COVER STORY : Seriously Now, Joe . . . : Q: Did Fox chairman Joe Roth know 'Home Alone' would put his studio on top? A: Well, maybe, just a little.

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer.

On a shelf in Joe Roth's airy, creme-colored office on the Century City lot of 20th Century Fox--an office once occupied by the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck--is a photograph taken of Roth and Tom Sherak, Fox's marketing and distribution chief, shortly after Roth was named chairman of the studio. On the photo, Sherak wrote in white ink: "Joe: May all your troubles be small . . . and all your pictures big."

Roth's troubles have not all been small and his pictures have not all been big, but considering what has happened at the once-struggling studio in the last 18 months, Roth's brief tenure has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. In 1990, Fox doubled its share of the national box office, from 6.1% to 13.1%, climbing out of sixth place among the major studios to trail only Walt Disney and Paramount in 1990 ticket sales.

More significantly, the studio caught a wave during the second half of the year--pushed along by the first films Roth had put into production after his arrival in August, 1989--and took in $1 for every $5 earned from the rental of films in theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada. Such hits as "Die Hard 2," "Marked for Death," "Edward Scissorhands" and the colossal hit "Home Alone" propelled Fox into the No. 1 spot among all distributors--a position it has yet to relinquish during the first quarter of 1991.

John Hughes' "Home Alone," a sort of live-action version of a Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote cartoon, hit the ground running in the No. 1 box office spot last November and didn't give it up for three months--and then only to another Fox release, "Sleeping With the Enemy." So far, "Home Alone" has grossed more than $230 million at the box office, a figure that translates into more than $100 million in film rentals to Fox. Some analysts believe the studio will match or exceed that figure when the "Home Alone" videocassette hits the market later this year.

"Home Alone" was a much-needed transfusion for a studio that had slipped into a decade-long slump that began with the departure of Alan Ladd, Jr. in 1979, and after luck ran out on a string of studio bosses. To those who call Fox's current rise a one-hit phenomenon, however, Fox can gleefully point out that it would have been the industry box-office leader during the last six months without "Home Alone."

For Roth and Fox, "Home Alone" became the little film that could, the story of an 8-year-old boy (Macaulay Culkin) who, when mistakenly left behind by his vacationing family, terrorizes two would-be burglars. The fact that people have swarmed to the picture must have Warner Bros. executives gnashing their teeth.

"Home Alone" was a Warner Bros. project three weeks before it went into production, but the studio--reportedly skittish when asked to add another $1.5 million to the film's budget--put the movie in "turnaround": Hollywood's way of saying, "We don't know what this thing's going to do; if you want it, you can have it for what we've got in it."

Roth picked up "Home Alone" from Warner Bros. and the movie, which finally cost $18.2 million to make, is neck and neck with "Beverly Hills Cop" as the most successful comedy in history. No wonder Fox sent 21 of its top executives to Las Vegas for the recent ShoWest convention of movie exhibitors. What are heroes without shoulders to ride on?

"I felt like I was wearing a Super Bowl ring or holding up the Stanley Cup," says Roger Birnbaum, Fox's president of worldwide production. "We're no longer Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill and having it come down on us. 'Home Alone' is our golden cushion. It's made us solvent, taken the pressure off."

Not just for this year. "Home Alone" is now a "tentpole," a template for sequels that may go on until Macaulay Culkin has kids of his own. "Home Alone 2" has already been announced, as part of a rich multi-picture package Fox has put together with John Hughes, and will probably light up the marquees this Christmas.

"Six months ago, to a person, we would have forecast that in 1991 (Fox's parent company) News Corp. would be forced to pump a couple of million dollars into the studio to step up production," says Gordon Crawford, an entertainment industry analyst with Capitol Research and Management Co., an investment-management organization. "Now it's relieved of that burden. 'Home Alone' is like an annuity . . . That's the beauty of a successful motion picture. It goes on forever."

