invigorated creatively."

Biopic "The Walk" marks the first Sony release of a film brought to the studio and produced solely during Rothman's tenure. The Sept. 27 Baltimore screening was only its second public showing; it premiered a day earlier at the New York Film Festival. Directed by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Cast Away"), it tells the story of Frenchman Phillippe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center.

At a time when comic-book films and sequels dominate the movie landscape and bring in the big bucks, Rothman says it's increasingly hard for the major studios to release movies that don't fit into either category. Rothman says he's determined to buck that trend, or at least dent it a little.

"I actually walked out of seeing 'Gravity' at the Toronto Film Festival a couple of years ago," he says, and I thought, 'Oh, adult cinema needs [this kind of film] to compete, it needs to provide a big-screen, big-movie experience.'"

Rothman, who worked with Zemeckis on "Cast Away" while at Fox — he kept Wilson the volleyball on display in his office there — had remembered the director had toyed with bringing Petit's story to the big screen. That story, with its built-in drama and emotion (especially post Sept. 11), not to mention the vertiginous heights that would somehow have to be represented onscreen, felt like a slam dunk.

"So I called Bob and I said, 'Are you still interested in telling that story?' And luckily, he was."

"The Walk," Rothman is convinced, gets his second stint as head of a major motion picture studio off to a flying start.

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"Whether the movie will be a big hit or not, only the movie gods know," he says. "But I feel pretty good in saying that, in years to come, it will be a valued part of the legacy of Sony. And that's really my job."

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