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Tom Rice, producer / filmmaker

Tom Rice, producer / filmmaker

Meet Tom Rice, co-founder of Sycamore Pictures, whose latest film, The Way, Way Back, has charmed critics and moviegoers alike. Read on to learn more about this summer’s must-see movie—and the tenacious and talented producer behind it.


PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

TR: I remember doing a dress-up book report on Walt Disney in fourth grade, and I ended the report by telling my whole class that I wanted to make movies, too. My fourth grade teacher went on vacation to Los Angeles and brought me back a souvenir program from Universal Studios. Two years later, my parents took my sister and me there for spring break, and there was just no turning back after that.

PPF: We both grew up in the South. How did growing up in Mississippi affect your creativity? Did you find it to be a place that nurtured your artistic dreams?

TR: There is such a richness of character and setting in Mississippi that was so unique to growing up. My dad is from the Delta, so we were always going up to the farm to visit relatives and witnessing a completely different way of life–driving 30 minutes to the grocery store, freezing weeks’ worth of meat in the outdoor freezer, buying Hershey Bars in bulk before there was such a thing as Sam’s Club or Costco, being in such a remote location with only a handful of television channels, and most importantly growing up around a diverse group of family members–farmers, photographers, artists, businessmen, church organists, etc. That’s what shaped my creativity.  As far as the nurturing of dreams–not so much. I was growing up an artist—a non-athlete—in a sports-centric school. Like Duncan in The Way, Way Back, I had to cut my own path.

PPF: Do you remember the first movie or play that had an impact on you? 

TR: The first movies I remember seeing in the theater were E.T. and SpaceCamp. My grandfather also had one of the first VCRs, the kind with the massive wood paneling that require all your body weight to press the eject button. The only three movies he owned were John Huston’s Annie, The Wizard of Oz, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. I remember loving all of the old Don Knotts/Tim Conway films, and my mom would always rent Alfred Hitchcock films when I was old enough. The Man Who Knew Too Much was my favorite.

PPF: Me too. When I was in the fifth grade, I think I watched Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much at least once a week. Tell me, what was your first real job?

TR: I delivered newspapers for the hometown paper. Did that from sixth grade through my senior year of high school. I also worked in a local video store that’s long gone.

PPF: What is your current job?

TR: I’m currently the co-founder of Sycamore Pictures, and I develop, finance, and produce films along with Memphis resident Ben Nearn, who is the other half of the company.

PPF: Can you tell me a little bit about the path you took to get to where you are now?

TR: After college, I moved from New York to Los Angeles and made a short film. I waited tables for a few years, picked up freelance work here and there as a runner or production assistant, then decided to go back to Mississippi and raise a million dollars to make my own feature. I wrote, directed and produced The Rising Place, shot in Jackson, Mississippi, back in 1999. We took it to a number of festivals, and eventually got a little money from Warner Bros. for the video and TV part. It was a sweet movie that just never took off in a big way. I loved the producing aspect from the experience far more than any of the other jobs I did on it, and after years of telling myself and others that I wanted to be a director, I realized that I really wanted to be a producer. So I set out on that path, finding good material and trying to get it made. Once I partnered with Ben two years ago, everything clicked into place.

PPF: I’m curious—was it difficult to move to L.A. and start your career? Many people find it to be a tough place to break into. Was that the case for you?

TR: Not so much. I was excited to move here and really felt that this was where I needed to be. It took years of rejection and failure to finally become an “overnight success”–16 years to be exact–but that’s on average what it takes. During that time, I had some fun jobs—writing for “American Idol,” working as a director’s assistant on a couple of Broadway shows, producing a friend’s low budget film. But there were long dry spells in between. Anybody who’s wanting to succeed in this business has to be prepared to give it more than just a couple of years.

PPF: Are you formally trained or did you learn the art of movie making by making movies?

TR: I majored in film studies at New York’s School of Visual Arts, but I’m not much of a student. I stopped after my second year and started making films and learning that way.

