Mike Fleming

Talk about a bolt from the blue. The town was surprised today when Matt Tolmach exited from co-president of production at Sony Pictures Entertainment to a producing deal that starts with Tolmach joining the Spider-Man franchise he has managed from day one as an executive. Now, any time a studio production president segues into a producing deal and claims it was his choice, it gets my spider sense tingling. Because most times, it takes a firing, or the Jaws of Life, to pry occupants from these powerful studio president jobs. But Tolmach and his longtime co-president partner Doug Belgrad say that SPE’s newest producer actually did make the move voluntarily and that he’s had the itch to do it for some time. He steps into a three-year first look deal and will have to soon transition out of the Thalberg Building (no producers) and take office space elsewhere on the lot. He hasn’t yet thought of a company name to put on the door. All this happens around Thanksgiving, when Hannah Minghella moves from her post at Sony Pictures Animation to become president of production. And Tolmach joins producers Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad in gearing up for a December 6 production start on the Marc Webb-directed 3D Spider-Man reboot with newcomer Andrew Garfield in the title role. Belgrad becomes sole Columbia Pictures president under SPE chairman/CEO Michael Lynton and co-chairman Amy Pascal.

“You’re right, these jobs are great and it’s hard for people to imagine anyone leaving voluntarily,” Tolmach told me. “We’ve been saying to each other all morning, ‘nobody does this.’ But I like that. Amy, Michael, Doug and I have had this miraculous run, but the people who really know me heard this today, called and said, ‘I get it.’ As great as these jobs are, what happens in success is you move further away from the day-to-day meat of the movies. There are meetings all day long, on millions of topics, and I’ve found myself wanting to do less of that. I’d rather be engaged in one or two movies than to be in a notes meeting, get to page 65 of the script and tell everybody, ‘I have to go to another meeting.’”

Tolmach said that he sought a Hollywood career because the stories sounded so appealing when told by his late grandfather, Sam Jaffe, an agent-turned-studio exec who later became the producer of such films as Born Free. Tolmach got his first taste when he wanted to be a producer with Frank Marshall on a documentary about Lance Armstrong, which Alex Gibney directed. “I was very open with Doug, Amy and Michael a couple of years ago when I got this bug to make the documentary, but when I told them I wanted to take a hiatus, they looked at me like I was nuts,” Tolmach said. “We made the documentary while I was on the job, and I contributed from my office. It was hard, but I’d put my toe in the water, and found a passion equal to what I’d felt for my job. I came out here because of the stories my grandfather told me. I’m 46 years old. While I know most people don’t do it like this, to be able to launch this career with people I trust, it is an opportunity. I intend to bring Doug more movies than he knows what to do with. And joining Laura and Avi on Spider-Man, this all seemed like the right moment to do this.”

It breaks up one of the most stable two-headed production president tandems. “When we took the job together, we’d worked side by side so long that it was not a shot gun marriage, but an evolution that Amy wanted to happen,” Belgrad told me. “Now, 8 years later, this feels like a natural evolution for Matt. I’m closer to him than anyone outside my own family, and I think we will continue to accomplish great things together. We want him to be a major supplier for the studio and be the kind of tenacious advocate for talent and material he has been as an executive. He knows quality and how to deliver it. He’s going to do a lot more than Spider-Man for us.” Since Sony has developed a relationship as one of the stingiest buyers of material in town – they always seem to be out of money – I asked if Belgrad would open the vault to get Tolmach some fresh scripts, or if he would mostly jump on projects he supervised as president.

“While people have said we don’t spend money, we’ve managed to position ourselves with a great slate going forward, and I’m not worried,” Tolmach said. “We’ll make sure we keep Matt plenty busy,” Belgrad added.

Both predicted Minghella would transition well and fill the void. She first made an impression on them when she worked in Pascal’s office and was involved in films like Casino Royale. “I’ve seen her mature into a fine executive and with Matt leaving, I need someone like Hannah to step in and get the job done because this is a really big job, almost too much for one person,” Belgrad said.