From the vantage point of Rupert Murdoch's debt-ridden News Corp., the timing couldn't be better. Though the highly leveraged company's international media franchises throw off enough cash to cover its interest costs, the operation was hard-put to come up with the $2 billion it owes to the banks this June. On Feb. 2, after three months of negotiation with lenders, News Corp. finally managed to obtain new credit and extend its maturity schedule. But Murdoch still needs to raise $800 million by next February. If the newly revived film division will not single-handedly solve its cash flow problems, neither will it add to them. And, most importantly, it will serve as an integral part of the parent company's long-term strategy: a crucial source of software for the home video market, Murdoch's Fox Network and his joint venture, British Sky Broadcasting--a direct-to-home satellite programming operation.

It was Joe Roth's success at generating such popular films as "Young Guns," "Dead Ringers" and "Major League" at his independent Morgan Creek production company that led Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller to offer him the studio's top job in the first place. If Roth could accomplish what he did as co-founder and president of a small operation like Morgan Creek, so Diller's reasoning went, imagine what he might do with the resources of a major studio behind him. Diller says now that Roth's lack of studio experience was never a factor; that, as both a filmmaker (producer of several films and director of "Revenge of the Nerds," "Streets of Gold" and "Coupe de Ville") and an entrepreneur, Roth was the perfect candidate. It was Roth, an outspoken critic of the studio system, who had the reservations.

"I fueled myself as a maverick who railed against institutions, and initially turned the offer down," the 42-year-old Roth says. "But, like any independent producer, I thought 'I could do better than that.' There was a conflict between the dream part of running a studio--deciding what movies are made--and my dread of plunging into bureaucracy."

In fact, Roth has attempted to make the spot his own. Perched next to the oversized modern furniture in his office is a basketball hoop, reminiscent of Roth's jock days in Long Island's Roslyn Heights. Testament to his irreverence is the 6-square-foot movie poster of "They Drive By Night," a 1940 film produced not by Fox but Warner Bros., which serves as a backdrop to his simple wooden desk. A year and four months into the job, Roth finally capitulated and traded in his BMW for a two-door Jaguar convertible. Still, he insists, when he drives onto the lot, he pretends he's a "producer"--in the broadest sense--rather than a "studio chief."

"The guy who buys the ticket doesn't care what title I have," he says, "so I resist anything that affects my choices."

On the face of it, Roth's style is the polar opposite of Diller's. A graduate of Boston University School of Public Communications, Roth is a shirt-sleeves administrator with an open door policy and a reputation for shooting from the hip. Roth can be blunt, but those close to him say his actions are much more calculated than they might seem.

"Joe starts planning his day in the shower, anticipating scenarios A, B and C," says Jim Robinson, his former partner and still chairman of Morgan Creek. "People see quick decision-making but that's only because he's thought everything through in advance."

All Roth's competitive instincts were called into play when faced with the debacle at Fox. In the 18 months prior to Diller's arrival in 1984, the company had lost more than $300 million in the movie business ("almost impossible, even if you try," says Diller). And, in the ensuing five years, none of the chairman's appointees managed to turn things around. There was Lawrence Gordon, a top-flight producer ("Field of Dreams") less effective in a studio setting; Alan Horn, from Norman Lear's Act III, and producer Leonard Goldberg, Diller's former boss at ABC, who insiders say had little stomach for the long hours and unrelenting nature of the job. Fox did have the occasional "Cocoon," "Aliens," "Broadcast News" and "Working Girl," but, at the end of 1989, was only a couple of steps out of the basement.

"I blame myself," Diller says. "I was deep into Fox Broadcasting and Fox Film needed to be taken care of. I was doing the film company in my . . . spare time--which wasn't a lot--and didn't give anyone before Joe the mandate to make major changes. We needed a leader who could fix things once and for all without all those short-term measures. The morning line on Joe was that he was too nice, too decent, to run a studio . . . which is just as rotten in its polite way. For his sake--and mine--it was vital for people to know there was a principal around with the ability to make decisions. Especially with me around. I'm not known for my shyness."

