Columbia Law School Magazine: Rothman, The Blockbuster

One could imagine a far worse sentence than having to spend a month at Hollywood’s glitzy Chateau Marmont—the hotel where James Dean auditioned for Rebel Without A Cause, and where everyone from Greta Garbo to F. Scott Fitzgerald has graced the guestbooks. “Well, not really,” says Tom Rothman ’80. “Not when you’re having a major life crisis about wanting to go home.” It was 1986, and Rothman—then a 32-year-old partner at Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz in New York City—had just moved to Tinseltown to become a producer for Columbia Pictures. “For a month I thought: ‘What the hell have I done?’” he admits. “But I stuck it out.” Now, 23 years later, Rothman practically runs this town.

As chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, he oversees every movie and television show the company creates. Since he joined Fox in 2000, the movie studio has seen its most profitable decade—cranking out hits such as Ice Age, X-Men, and the top grossing movie of all time: Titanic. In his office, Rothman still keeps a life jacket from that movie signed by director James Cameron. “It says: ‘To Tom—from a fellow survivor,’” Rothman notes, citing the arduous filming process. “Believe me: We didn’t think we were going to survive.”

Under his watch, Fox films have been nominated for more than 100 Academy Awards and have earned more than $22 billion. The number of zeros in production budgets is greater now, but “the basic unknowable alchemy of what makes some movies great and others not,” he says, is the same as it was when he was a young attorney trying to secure funding for independent directors in his spare time. Some of those filmmakers—Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch, for instance—have since risen to great heights in the industry. They, like Cameron, came to rely on Rothman’s peculiar mastery of a fundamental Hollywood principal: “The fault line that has always riven the movie business, from when the first reel cranked, is the push and pull between the creative and the commercial,” he says. “And that ‘San Andreas Fault’ runs right through the middle of my office.”