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Joe Roth Grapples With the Katzenberg Legacy : The incoming head of Disney's live-action film unit faces daunting challenges, not the least of which is dealing with the emotional toll caused by the former studio chief's exit.

August 29, 1994|CLAUDIA ELLER and ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When Joe Roth became movie chairman of 20th Century Fox in 1989, he had his hands full.

The moribund studio had produced just six movies that year and the cupboard was practically bare. That wasn't surprising, considering that an endless stream of studio heads had presided over the motion picture operation during a decade-long slump.

In some ways, however, Roth's appointment to soon head the live-action film division of Walt Disney Studios is even more overwhelming. Rather than starting from scratch, he will be wending his way through an already established operation--not to mention executives and creative talent tightly bonded to the man who built it: Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Katzenberg will be leaving in a month after failing to win the No. 2 job in Disney corporate management.

"Not only am I entering a 10-year familial unit," says Roth, "but coming in as its leader. It's not about winning them over, but about giving them enough time to work things through."

Oscar-winning filmmaker Ismail Merchant ("A Room With a View," "Howards End"), who, with his 33-year partner, director James Ivory, was wooed to Disney two years ago, says "emotional ties" in the film business run deep.

"This is a business of delicate relationships," he says. "Something like this shakes our confidence--it's a jolt."

Producer Robert Cort, president of Interscope Communications whose films are primarily distributed by Disney, draws a similar analogy. "In the film industry, we live on a perpetual fault line," he says. "There are always shocks--and this was a big one. Jeffrey was a fixture. The company reflected a lot of his personality. It will take some time to re-establish the balance of our lives."

Roth also faces considerable business challenges.

Though filmed entertainment has overtaken theme parks as the biggest slice of Disney's profit pie, most of the money has come from feature animation, home video, television, and the studio library. Disney may be No. 1 in market share among distributors right now. But the studio's live action movie division--operating on the assumption that volume is the key to profitability--has under-performed for the last five years.

Cutting down on the number of releases, Roth believes, should help. At Fox, he preferred to open two movies a month. Disney has already released 24 in 1994, with an expected total of 37 by year's end.

"It's too much to expect one group of people to produce and market nearly 40 films a year, " Roth said. "I told (Disney Co. chairman) Michael Eisner that the goal shouldn't be numbers. We should be producing only those scripts for which there are good ideas. Live-action movies consume a lot of cash. Marketing expenses have soared. The problem is volume . . . not taste."

Industry observers disagree. For the most part, they say, Disney product has been lackluster and forgettable--cookie-cutter fare. Roth is not expected to make a significant course correction.

"Jeffrey and I are both mainstream commercial," the incoming studio chief admits unapologetically. "We believe the idea should be the locomotive of the movie rather than the actors or the director. If you want to call that 'high concept,' OK."

Roth's own Caravan Pictures, set up at Disney nearly three years ago, is pumping out movies like "The Jerky Boys" and "Low Down Dirty Shame"--lightweight comedies in the Disney mold.

In the near future, however, some of Disney's more substantive titles will be surfacing. Robert Redford's fall release, "Quiz Show," starring Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes, is generating positive buzz and Oscar talk in its pre-release screenings. And Tim Burton's black-and-white quirky period movie "Ed Wood"--the true story of a schlock movie director who dressed in women's clothes--is one of Disney's atypical risks. The movie, starring Johnny Depp, is due out in September.

Other future releases, which will take Roth through next summer, include Disney's next animated feature, "Pocahontas"; John Hughes' comedy "The Bee"; a Sylvester Stallone vehicle, "Judge Dredd," and Tony Scott's big-budget action thriller, "Crimson Tide," starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

Mike Simpson, co-head of the William Morris talent agency's motion picture department, says practical considerations will also minimize change. "Though the attention of the rank-and-file executives will be diverted while Disney is restructuring," he says, "that doesn't mean projects will be derailed. The studio is a big machine that has to be fed."

Well aware of the emotional toll exacted by Katzenberg's imminent departure, Roth wasted no time placing calls to "talent" with whom the studio chief had been aligned.

While the conversations were pleasant, he hadn't anticipated the depth of feeling toward his predecessor, Roth says. "The intensity of their bond to Jeffrey is a great testament to him--and daunting to me. I didn't anticipate it. For the umpteenth time in my life, I miscalculated."

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