Tom Rothman, who currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Jessica Harper, has enjoyed a distinguished career in Hollywood, heading both Sony (which includes Columbia Pictures) and Fox (which includes 20th Century Fox). Sony Pictures' 'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood' opens Friday.
Tom Rothman, who currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Jessica Harper, has enjoyed a distinguished career in Hollywood, heading both Sony (which includes Columbia Pictures) and Fox (which includes 20th Century Fox). Sony Pictures' 'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood' opens Friday. (VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)

In today’s Hollywood, the biggest business always seems to come from movies that are grounded in the superhero universes (“Avengers: Infinity War”), are sequels to previous successes (“Toy Story 4”) or further installments in big-budget franchises (James Bond, “Mission: Impossible,” etc.). But Tom Rothman wants that platform for success expanded.

That’s where this week’s release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time In...Hollywood” comes in. The story of a faded TV actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt man (Brad Pitt) navigating the Hollywood of 1969, it‘s not a sequel, no one has superpowers, and unless you count Tarantino himself as a franchise, it’s not that either. But it’s a big film from a big director with big stars, and Rothman, whose Sony studios is releasing the film, is hoping for big things.

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"I think it’s a real sort of test case to see whether we can still make original movies or whether all we can make are sequels of superheroes,” says Rothman, who has headed Sony’s movie division (his official title is Chairman of the Motion Picture Group of Sony Pictures Entertainment) since 2015. “I’m very excited.”

A Baltimore native and Park School graduate, Rothman comes from a family steeped in the arts
A Baltimore native and Park School graduate, Rothman comes from a family steeped in the arts (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)

A Baltimore native and Park School graduate, Rothman, 64, comes from a family steeped in the arts; his father, Donald, who died in 2009, was a lawyer who helped establish Center Stage, while his older brother, John, is a veteran actor with well over 100 credits on his resume, including “United 93,” “Gettysburg,” even a brief role in the original “Ghostbusters.”

Tom Rothman, who currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Jessica Harper, has enjoyed a distinguished career in Hollywood, heading both Sony (which includes Columbia Pictures) and Fox (which includes 20th Century Fox). That makes him the rarest of movie chiefs, one who has headed two of the historic Holly wood studios that can trace their origins to the silent movie days.

We spoke with Rothman over the phone from his office at Sony’s Culver City studios, the same office where legendary MGM head Louis B. Mayer held court. With the opening of "Once Upon a Time In...Hollywood’ about a week away, he spoke about tweaking the formula for big-time success in today’s Hollywood, following in the footsteps of the movie moguls of old and whether there will be a sequel to Sony’s latest Oscar-winner, the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

Obviously, the franchise movies...those make a lot of money. But it does seem to be very tough to get an original, adult-oriented film out there and get a massive audience.

To tell you the truth, I think there are lots of reasons. I think it’s partly to do with the growth of all the many television and streaming outlets. But I also think that we studios have to own our share of the responsibility. I think that maybe we’ve lost a bit of nerve. As Lucky Mallonee taught me at Park School, many years ago on the lacrosse field, ‘No guts, no glory.’

So you think it’s a case, at least partly, of the studios not trying hard enough? Or maybe taking the safe way too often?

Yeah, I think in part that’s true. Look, studios are public companies, and we have an obligation, and that’s where the audience is. But I also think that, if you try to take all the risk out of the movie business, you’re going to ultimately diminish creativity and fundamentally, the lifeblood of the movie business is creativity.

Certainly the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime and all the other streaming services, now that they’re bankrolling movies as opposed to simply making them available, that’s got to make your life, in fact the lives of all the traditional, historic studios, a lot tougher.

What it does is, it raises the bar. But movies in movie theaters do something that streaming just doesn’t do. And that is, it moves the culture. Movies make cultural impact. There are hundreds of movies on streaming that nobody knows anything about. But believe me, come Friday, the world’s going to know about 'Once Upon a Time In...Hollywood."

To what degree will they embrace that? Will it move them, will it touch them? That remains to be seen. But you put Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in the same movie together, on the big screen with a big director – I’m sorry, that’s not an experience for your iPhone or your iPad. What that says is, ‘Yeah, get a babysitter.’

That’s some pretty rarefied air you get to breathe, having headed two of the historic studios. Do you ever pinch yourself about that? How does that rest on your shoulders?

I pinch myself every day. I’m a very fortunate man, very fortunate. My dad, one of his big pieces of advice was to find a job that [you] loved, so it wasn’t work. And I am that most fortunate of fellows, my vocation and my avocation are the same.

As for holding these jobs, I’m always very conscious that it’s a privilege, not an entitlement. It’s a privilege, and I’m lucky

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Once you’re done with ‘Once Upon a Time In...Hollywood,’ what’s the next big project coming up?

We’ve got a lot of very exciting stuff. One thing I’m really proud of, people have talked a lot about the need to achieve a greater level of gender parity in the director ranks, and we have three films coming in the next few months by really talented female directors, so I’m really excited about that.

We have Marielle Heller’s ‘A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood,’ with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. We have Liz Banks making her take on ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ which is really interesting. You know, it turns out, although it’s a leading female iconography of a generation, no episode of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was ever directed by a woman. It was from a man’s point of view. And now at long last, we have a woman’s view of the Angels.

And then we have Greta Gerwig’s very dynamic version of ‘Little Women’ coming. So we have three really, really singularly talented female directors coming in the next few months. I’m really excited about that.

Are we going to see a second ’Spider-Verse’ film at some point?

Yes we will. I can’t tell you more than that, but it’s a yes.

Tom Rothman (second from right) with, from left, Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio at the Los Angeles premiere of "Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood."
Tom Rothman (second from right) with, from left, Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio at the Los Angeles premiere of "Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood."
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