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Life Inside Mickey's New Mini : Yes, Joe Roth was a studio honcho. Then he left Fox to start a new production company, Caravan Pictures. So was it a big comedown? Nope. Actually it sounds like rolling out movies from a mini-studio on the Disney lot means a lot less aspirin

October 31, 1993|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Caravan Pictures founder Joe Roth is watching dailies from his just-started Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte movie when his office buzzes him--it's time for a 3 p.m. meeting with director Nick Castle, who wants to pitch a musical-comedy project called "Herald Square."

Roth and his producing partner, Roger Birnbaum, hurry downstairs to their second-floor offices in the Animation Building on the Disney Studios lot in Burbank. They are greeted by four cheery actor types, dressed in identical 1940s-style theater usher outfits, complete with shiny gold buttons, black epaulets and boxy red caps.

Roth has the look of a man who has suddenly been transported into a lost scene from "Barton Fink." Castle is nowhere in sight. It's just an attention-grabbing script delivery, complete with a portable tape deck and a cassette of six musical numbers.

The ushers break into a song-and-dance routine. " Yoooooou !" they harmonize to an old show tune. " Yoooooou could be a movie hero! That's right, yooooooou could be the hero of your own movie company! Listen to the Walkman, CAA will love to talk, man!"

*

When you run a movie studio, there's little time for laughs. When you're a producer, you're casting a broader net--there's time for anyone who might have a good idea.

Life has changed for Roth since he resigned as chairman of 20th Century Fox in November to form Caravan Pictures, a production company financed and distributed by Disney where Roth has a mandate to make 25 films during the next five years.

In fact, by Christmas, 1994, he expects to have as many as 10 films in release, kicking off this Nov. 12 with a remake of "The Three Musketeers," which stars Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, Oliver Platt and Chris O'Donnell. The volume is closer to that of a mini-studio than a production company. And Roth is in the unusual position of green-lighting his own pictures.

Yet Roth still feels like a man who's leaped off the assembly line. He doesn't have 2,000 employees to worry about anymore--he has a staff of only 15.

"It's great to know that if I don't call anybody back till after 5 p.m. today, the world won't end," he says. Roth even has time to leave work early each Wednesday to coach his 9-year-old son's 4 p.m. soccer practice.

"Running a studio, all you can do is react," says the 45-year-old executive, who has earned a reputation in Hollywood as a savvy competitor with loads of good-guy charm.

"There are so many meetings, so much else going on, that it's just dumb luck to be sitting in the room when Dale Launer pitches you 'My Cousin Vinny' or Ron Shelton comes in with 'White Men Can't Jump,' " he says, referring to two hits from his tenure at Fox.

After spending more than a decade as both a director and a producer--Roth ran Morgan Creek Productions for several years before taking over at Fox--he felt too distant from the filmmaking front lines. He was dealing with long-term planning while Birnbaum, then Fox's president of production, handled more of the studio's daily film affairs.

"One day, Roger would be in the office, talking about a script, and the next minute he's saying, 'We've got a rough cut,' " Roth says with a frown. "And I kept thinking, 'I missed the part where they made the movie!' "

Roth says his deal with Disney allows him total control over his films as long as they don't cost more than $30 million. So far, Caravan has only two movies pushing the limit: "The Three Musketeers" and the project with high-salaried movie stars Roberts and Nolte, a romantic comedy called "I Love Trouble." The rest of its roster, Roth says, consists of films in the $10-million to $20-million range.

Having spent hundreds of hours together, watching dailies during their days at Fox, Roth and Birnbaum have evolved into a tightly knit producing team. They have connecting offices, drive identical black 750il BMWs and are in such exact sync about their filmmaking philosophy that they often jump in and finish each other's sentences.

Their style is genial, self-deprecating informality. Birnbaum favors jeans and sneakers. Roth wears slacks and loafers, which he often kicks off and slides across the floor in the midst of meetings.

Roth has long been a media darling, though he is sometimes too eager to please. He invited a reporter along on his visit to the "I Love Trouble" set, only to hastily rescind the offer when Roberts' handlers vetoed the idea at the actress's request.

At Fox, Roth and Birnbaum made an unusually wide variety of films. Some hit pay dirt (the two "Home Alone" films, "The Last of the Mohicans," "Sleeping With the Enemy," "Hot Shots" and "My Cousin Vinny"). Others were expensive flops ("Toys," "Hoffa," "For the Boys," "Shining Through"). But even during the cold streaks, Roth projected such convincing optimism that Fox largely avoided the press sniping suffered by other studios.

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