A series of personnel complaints and threatened defections by senior executives have raised questions about the leadership of Sony Pictures Entertainment movie boss Tom Rothman, several sources said — a difficult challenge for a studio already fighting to gain traction during a rough year at the box office.
Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton and the company’s human resources department have fielded protests about Rothman from more than a dozen executives, according to an individual briefed on the showdown, who declined to be named discussing internal company business.
The unhappy Sony executives report that Rothman has made their lives untenable with his micro-management and obstreperous manner, which they say has also alienated talent agents, producers, directors and actors, many of whom are now loathe to bring their projects to Sony, the sources said.
Rothman was confronted with the charges of disillusionment with his leadership in a meeting last week with the company’s human resources department. The executives complained that morale has plummeted in the 20 months since Rothman was elevated from head of Sony’s TriStar Pictures label to chairman of the entire movie operation. “There is no confidence in his leadership,” said one of the sources, who declined to be named.
Rothman declined to comment. Lynton issued a statement late Sunday afternoon strongly backing his studio chief. “Tom Rothman has done an outstanding job in his efforts to restructure and turn around the Motion Picture Group,” Lynton said. “He has my full and complete support, and the support of SPE’s senior management and Tokyo.” The last reference is to the studio’s corporate parent, Sony Corp., headquartered in Japan.
Some insiders defended Rothman, saying that the complaints are the result of his urgent push to make a “sea change” in the culture at the studio, which has languished at or near the bottom of the box office standings for several years. Rothman, 61, was named chairman of the motion picture group in February, 2015.
Compared to the relatively laissez faire approach of previous studio co-chair Amy Pascal, especially on financial matters, Rothman’s tough, bottom-line mentality strikes some as abrasive. “There is an old guard of people who are, naturally, going to be uncomfortable with that kind of change,” said one insider, who declined to be named. “But it’s important that the change be made.”
Others who defended Rothman described him as decent and well-meaning, though sometimes oblivious to how his hard-charging manner is perceived by others. One insider also contended that the studio will soon announce that two top production executives are re-upping, while declining to provide details.
The internal furor does not come at a good time for Sony, which languishes in fifth place this year of the six major studios in domestic box office performance. This weekend’s “Inferno” — the “Da Vinci Code” sequel that was supposed to be a solid money-maker – collapsed at the domestic box office, its $15 million opening less than a third of the opening for the previous entry in the series.
Another big-budget film that under-performed: “Ghostbusters,” which scraped up $229 million worldwide, with production costs, alone, coming in at $144 million. The Sacha Baron Cohen comedy “The Brothers Grimsby” and last year’s holiday release, “Concussion,” with Will Smith, also tanked.
Fairing better for Sony were smaller films like the Blake Lively shark thriller “The Shallows,” which grossed $119 million worldwide on a production budget of $17 million; the R-rated cartoon, “Sausage Party,” which took in $135 million on a $19 million budget; and the horror flick “Don’t Breathe,” which scored $150 million worldwide on a trim $9.9 million budget.
One of the Rothman loyalists at the studio hoped that a comeback will begin, in earnest, with “Passengers,” a sci-fi romance starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, due out at Christmas. The Sony worker, who asked not to be named, cited a range of potential hits on the 2017 slate, led by the next “Spider Man” entry; the adventure fantasy “Jumanji,” with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart; the Western/sci-fi mashup “The Dark Tower”; and a revamp of the 1982 hit “Blade Runner.”
Rothman’s previous tenure as a studio leader – at 20th Century Fox, where he was co-chairman with Jim Gianopulos – also provoked complaints about his contentious and domineering nature. His doggedness in ratcheting down salaries for talent also irritated some filmmakers and agents.
The objections are recurring at Sony, but without the buffer of the more positive results that Fox’s films had during much of Rothman’s tenure at the Pico Boulevard studio.
“When he left Fox, he told everyone, ‘I have changed. I realized I was a problem,’” said one individual close to the situation. “And, of course, when he came back to Sony he was the exact same person, and probably worse.”
The source called Rothman “the biggest micro-manager I have ever dealt with,” adding: “He thinks he can do everybody’s job better — from writer, to director, to producer, to business affairs to marketer — any position anyone would have on a movie — he thinks he can do better than they can.”
The complaints were serious enough that Lynton informed Sony’s corporate leaders in Japan. “There is apparently a reluctance to make a change quickly, so they are moving in a very deliberate way,” said one of those who would like to see Rothman ousted.
A top producer agreed that the harsh assessments extend outside the studio. “He lacks empathy. He is easily threatened. He doesn’t make people feel good about coming to work,” said the producer. “Certainly things are very strained.”