An era ends at Fox as Tom Rothman prepares to leave the studio

From the moment we heard the first rumblings of his leaving to the moment the press release confirming it appeared in the inbox was a matter of just over an hour, and now we can confirm that Tom Rothman will be leaving 20th Century Fox at the end of the year.

Jim Gianopulos will serve as Chairman and CEO moving forward, and that ensures a certain degree of continuity, since Gianopulos has been working with Rothman for well over a decade, and he’s been part of some of the key decision making in that time.  I first met Jim in 1991, and I’m excited to see what happens as he begins to assert more of his own personality.  He was one of my regular customers at Dave’s Video way back at that point, and he had a huge appetite for big Hollywood entertainment, a great knowledge of the classics, and beyond that, always seemed to be genuinely excited by the business.  It should be interesting to see what sort of films he’s going to make now that he’s at the helm.

It would be an understatement to say that I have had some history with Rothman during his time running Fox.  While it would be easy to simply focus on the negative, I certainly owe him a debt of gratitude for hiring me for a job at one point.  I was working with Clive Barker and his development team on an adaptation of “Dread,” one of Barker’s “Books Of Blood” short stories, and in order to get the final okay as a writer on the film, I had to meet with Rothman and pitch him our take on how to turn the short into a feature.  My partner and I had a long afternoon meeting in Rothman’s office, and at the end of it, he asked us smart questions that demonstrated a real understanding of the original short.  We were given the go-ahead and did several drafts for Fox.  As a result, when I wrote later about what the development process is like at the studio, I wasn’t writing from a place of fanboy rage.  I experienced it, and I saw both the good and the bad of the system.  While there was a time where the development went well on our film, an executive shuffle put us under the purview of someone who openly hated horror films, and no matter what we tried, this person kept insisting that they knew more about the genre than Clive Barker, eventually making it impossible for us to stay onboard what no longer seemed like a film anyone cared about making.  It was disheartening, and part of the problem is that once we were hired, we were no longer a priority for Rothman.  We were abandoned into a broken system, and we certainly weren’t the only ones to experience similar events.

There is no denying that Fox has had great success under Rothman’s leadership.  He was part of the early days of Fox Searchlight, which has become one of the most reliable studio-brand independent arms, and he has nurtured some key relationships during his time at the studio, including the ongoing relationship they have with James Cameron which led to the studio releasing two of the most successful films of all time.  When Rothman believed wholeheartedly in something, he could be a filmmaker’s greatest friend and champion, and conversely, on those occasions he didn’t fully believe in something, he could frustrate a filmmaker enormously.  The greatest example of a property that saw both highs and lows under Rothman’s management would be the “X-Men” series.  During production on that first film, Rothman moved into his management position, and he was deeply unsure about the project.  He hedged the studio’s bet as best as he could, trimming both schedule and budget once they were in production, scaling the film back.  There were elements of the comics that he simply didn’t like, and one of the reasons the film version is set in such a markedly different world than the comics is because Rothman insisted.  When the first film was a hit, he did give the creative team more room, and the result was what is generally regarded as the best of the “X-Men” films so far, “X-Men 2.”  Even so, it’s always been a matter of friction between his vision of the franchise and the vision of the filmmakers in charge of things.  In a perfect world, Fox would be five or six films into a strong unified franchise, taking full advantage of the story opportunities that exist in decades worth of “X-Men” storytelling.  Instead, a personality clash with Bryan Singer hobbled the series at a crucial moment, and until last year’s “X-Men: First Class,” it looked like the entire series was going to end up dented and ruined, a waste of an amazing asset.  In general, Marvel comic movies have not fared well at the studio, and Rothman’s personal feelings about the material got in the way of what should have been fairly simple adaptations.

When he gave filmmakers the full support of the studio, though, it could be as great a place to make a movie as exists in this business.  His fondness for “Master and Commander” meant he gave Peter Weir every possible resource to realize his vision for the film, and his support of James Cameron was undeniable.  Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Rothman was a hands-on studio head, the kind of guy who inserted himself fully into the process.  When you list the studio’s successes or failures under his tenure, you have to include him in both the praise and the blame.  He has absolutely been the beating heart of 20th Century Fox for the past 12 years, and whatever happens after the end of this year, it will be a new chapter for the company overall.  They are consolidating all of the various sub-companies into what will now be called 20th Century Fox Film.  That includes Fox, Fox Searchlight, Fox 2000, Fox Animation/Blue Sky Studios, Fox International, and Fox Home Entertainment.  That’s a lot to juggle, and I’m guessing Gianopulos is going to really rely on building a team that he trusts to make it all work as one cohesive whole.

I may have had my issues with Rothman’s choices over the years, and it may have become publicly contentious at times, but he leaves the studio having made a real mark on this era of studio filmmaking.  I’ll be curious to see where he goes next and what he does.  It’s not always easy to jump to being a producer after you’ve run the show, and right now, there’s no indication what his plans are.  Whatever he does, this is the beginning of a new era for Fox, and it’s going to be exciting to see how it shakes out.