Thomas Tull '92 Discusses His Journey From Hamilton to Hollywood

Thomas Tull '92 speaks to students in the Red Pit.
Thomas Tull '92 speaks to students in the Red Pit.

Thomas Tull '92, founder, chairman and CEO of Legendary Pictures (the company jointly responsible for producing the films Batman Begins, Superman Returns and 300), spoke to Hamilton students on April 17 in Wellin Hall about his journey from Hamilton to film production. Tull expressed appreciation for Hamilton's impact on establishing his success, and reciprocated by screening never-before-seen footage of
Legendary Pictures' upcoming Batman sequel, The Dark Knight.

While lecture attendees were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement about the contents of the film clip, audience members were treated to a short scene from the movie featuring Heath Ledger in his last performance as the Joker. Tull mentioned that the lecture required his creative team to bring substantial video and sound equipment up to the Hill to screen the movie, a decision attendees undoubtedly appreciated.

Tull described how "I never in a million years planned to be in the movie business." After growing up in Binghamton, New York, he found arrival at Hamilton a "culture shock" because of other students' broader exposure and the college's close connection to events in the outside world. However, Tull said he is "grateful for the education I received here because it opened up a whole world for me."

Although he had positively planned to be a lawyer after college, Tull cautioned that "almost nobody [at Hamilton] knows exactly what they're going to do," and he found himself establishing a few small businesses that he was able to sell at a profit. After managing a larger deal with a tax company, Tull entered the private equity field, where he started getting contracts related to entertainment. Despite being a lifelong
"film geek" who considers himself enamored with the way films transport the viewer, Tull did not consider entering the film business until he had a conversation with a chairman of a big movie company when Tull started "pontificating about private equity" as a solution to the financial troubles of the film industry. Feeling challenged, he said to himself, "I went to Hamilton," and he realized that he had the ability
to put his idea to work.

After a year-long process of raising money, which he realized was "crazy" only after embarking on the project, he was able to amass $600 million in financing from blue chip investors, with which they produced the Batman and Superman films in collaboration with Warner Brothers. Currently, the company has raised more than $1.5 billion and has shown strong profits.

Tull also shared his thoughts on the movie-making process, which he broke down into two questions that are asked of every film he produces: "Is it a great story?" and "How are you going to market the film?" The moviemaking process is thus dictated by both creativity ("no matter how fascinating the techno toys are, if the story isn't there" people will walk out disappointed) and a need to be financially responsible -- allocating money to projects based on their predicted success. 

Ultimately, despite all the research prior to approving a film, Tull described the decision as ultimately based on a "gut feel," as when he took a chance getting Zach Synder (who had previously only directed Dawn of the Dead) to direct 300, a pairing that proved very successful.

Characterizing himself as a "gamer" and wanting to keep his "card in the geek nation," Tull also expressed a sense of personal commitment to Legendary's films, putting things on film that "I want to see." He also regretted that many video games based on films are quickly produced with little regard for detail and has founded a video game company, Brash Entertainment, to specifically address film-to-game conversions.

While he explained that Legendary focuses on commercial projects over independent films, he said that the company seeks to make the stories they tell "elevated" and take the source material seriously. Legendary's roster of upcoming films includes a wide variety of properties, including Watchmen (from the renowned graphic novel), Akira (a remake of the popular Japanese anime film), a Superman sequel (in
Which Tull hopes to invoke more of the image of "an angry god"), Clash of the Titans, Where the Wild Things Are and a film of Paradise Lost (Tull is particularly interested in the "[story] arc of Lucifer"). Tull is also sponsoring the Legendary Film Treatment Challenge, an upcoming opportunity to submit film treatments to Legendary Pictures for consideration.

Tull's advice for aspiring creative professionals was to "be tenacious" since "you're going to hear 'no' a lot" when proposing ideas. However, Tull views Hollywood more than other industries as a meritocracy where "good ideas rise to the top and young people can become popular very quickly." 

-- by Kye Lippold '10

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