PPF: Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you and gave you a chance when no one else would?

TR: Well, there are two that come to mind. The first is the group of investors who put up all the money for my first film when I had never done it before; I am forever grateful to all of them. The second is my current business partner, Ben. He co-founded Cross Creek Pictures and had produced Black Swan, The Ides of March, and The Woman in Black prior to deciding to partner with me. He brought a vast level of experience in the industry and asked me to partner with him when I didn’t really bring anything proven to the table.

PPF: You and Ben formed Sycamore Pictures. Tell me a little bit about the company.

TR: Sycamore Pictures is a production company focused on producing quality commercial films with thematic elements of redemption, reconciliation, social justice and/or the full human condition—a term we added to the mission statement after reading Andy Crouch’s Culture Making. We have a unique model in that we have raised a fund, similar to a mutual fund, but for movies, to finance the movies we develop and produce. Our goal is to tell compelling stories that will hopefully have a positive impact on the audience.

PPF: Some people wonder what the producer’s role is. Can you give us a summary of what the job entails?

TR: The producer’s job is to make the movie happen in every way.  A producer supports the director’s vision, has final say over cast, script, budget, schedule and finished film, protects the financial investment at every stage, negotiates all the talent and distribution deals, signs every contract, solves all the daily problems in ways that hopefully stay off everyone else’s radar, and makes sure the finished film is creatively what it needs to be to have the best shot at commercial success.

PPF: Let’s talk about your film, The Way, Way Back. I think a highlight of my year was getting to see its premiere at Sundance. To see you, my old friend, standing up on that stage with the cast and crew of this amazing movie was certainly thrilling. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to work on this project?

TR: I’ve known Jim Rash for almost a decade. He and Nat Faxon co-wrote The Descendants and won the Oscar for it last year. Right before that Oscar win, we were ready for our first project, and so we reached out and got a hold of this script.  The rights had just reverted back to them from various attempts at other studios and companies to make the film, and we immediately made our desire known to them within a day of reading the script. It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. We met, discussed the project, discussed their desire to direct, and we stood behind their vision 100 percent. They are two of the most careful and prepared storytellers I’ve ever worked with. Shortly thereafter, they won their Oscar, and we landed Steve Carell and our amazing cast, and we were shooting the film four months later.

PPF: The movie got a standing ovation at Sundance and broke all kinds of records with its $9.75 million-dollar sale to Fox Searchlight. What did that feel like? What was going through your head when you were watching the movie with that audience? And what was going through your head with that standing ovation?

TR: Well, I had never been to Sundance before this, so I didn’t know what to expect. It was great to watch it with an audience of almost 2000 people, hearing them laugh at all the right places, but it wasn’t until after the screening that I was told by a number of people that our audience’s reaction was unusually positive, and we were the first standing ovation of the festival. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s what we were told.

PPF: The movie was released July 5. July is prime time for a movie release, right?

TR: Searchlight took the same approach with us as they did with previous hits Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and (500) Days of Summer. They open in a handful of cities first, then expand to more and more over the coming weeks. This type of platform release allows audiences to discover the film, spread the word of mouth, and take ownership in its success.

PPF: You have just finished filming another movie for Sycamore, too. Can you tell us about that?

TR: We just finished Can a Song Save Your Life?, written and directed by John Carney, who wrote and directed the music-driven film, Once. This, too, is a music-driven film starring Keira Knightley as a singer/songwriter and Mark Ruffalo as a washed up music exec who discovers her singing in a bar in Manhattan. Adam Levine plays her boyfriend, who just dumped her to become a huge rock star sell-out, and Catherine Keener is Ruffalo’s estranged wife. This is a heartfelt story about two broken people who help each through rough times. It’s about deep friendship, marriage reconciliation, parenting, self-respect, and the power of music. We also just wrapped a Christmas comedy with Robin Williams and Joel McHale, so look for that Christmas 2014.

