During his 18 years as an executive at 20th Century Fox, Tom Rothman oversaw two of the biggest movies in history — Titanic and Avatar. But as a juror at the Sundance Film Festival this past week, he has been focusing on some of the smaller, scrappier movies being made on the indie circuit for roughly the catering budget (for a day, maybe) of those kinds of films.
After departing as co-chairman of the Fox studio last year, Rothman has been working as a producer, helping Steven Spielberg bring the man vs. machines epic Robopocalypse to the screen. EW caught up with him at the festival, which bestows its juror prizes Saturday night, to pick his brain about independent film, finding new talent, and just what the state of that robot uprising is right now.
For years you’ve focused on big budget movies, what are you looking forward to as a Sundance juror judging smaller-scale films?
I think it’s really exciting and you know I have a long history at Sundance so Edward Burns and I were laughing about the fact that we’ve ended up on the jury together, and 17 years ago this week, we were here together with what was the first Fox Searchlight movie – The Brothers McMullen – which won the  Grand Jury Prize. That was his first movie, it was the first movie I did at Searchlight, and I’d just started. I’d just come to Fox, and I swore to him that he did not look one day older, and he swore to me that I did not look one day older. And so we agreed to lie to each other.
How involved have you been with Sundance since then?
I always have stayed involved for two reasons. One, my background was in independent film and I was at the very first Sundance Film Festival. I’ve been to all the early ones. I was in the first screening of sex, lies, and videotape, and booked the international rights for Goldwyn. When I got promoted at Fox, I always continued to supervise Searchlight. As much as we were making big movies we had a very eclectic, diversified portfolio of films at Fox and that’s what I believed in. So I got to stay involved through all the Slumdog Millionaires and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
What is the difference between coming here to do business and coming here as a juror?
Now I can just watch them to enjoy it. I don’t have to try to calculate and assess how many other people are going to enjoy it, right? Number one. And number two, the big difference I would say looking at it as a juror rather than as a potential distributor is – and this is what I’m really excited about – is that you don’t have to worry about that one word: marketability. When you look at a movie as a potential distributor, you have to love the movie as a movie, but you also have to make an assessment as to its marketability. As a juror, you don’t have to do that.
Is that a hard part of your brain to turn off?
That’ll be a first. Because you’re often having to run around, worried who the competition is, who’s seen what. Who’s bid on what. This is just a week of watching movies. And a part of my, another reason I’m looking forward to it is – I’ve obviously supervised big movies –- but always, my orientation was filmmaker driven. We just finished a fantastic global success with Life of Pi, and I met Ang Lee first, even before [1993’s] The Wedding Banquet, at the Sundance Film Festival. When we put Bryan Singer on X-Men it was because I’d seen him here first. [Before The Usual Suspects, Singer was at Sundance with 1993’s Public Access.] So this year, this week we don’t know who it will be, but the next Ang Lee – -he or she — is here somewhere. They’re here. So the fun of finding the next one of those directors is great.
Back in your producing life, Robopocalypse was supposed to start shooting this summer, but now Spielberg says he’s changing the script and holding off for another 6 to 8 months. Where does that movie stand right now?
Yeah, that’s right. He’s a story perfectionist and sets an incredibly high standard. So for him, ultimately, he has big ideas. Big emotional ideas that he’s trying to get at in Robopocalypse and he wanted a more intimate, personal emotion. The reason it’s hard is that that script was already better than pretty much any other script I’ve read all year. I mean, the script was awesome. And the studios were ready to go, right? But when a filmmaker like Steven says, ‘I’m reaching for something more,’ you’ve gotta kind of support that and go with it.
Will you do other projects in between?
I’m doing other things in between. None of which I can comment on right now. There’s some fun stuff brewing. Now I’ll use an expression that my genius daughter gave me, she said: ‘Just tell people you’re on a gap year.’