Roth, says his friend Michael Douglas, is a "loner" possessed of an "independent's mentality"--the belief that he can and should be on top of all aspects of the craft. From the outset, Roth recalls, he warned Diller that reining him in would make both of them miserable. Diller complied by granting an unprecedented measure of autonomy: the power to "green light" films and reorganize departments as he wished. Though the company is basically a triumvirate--Birnbaum overseeing development and Sherak in charge of how and when the pictures are released--the buck definitely stops with Roth. "Let's not kid ourselves . . . it's despotic," he says. "I'm the one who takes the heat in the end."

Still, when Roth is OK'ing huge star salaries or precedent-setting deals--or just in need of a creative sounding board--a stop at the chairman's office is a must. Diller, a 17-year veteran of the studio scene who presided over Paramount during one of the most successful commercial runs in film history, continues to loom large. "Barry knows everything we're doing," Roth acknowledges.

One month into the job, Roth says he asked himself what to fix first. "The only thing I knew about was product," he says, "so fixing the machine would have to wait. I conjured up the image of a train, moving slowly at first, then picking up more speed as more movies were turned out. People who work here could either jump on or not."

The train picked up speed faster than anyone imagined. With marching orders from Diller to increase the slate to 30 films a year, Roth gave the green light to 16 projects in his first seven months. The studio also punched up its release schedule--from 13 films in 1989 to 17 last year--and plans to put out nearly 50 films over the next two years.

"Lack of stability created a lack of consistency in product," Sherak says. "And if you're not making movies, the odds are that much less you'll have hits."

Roth proved to have eclectic tastes, leavened by some of the realities of today's filmmaking economics. Anyone with a "Die Hard" makes a "Die Hard 2," and Roth did . . . though he might have regretted the runaway budget on that film. He also approved the production of "Predator 2," which--without marquee strongman Arnold Schwarzenegger--proved a box office disappointment. Also set in motion were Tim Burton's fable "Edward Scissorhands" and "Home Alone," which lit up a holiday season that was dark at most other studios. Roth's slate also included the thriller "Pacific Heights," directed by John Schlesinger, the stylish gangster movie "Miller's Crossing," directed by the Coen Brothers and the sociopolitical drama "Come See the Paradise," directed by Alan Parker--a love story set against the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The 1991 line-up is equally broad-based. In addition to the red-hot "Sleeping With the Enemy," there's a broad comedy called "Hot Shots: An Important Movie!" directed by Jim Abrahams ("Airplane!"); "Dying Young," a tear-jerker with Julia Roberts; "Class Action," a courtroom drama pitting one lawyer (Gene Hackman) against another lawyer who happens to be his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); "Shining Through," a World War II spy thriller starring Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith; "Barton Fink," another effort by the offbeat Coen Brothers; "For the Boys," a Mark Rydell film that will star a dancing and singing Bette Midler, and "Fern Gully," an animated film that Roth hopes will give Fox a share of that lucrative market. Down the road, Fox plans to have two animated features a year.

Roth proudly notes that he has only one sequel--"Aliens 3"--among Fox's next 40 films. He also says there are no "package" deals in the bunch, no films largely put together by agents and lawyers representing stars and directors. Though he has no concrete business education, Roth says he has always "liked numbers"--so much so that he races the checkers tallying up his groceries at the supermarket. To cut costs at the studio, he says, he's developing projects internally, the best shield, he says, against those script auctions that have dominated trade headlines in recent months.

"There's great pressure to 'feed the monster,' " Roth says, "but I'm trying to avoid being on the other end of a phone call from an agent who wants $11 million for a writer/director package because I have to fill a summer slot."

