Backstage at the Kodak Theatre three days before the Academy Awards, Oscar producer Joe Roth is swimming in Hollywood royalty.
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have just finished rehearsing their speeches. Renee Zellweger waits for her run-through in the green room.
At this very moment, Roth's as popular as anyone in show business could ever be. You would never know he needs a hit.
Unlike any other producer of Hollywood's most important awards show, the 55-year-old Roth has run two studios and directed four movies.
He has lengthy friendships with some of the town's biggest names, many of whom he has enrolled to make a perpetually star-laden ritual glitzier and more comic.
Yet relationships also have cost Roth and sidetracked his fledgling movie company, Revolution Studios. In the past year, Revolution unleashed two spectacular bombs (the notorious "Gigli," and "Hollywood Homicide"), and "The Missing" and "Peter Pan," though artistically ambitious were commercial disappointments.
Along with the box office troubles, Roth's marriage to popular producer Donna Arkoff Roth is ending in divorce.
Until now, Joe Roth had largely avoided the jealousy that infects many Hollywood relationships.
For one of the few times in his career, his notices haven't been that glowing.
Rather than lie low and regroup, the deeply competitive Roth is taking a public gamble, having never produced a minute of television, let alone a live broadcast beamed around the globe. By filling the show with high-wattage stars, a host of young comedians and some inventive musical numbers, Roth is betting that he can reinvigorate not only the Oscars -- whose ABC audience fell from 55.2 million in 1998, the year "Titanic" swept the awards, to 33.1 million last year -- but also his own industry profile.
From supervising close to 300 films during his tenure at Fox and Disney to directing such movies as "America's Sweethearts," Roth has excelled at making lasting bonds with Hollywood's leading stars and filmmakers.
It's a talent that will be on full display at the 76th annual awards show tonight, where Roth will be on the red carpet, greeting stars he personally invited to the global telecast, making sure the most nervous A-listers have a friendly hand to hold. Billy Crystal may be the show's emcee, but Roth is its unofficial host. As the show's musical director, Marc Shaiman said, teasingly, "It's Joe Roth's Academy Awards."
There's almost nobody in the particularly starry lineup with whom Roth doesn't have a history -- from knowing Johnny Depp during the latter's 1980s "21 Jump Street" TV days, to bringing Oscar presenter Jack Black to see his daughter's high school production of "Pippin." Roth even landed the reclusive Sean Penn, who declined to appear the previous three times he was nominated.
Roth's charm, however, was not enough to persuade Brad Pitt to present a trophy and a major no-show will be Mel Gibson. Roth asked the filmmaker of "The Passion of the Christ" to present an award, knowing it would create unforgettable sparks. Gibson let the offer expire because, Roth says, he was afraid of being booed. His representatives said Gibson was too busy to attend because it was the movie's opening weekend.
Whether Roth can bring back the young male viewers the show has been losing remains to be seen. But he is adding movie-marketing mojo to the glamorous but often staid proceedings, including the first Oscar tie-in at Blockbuster video stores and a promotional campaign that includes $2 million in advertising on cable TV.
Roth also has called on his friend Oprah Winfrey to do not one, but two Academy Award-themed television shows, as well as present an Oscar film clip. He also has axed the show's dance numbers in favor of hip comedians such as Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller.
And he's willing to be ruthless to protect the show's exclusivity. Even though he's one of Hollywood's least confrontational executives, Roth uninvited Leonardo DiCaprio from appearing as an Oscar presenter after the actor performed the same job at January's Golden Globe awards.
For the Challenge
Crystal and Roth are sitting in a studio, doing nearly a dozen early morning satellite interviews with radio stations around the country. One interviewer finally asks Roth why he's actually producing the Oscars. It's a million-dollar question, and Crystal jumps in.
"That's what I asked him when he first called. 'Why are you doing this?' " Crystal says.
"I like to start at the top," Roth deadpans, but he's only half joking. "It's a 3 1/2-hour live show in front of 1 billion people....Obviously it's a mistake, but I'm in."
Roth admits he actually grew annoyed when the 10th person asked him why he was doing the broadcast, even though it's a legitimate point since this is his first go at television. The answer: because he can.