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Ex-studio boss mounts successful third act

Joe Roth of 'Alice in Wonderland' is back in a producing role, winning praise again.

March 11, 2010|By Claudia Eller
  • "Alice in Wonderland's" monster opening has put producer Joe Roth back on top after his own studio hit the financial skids and he faded from Hollywood.
"Alice in Wonderland's" monster opening has put producer… (Christina House / For The…)

Joe Roth was once Hollywood's golden boy. As a scrappy producer in the 1980s, he co-founded the independent movie company behind such low-budget hits as "Major League" and "Young Guns," then went on to run two major studios -- 20th Century Fox and Disney -- before leaving corporate life in 2000 to launch lavishly financed Revolution Studios, which employed 55 people.

But after more than two decades of good fortune, his star turn ended when Revolution produced more flops than hits and went under after seven years. It still owes the banks $300 million.

Over the last two years, the former high-flying studio chief retreated from the limelight and focused on another passion -- sports -- becoming majority owner of a professional soccer team, the Seattle Sounders, whose co-owners include billionaire Paul Allen and actor Drew Carey. Many wrote him off.

And then along came Alice.

Last weekend, director Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," a project Roth helped shepherd and produce, opened with $216 million in worldwide ticket sales.

Hollywood is famous for second, even third acts. And, though Roth says he doesn't miss the perks and power he once wielded, he's relishing the moment of his comeback. Company Town tracked him down at his small office -- he now has just three employees -- on the Sony Pictures lot, where he discussed his "tough transition" from mogul to producer, and the industry controversy that preceded "Alice's" debut.

How did "Alice" come about?

[Producers] Suzanne and Jennifer Todd brought [screenwriter] Linda Woolverton in, and she had a pitch on how to do the movie. The two problems I always had were that Alice was too young and therefore too passive, [and] there was no purpose to those funny characters. Linda came up with the idea of Alice being older and therefore more active, and she gave the movie a political context so all these characters -- the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse -- weren't really mad, they were in a sense like revolutionaries working to get the White Queen back in power. So, that took away all the problems of the early films, which all felt episodic and without purpose.

Disney wasn't the first place you pitched the idea, right?

I had to take it here to Sony first because this is where my deal is. It was a time when they didn't have a whole lot of development money, and Linda's an expensive writer, so we never pitched it, we just had a conversation. I then pitched it to [then-Disney Chairman] Dick Cook at Art's Deli, and he thought it was a great idea. Linda went off and wrote a really good script. They thought Tim Burton would be the ideal director, and I said I'd talk to him since I had done "Edward Scissorhands" with him at Fox. He really liked the script and then worked with Linda. In the middle of that, he went to see Johnny [Depp] in France, and he said he wanted to do it.

Then last fall, the very executives who green-lit "Alice" -- your close allies Cook and production chief Oren Aviv -- were ousted along with other top managers in a studio shake-up. Did that throw you for a loop?

It was very disconcerting. They had put the guts of the overall plan in place, but the creative advertising hadn't been done, and there was no head of marketing [he too had been fired].

Were you surprised that Disney picked "Alice" to become the guinea pig in advancing a movie's DVD release date, becoming a battleground between the studio and overseas exhibitors who were angry the plan would hurt ticket sales?

I was shocked. We showed the movie to Disney, and Dick Zanuck [Burton's producing partner] and I were asked to stay after the meeting. [Disney executives] Chuck Viane and Bob Chapek explained that they were going across the world to talk about shortening the video window, and they needed us to tell Tim that day. Tim didn't understand why he had spent 2 1/2 years making a 3-D movie for theaters that they were trying to rush into a 2-D environment. I called [Disney Chief Executive] Bob Iger and said, "Tim's on board, but please do what you can to make sure this isn't 'the big deal.' " Then it blew up. . . . It was a nightmare.

In the end, it all worked out. "Alice" appears on its way to becoming a huge hit.

You couldn't possibly ask for a better third act start. I'm going back to what I started doing. If there's a good idea, I'll pursue it. When you take those big jobs you get lulled into thinking somehow you're invulnerable, and you wake up one morning and you're 61. Now I'm getting congratulatory phone calls and text messages from people I know don't like me. I take it all with a grain of salt.

What's it like going from where you have the power to make any movie you want to being a producer where you have to sell your idea like everyone else?

When I go in and pitch a project to somebody who works for somebody who works for somebody who worked for me and they turn me down, in the car on the way back I miss running a studio. It's been a hard transition to go back into something where you have no control, when I essentially had all the control. I have no power whatsoever to get a movie made, other than guile.

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