Roth's colleagues maintain that he favors family oriented, middle-America stories, but they may be mixing the chief's creative tastes with his personal life. Roth, married and the father of three, is rarely home alone himself, and he's rarely home late. Colleagues at the studio say he checks out by 7:15 every night, an hour when many chief executives in town are just starting to return calls. If there's anything that links the films he's done, he says, it's that they all elicit a feeling. "In my mind, an emotional hook is more important than a conceptual hook--though it would be nice if the two work hand in hand."

"Gut," Roth acknowledges, figures a lot in his decisions. Though only he and one junior executive favored moving ahead on a movie version of Broadway's "Prelude to a Kiss," the film will be a Fox release in 1992. "Sleeping With the Enemy" producer Leonard Goldberg praises Roth for casting Julia Roberts in that film. Anyone would have cast Roberts after her monster hit "Pretty Woman." But Roth made the deal before "Pretty Woman" was released.

"In retrospect, you say 'of course,' " Goldberg says, "but at that time it was a courageous move to let a 23-year-old (actress) carry a major motion picture. Joe is low-key but very decisive. He's not an 'I'll get back to you' type. And the fact that he's been in the trenches himself makes a great deal of difference to a producer or director."

Adds producer and former Columbia Pictures chief Dawn Steel: "As both a producer and an executive, Joe can bring the 'micro' point of view--an understanding of how to make a movie--to the 'macro,' the running of the movie studio. That's ideal."

The only filmmaker to head a major studio, Roth is actively engaged in attracting major talent to the Fox ranks. When Tri-Star walked away from "Jumping at the Boneyard," a low-budget (under $750,000) feature that Lawrence Kasdan wanted to make, Roth agreed to distribute it. For a relative pittance, he may have the allegiance of--if not a signed contract with--one of the leading writers ("Raiders of the Lost Ark) and directors ("The Big Chill") in Hollywood. In March, Kasdan's "Grand Canyon" will begin production for Fox.

Besides Kasdan and Hughes, other filmmakers now aligned with Fox: writer Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham"); producer Richard Price ("The Color of Money"); actor Johnny Depp and singer Whitney Houston, both of whom have development deals at the studio. Acting on his conviction that writers are proven storytellers--and loyal to their friends--Roth has green-lighted several projects that will give some screenwriters their first chance to direct. "When Harry Met Sally . . ." writer Nora Ephron will direct "This is My Life," "Ruthless People" writer Dale Launer will direct "Love Potion 9" and "thirtysomething's" Marshall Herskovitz will direct "Jack the Bear." Another '91 release, "The Five Heartbeats," gave Robert Townsend ("Hollywood Shuffle") his first major studio feature assignment.

In an effort to create a better functioning machine, Roth also brought in Strauss Zelnick as president and chief operating officer of 20th Century Fox and Joel Hochberg, from the Chicago-based advertising firm of DDB Needham, to head up domestic marketing.

"I wanted someone who wouldn't be polluted with studio history," Roth says about Hochberg who, despite a degree from NYU Film School, had never worked in the movie business. "I believe that movies, more and more, can be institutionalized and cross-referenced--in a positive sense. Disney has had a remarkable relationship with McDonald's over the past three or four years and I'm trying to line up our own major corporate sponsors. That's one step better than being one of eight commercials on the Simpsons."

Outsiders acknowledge that the machine seems well-oiled--along with Disney and Universal, Fox is one of the top three studios in town.

"Fox is perceived as a company that's working," says Tom Pollock, chairman of MCA Motion Picture Group. "It's not so much that each movie is working, but whether a system is in place that will turn out 20-plus movies on a regular basis . . . and you can see where the next 20 and the next 20 are coming from . . . and they all look like reasonable shots."

Nice feedback for Roth. Still, he's the first to point out that running a studio has its downside. Had he known the demands of the job, he says "only half facetiously," he would never have come aboard. One of his less pleasant memories: the abandonment of Fox's Robin Hood project when his former Morgan Creek partner, Jim Robinson, took a competing Robin Hood vehicle--which looked like it would have Kevin Coster attached--to Warner Bros.

