In Turnaround

For most of his career, Joe Roth has been the consummate Hollywood player. Charismatic, rich, powerful, creative, he has run two studios (Twentieth Century Fox and Disney), produced 39 movies, and directed four others. He is a master of the game of assembling, making, and marketing movies. He works the film business (and his own media profile) better than anybody. He’s even producing February’s Oscar ceremony.

Yet Hollywood insiders have long known Roth’s dark secret: His reputation is better than his track record. At 55, Roth suddenly finds himself in the awkward position of having to prove himself yet again. The future of his three-year-old venture, Revolution Studios, is riding on the success of its next three movies—Ron Howard’s Western The Missing, starring Tommy Lee Jones and frontier fighter Cate Blanchett (who’s already generating Oscar buzz); Mike Newell’s fifties college drama–cum–feminist fable Mona Lisa Smile, starring Julia Roberts; and Peter Pan, a $115 million co-venture with Sony and Universal that represents Roth’s biggest roll of the dice ever.

“It’s very ambitious,” says Roth of Pan, adding that he’s wanted to make the movie since he was at Disney. “It has children, animals, special effects, flying, wire work.”

If this trio doesn’t provide some box-office fireworks, Roth is in big trouble.

Three years ago, Roth quit working for Michael Eisner and swiftly raised a ground-breaking—and unreplicable—$1 billion financing package for Revolution (named after the Beatles song) that made him the envy of Hollywood. He enjoys a rare freedom: He answers to no one and can green-light just about any movie he wants to make. So, what’s not to like? Well, Tomcats. The New Guy. Stealing Harvard. Tears of the Sun. Hollywood Homicide. Master of Disguise. And of course Gigli, the Bennifer fiasco that’s still a punch line on The Tonight Show. One critic called Revolution’s most recent release, the sports weepie Radio, “a synthetic mush of molasses-soaked pablum.” Pablum which, it should be noted, is making money.

Roth (who owns 62 percent of Revolution) promised his equity partners—Sony Pictures Entertainment (theatrical), Fox Broadcasting and Starz Encore (pay cable), along with several foreign distributors—36 commercial pictures in six years, at least some of them starring his first two in-house movie stars, Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis. Sir Howard Stringer, the Sony Corp. of America chairman, ponies up more than half of his film-production costs while underwriting distribution and marketing. In exchange, Roth agreed to play consigliere to Stringer’s executive team, and seemed likely to succeed John Calley as Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman. Indeed, Stringer has been criticized for giving away the store to Roth.

But Calley recently resigned to produce movies with Ron Howard and Mike Nichols. And while both Calley and Roth continue to serve on the committee that oversees SPE, they now share the boardroom with three other executives whose stars have risen: Columbia Pictures chairman Amy Pascal, Columbia TriStar Worldwide Marketing and Distribution president Jeff Blake, and Sony Digital president Yair Landau.

The last time Sony bet on Hollywood brashness—hiring Jon Peters and Peter Guber to run the studios—the conglomerate ended up taking a $2.7 billion write-down. This time, the Japanese kept their distance and waited to see how the partnership with Revolution fared. Until recently, the results were at least financially, if not always artistically, solid.

“The Japanese don’t believe in an Über-leader who goes with his gut,” says United Talent Agency chairman Jim Berkus. “Everything is run by committee. Checks and balances. Work by consensus.”

That’s not Joe Roth’s style. When he left Disney in January 2000, Roth was able to position himself as the successful studio chief behind such breakouts hits as Home Alone and The Sixth Sense, and as the maverick cinéast who bucked Eisner’s corporate mandates by backing smart films like The Insider, A Civil Action, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cradle Will Rock, and Beloved. Roth promoted Revolution as the new, streamlined, 21st-century studio: no bureaucracy, no meetings, no fuss, no muss. All you had to do was get Joe to say yes.

The Revolution chief was all too quick on the trigger in order to feed the pipeline. “I’ve never met anyone who flies so fast from gut instinct to a decision,” says Daddy Day Care producer John Davis, who went from script submission to preproduction in 24 hours. “Joe’s a good producer,” says one studio chief. “He has beat the system through volume. But you can’t have quality control that way.”

Perhaps not, but you can still strike box-office gold. Half of Revolution’s first eighteen movies were commercial hits. Three recouped their costs. Six lost money. After subtracting their $16 million–a–year overhead, all the partners will share a $250 million pie.

“If Revolution has a good year and makes money, so do I,” says Pascal, who prefers being able to focus on a smaller slate of films that tend to be of a higher caliber than Revolution’s.

“Joe likes commercial fare and high-concept ideas,” Universal chairman Stacey Snider insists, “and he knows how to sell movies.”

Sony has been on a two-year run, and is No. 2 in studio market share for 2003. Stringer insists that his executive committee “is working quite well.” But Roth’s costly misfires cost Revolution and Sony some $100 million.

For his part, Roth is still recovering from 2003, his annus horribilis, when he was demythologized and humiliated in full public view. All three failures “were my fault,” he admits. “They were my projects.” He saw the Bruce Willis jungle adventure Tears of the Sun as the next African Queen, “but the director wanted to make a more political film,” he says. He gave old buddy Ron Shelton the go-ahead on Hollywood Homicide with Harrison Ford, with lackluster results. Gigli director Marty Brest got final cut from Roth on a Ben Affleck–Halle Berry package after Universal passed. (New rule: No more final-cut writer-directors.) When Berry dropped out, Revolution East chief Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas brought in ex-client Jennifer Lopez, who had scored in Maid in Manhattan. “She and Ben had never met before,” says Roth. “You could feel the train wreck.”

“I want to be a simple company that doesn’t compete with the studios,” Roth continues, “so that we can do whatever we want. We have to beg, borrow, and be filmmaker-friendly so that Michael Mann and Ron Howard will like us. We can’t pay the freight to be first choice. We’re a little boutique making little movies trying to make a profit.”

While Revolution has only 53 employees, it also has an expanded credit line of $650 million (from a consortium of eleven banks) to play with. “Even though you have the contacts and the money,” Roth concedes, “that doesn’t mean the movie is going to be good. We make one picture at a time and take our shots.”

Roth admits that he was under pressure to rush projects into production. Quality movies come from development, he says, and he chose to jump out of the starting gate with the movies that were available at the time because he knew they’d make money. In an effort to produce more movies like Black Hawk Down and Punch-Drunk Love, Roth now wants his production chief, Todd Garner (who backed Revolution’s biggest hits, XXX and Anger Management), to exercise more quality control. Roth himself is casting his next film as a director, the true-story basketball heart-tugger Willie, which starts filming in April, starring Revolution’s newest in-house star, Ice Cube (who is also taking over Vin Diesel’s role in the XXX franchise).

Revolution’s fate lies in what Roth’s partners will want from him after they get their 36 films. For now, he is crossing his fingers, praying that his slowed-down slate over the next year will turn the PR tide. “What I wish is to have made School of Rock, or Spellbound,” he concedes. “I’m desperate to make good movies.”

The question is, will he?

In Turnaround