PPF: Are good scripts hard to come by? I always wonder if there are lots of great screenwriters who aren’t necessarily “known” or courted, and great scripts get lost. Or, is there a dearth of great scripts and everyone fights over the ones that are strong?

TR: It’s interesting. We read tons of scripts. A few are flat out bad, most are good enough to be serviceable but still need a good deal of development. There are very few amazing scripts out there, but they do exist. It takes patience, but they can be found.

PPF: Who’s on your list of people you really want to get to work with at some point in your career?

TR: Directors: Jeff Nichols, Charlie Kauffman, Bennett Miller, Errol Morris, George Clooney, Alfonso Cuaron, Kathryn Bigelow, John Hillcoat, Wes Anderson, and a slew of others. I’d also really like to do an adaptation from a John Grisham book.

PPF: Tell me your favorite movie you’ve seen this year.

TR: Fruitvale Station is a masterpiece and needs to be seen by everyone.

PPF: Tell me your top five favorite films.

TR: Wow, of all time? The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Red Violin, Billy Elliot, The Lives of Others, and Big Night. That’s five, but there are so many more. Can we say top ten?

PPF: Of course.  

TR:  I’d add Michael Clayton, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mary Poppins, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and Sunset Blvd. Or WALL-E. Or E.T. That’s twelve. I’ll stop.

PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?

TR: Hustle, pimp or sell drugs.

PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?

TR: I think the decision to leave a small-ish town in Mississippi at age 18 and move to New York City for college, then after four years, move to Los Angeles to pursue what many people thought was an unrealistic fantasy was pretty daring.

PPF:  When have you been most afraid?

TR: There have been plenty of times when I have lived paycheck to paycheck not knowing when the next job was coming.

PPF: What has been the lowest point in your career?

TR: I haven’t really had a lowest point in my film career. Yet. But I did get fired from a lot of restaurant jobs. I was a very nice, but very un-attentive waiter. I was horrible actually.

PPF: What has been the highest point so far?

TR: Aside from this six-hour interview, which I will refer to as my dissertation, I would say the night at Sundance where Ben and I stayed up all night negotiating the Fox Searchlight deal for The Way, Way Back with our team.  We broke records with that deal, and it was a very satisfying end to a very special experience.

PPF: Is there an attribute you can point to that helps people—or you—stay resilient in Hollywood? How do you personally deal with rejection when it happens?

TR: It’s simple. Check the ego at the door and don’t focus on things that won’t matter in five years—or five days. Idol worship, bitterness, and self-importance are rampant in this business, and they can rot you from the inside out if you let them. I’m not saying it’s easy, but those are the things I try to not give control to.

PPF: Okay, so here are a few questions I’m asking everyone. What’s on your bedside table right now?

TR: Hate to admit it, but the new Dan Brown novel Inferno and the last three issues, unread, of The New Yorker.

PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking one day?

TR: I would love to go on an African safari, if I could find one that wasn’t roughing it too much and had American or Italian food at each stop.

PPF:  If you could choose it ahead of time, what would you want your last meal on earth to be?

TR: Caprese salad, a good spaghetti Bolognese, medium rare filet mignon, rice and pot roast gravy, mashed potatoes, and a warm, fresh chocolate chip cookie.

PPF: First concert you ever went to?

TR: My first concert was seeing Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson. Full circle: She wrote two original songs for The Way, Way Back, and her husband Paul Simon sang backup on both of them.

PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

TR: I’ve been to five Rufus Wainwright concerts and loved them all, but his “Release the Stars” tour was probably my favorite.



  1. Paige, loved this interview..thank you for asking questions that gave me lists of films to watch and info on a producer to follow. Always needing artists to lift us out of this addiction to mediocrity and give us honest opportunities to discuss our common conditions.
    I’ll definitely head to the movies to see The Way Way Back, and hopefully find some Pot Roast Gravy somewhere, too.
    Thanks again.

  2. Great interview. Super excited for Tom and can’t wait to see the movies.

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