Here's the kind of question that excites Thomas Tull: If a giant robot is chasing an alien (as many will in Tull's summer 2013 blockbuster Pacific Rim), how much ground can that robot cover in a short amount of time? "How, physically, will it move?" he says. "How will it be powered? How big is its stride? You just keep going deeper and deeper. You consult experts. Today's audiences are so sophisticated and research-savvy; you just want to take the time and attention and care to create something real and tangible."
This is how Tull manages an entertainment empire that has produced such hits as the Dark Knight franchise and Inception—not just from the business end but also by locking himself in a room with writers and directors to hammer out minutiae only total fanboys would notice. Because to Tull, success comes from passing the fanboy's test of authenticity. He is that fanboy.
Tull was raised by a single mom who struggled to feed her three children. "We didn't have any money. It was actually a big deal when I got to go to the movies," he says. He escaped into stories—Star Wars, Frank Miller comics, and the rest of the classics. "I remember reading The Lord of the Rings as a little kid and marveling at the fact that Tolkien took the time to create an elvish language. That just struck me as cool as hell." He also remembers being turned off by plot discrepancies—characters gaining new superpowers just in time to escape demise, or villains defeated by unknown weaknesses. Fanboys have to believe in the worlds they're invited to; new physics must remain consistent.
Now that he has access to the sort of creators he loved—such as DC Comics artist Shane Davis, whom Tull connected with Fast Company for the above illustration of him—he engages in a sort of granular quality control: He hones ideas with them, ensuring that even the most fantastical worlds have a solid internal logic. "Working with him has been a highlight in my life," says Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro, who previously directed Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy. "It is not every day when the head of a major company is also the guy you can talk to for hours about movies, sports, and pop culture."
Now Tull wants to create in many forms: He's already launched a comics division and is avidly pursuing TV deals. Movies are still his main focus, though, and one of his next big projects is a new Godzilla. "We sat down and said, "What does Godzilla mean?" How do we tell a story that touches on that and takes it to a new level?" In the 1950s, as Japan recovered from atomic bombs, Godzilla represented something very real. And now? "Godzilla is an unbelievable primal fear. We always ask ourselves, If you turned on CNN and all of a sudden this huge creature emerges from the bay and it can breathe atomic fire, what would happen in the world? That got us very excited."
Illustration by Shane Davis; coloring by Gabe Bridwell