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Sony Names an Insider as New Chairman of Its Movie Unit

Sony Names an Insider as New Chairman of Its Movie Unit
In another jolt to its old order, Sony on Tuesday said that Thomas E. Rothman would take over as chairman of its motion picture group, an appointment that risks new turmoil on Sony's lot but represents a Hollywood-style comeback for the executive.

Rothman, who was pushed out as chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment in 2012, has recently been working to resuscitate Sony's semi-moribund TriStar label. He will take over for Amy Pascal, who was herself edged out this month after a difficult run for Sony at the box office and fallout from last year's online attack on the studio.

Sony also said that Michael Lynton, the Sony Pictures chairman and chief executive, had renewed his contract with the studio, but did not disclose the terms or duration of the deal.

"Tom knows this business inside and out like few others do," Lynton said in a statement about Rothman.

The movie business is trying to navigate unreliable ticket sales in North America, pressure from parent companies to limit risk on ever more expensive films and a still-sputtering home entertainment market.

To cope, studios have sometimes shifted toward unshowy managers who are much more likely to promote their fiscal conservativeness than their filmmaking prowess. Universal Pictures has been placed in the hands of a more business-oriented executive, Jeff Shell. Kevin Tsujihara, a conservative home entertainment executive, rose to run Warner Bros.

By contrast, Rothman - once the host of his own movie show on cable television - is clearly immersed in show business and its traditions. At the same time, he carved a reputation at Fox for a hard-knuckled insistence on keeping down costs, something that has not been Sony's strong point over the last decade.

Sony's announcement notably said nothing of Doug Belgrad, who was promoted to president of the studio's motion picture group last year. Belgrad had been a leading contender for the spot assumed by Rothman, and both Pascal and others at Sony had backed him. He joined the company in 1989.

While Rothman is taking charge of the film operation, he will not have oversight of Sony's television business, as Pascal did. Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television, will report to Lynton only, the studio said.

Sony executives declined to be interviewed Tuesday, and Belgrad did not return a call.

People briefed on Sony's operation said Rothman hoped Belgrad would remain in place, and two people briefed on Belgrad's plans said he intended to stay. The people who spoke of the plans spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rothman, those people added, did not expect to make major changes at Sony in the near term. But he intends, they said, to complete its shift toward a more sharply defined divisional structure in which operations like Screen Gems, the TriStar label and the associated Studio 8, run by the former Warner executive Jeff Robinov, would each have a distinct strategic thrust.

At Fox, Rothman had run just such an operation, built around quasi-independent units like Fox Searchlight, Fox 2000, the Fox animation operation and the 20th Century Fox label.

In the coming months, Rothman will continue to oversee the TriStar unit, which will remain intact as a supplier of modestly budgeted, potentially high-return films. Since arriving at TriStar in summer 2013, he has assembled a slate that includes Jonathan Demme's "Ricki and the Flash," in which Meryl Streep plays an aging rock star; Ang Lee's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," a war drama; and Jodie Foster's "Money Monster," a thriller starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney.

Rothman started his career as an entertainment lawyer and worked at Columbia Pictures, which now forms the heart of Sony's movie operation, in the 1980s. He is an ardent film fan who hosted his own screenings of classic films on the Fox Movie Channel and is credited with founding Fox Searchlight, the successful art house label.

Despite some notably ambitious projects - Fox made "Avatar" and "Life of Pi" on his watch - Rothman also focused heavily on populist films that could border on the lowbrow, as with the successful "Alvin and the Chipmunks" series.

Pascal is leaving to become a producer on Sony's lot and will work on some of the studio's most important franchises, including the Spider-Man series. There is a point of irony in his moving into her office: Pascal, more than anyone, was responsible for bringing Rothman to Sony after his ouster from Fox.

When word of Pascal's departure surfaced this month, several producers and executives associated with Sony - noting Rothman's peppery style - privately voiced wariness of him as a possible successor to an executive who was considered more conciliatory and more willing to give latitude to filmmakers.

Alex Proyas, who directed "I, Robot" for Fox during Rothman's tenure, was among the more outspoken filmmakers who objected to the studio's close supervision of their work. "I had a lot of problems with Fox, and I'm not the only filmmaker that had problems; they're just very interfering," Proyas said in a 2009 interview.

Still, Rothman's allies at Fox and elsewhere have long said that the claims of volatility and interference on various films were overstated.

And people briefed on Sony's current management change said Rothman had made a strong accommodation with its executive staff over the last year and planned as little disruption as possible in relationships that have already been shuffled as Lynton and Pascal rebuilt their operation.

While at Fox, Rothman opposed a proposed distribution partnership with DreamWorks Animation - even after it became clear that Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of 21st Century Fox, favored the alliance, which eventually happened.

In retrospect, Rothman's caution over the DreamWorks Animation deal was prescient. Struggling through a rough patch, the animation studio has since pulled back on movie production and announced layoffs that would affect about 20 percent of its employees. Several films that Rothman left in Fox's pipeline also became megahits, including "X-Men: Days of Future Past," which took in $748.1 million worldwide.

© 2015 New York Times News Service


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