In Hollywood you can measure a player’s status by the mementos on display. Looking at the ones in Tom Rothman’s otherwise bland corporate office at 20th Century Fox’s historic Los Angeles headquarters, you can’t help but conclude he must be a class-A studio mogul. Perched on a pedestal next to his receptionist’s desk is Wilson, the soccer ball that became Tom Hanks’s desert island friend in Cast Away. On a credenza behind Rothman’s desk sits Puffy, the plaster schnauzer that bit Ben Stiller in There’s Something About Mary. Beside it is the eighteenth-century sword Russell Crowe brandished in Master and Commander. Framed on the wall is a miniature Titanic life jacket, which director James Cameron inscribed “To a fellow survivor.”
Cochairman since 2000 of Fox Filmed Entertainment, Rothman has taken some of the biggest risks in the business and has brought in some of the biggest returns. Before snagging the cochair position six years ago, Rothman first proved his moxie when he served as the studio’s president of production and decided to gamble on Cameron’s way-over-budget vision. “Everybody said Titanic was going to be without doubt the most costly flop in history,” Rothman says, getting up from behind the desk where he’s spent most of the day crowned with a telephone headset while “parallel processing” (his description) some two hundred e-mails. “We were not just thought to be the dumbest studio executives of the year, but the dumbest in the history of the world. Jim Cameron used to go around afterward and say the Fox executives were dressed in their best and prepared to go down as gentlemen.”
Joking about it is easy now. Titanic, after all, won eleven Academy Awards and became the highest-grossing film in history, raking in $1.9 billion. Thanks to this kind of success, Rothman, along with cochairman Jim Gianopulos, six years ago assumed leadership of all Fox film productions. How successful have they been? Last year, when movie revenues slumped about 7 percent overall, Fox improved its bottom line 14 percent over the previous year. The studio produced five top-twenty hits (Robots, Fantastic Four, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Phantom Menace, and Walk the Line), earned $1.35 billion, and bested four of its five major studio rivals in market share. And though Johnny Cash’s acoustic guitar has yet to turn up in Rothman’s office, Walk the Line was nominated for five Academy Awards.