"I must have done 5,000 transactions in the past year-and-a-half and this was the first one that turned out this way," Roth says, bitterly. "If I really believed the game is played that way, I'd stop."

Another was the cancellation of the Andrew Dice Clay concert film after groups such as the National Organization for Women raised a ruckus. "It was a fight not worth fighting," Roth says. "(It was) not like 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' in which you were defending the rights of the greatest movie director of our time."

Roth, say his intimates, has a burning drive to succeed and doesn't take bad news well. "I'm a good leader, I think, but a little too much of a perfectionist for my own good--and, I'm sure, for the people around me," he says. "Along with being decisive, I'm impatient . . . with other people's lack of decisiveness or lack of passion."

Colleagues say that Roth is given to occasional flashes of anger, but attribute it to his overall openness, which they admire. At the same time, some people in the organization obviously worry about that openness. The fact that Roth had agreed to be photographed in the "Home Alone" pose that accompanies this story apparently caused a flurry of second-guessing among Fox publicists, who only learned of it after it had been taken. When he was first asked about the photo, Roth rattled off a list of rival studio chiefs, trying to imagine one of them agreeing. "I don't think so," he said, repeating one of Macaulay Culkin's more popular lines from "Home Alone." Then he said yes.

Some of those close to Roth say that his accessibility is partially an illusion, that he is actually very wary. Not surprising for a man who faced prejudice head-on when his left-wing parents successfully challenged the right of New York public schools to have students recite "The Regent's Prayer." Or for someone who, in the major tragedy of his life, awoke one morning in 1983 to discover that his 18-month-old daughter had died, the victim of sudden infant death syndrome.

All those years of being on the outside also toughened his skin. "As an independent director/producer, Joe spent all those years getting doors slammed in his face," says one Fox executive. "He's a self-made guy who comes from the streets so he's leery of people. It's hard to get his trust--though once you do, there's no better person to be around."

Sherak calls Roth "The Godfather." "If you're honest with him and get to the point, Joe deals with it, respects it," he says. "Joe demands total honesty from those around him. The loyalty he gets because of who he is." Diller talks of his honesty. "What's remarkable about Joe is that he's thoroughly decent. He has no hidden or dark agenda, which makes him a rarity."

Roth claims he has no interest in being painted as a "(obscenity) Joan of Arc"--that, in a business where luck is often as important as knowledge, "process" is his primary concern. "The best baseball teams in the '80s didn't win more than 60% of their games," he says, "so if you try to hold onto success, you're doomed. The success of 'Home Alone' is great, but it's not the end-all. What I'm proudest of is that it was a textbook case. We had a terrific story, a terrific script. We lined up the best composer we could. On every (poster) to the final trailer, we made choices I feel good about."

Roth says he's betting that by the time it's finished, "Home Alone" will trail only "E.T." and "Star Wars" as all-time top box office champions, a development that neither he nor anyone else at Fox pretends to have foreseen.

"We saw it as a good, solid picture," Roger Birnbaum says. "A standing double rather than a grand-slam home run." They point to a key marketing decision, however, that helped put it over the top.

After endless haggling about the release date, Fox decided to open the film a week earlier to get a jump on the holiday competition--"Three Men and a Little Lady," "Kindergarten Cop" and "Look Who's Talking Too." By opening the film on Nov. 16, it went up against "Rocky V," knocking the big guy out of the arena. And by "sneaking" the film in advance, it set in motion the all-important word-of-mouth.

Birnbaum says "Home Alone," which took in more than $17 million in its first three days, reinforces his conviction that a small story, well-told, can box the ears of more costly fare--and that problems generally escalate in magnitude in proportion to the size of the budget. Fair enough, Diller says. But Fox must guard against letting one aberration dictate future corporate decision-making. "A picture like this is such a distortion of reality that it's a mistake to base any theories on it," Diller says. "We'd be far better off acting as though it never existed."

Industry analysts also caution that it's much too early to crown Joe Roth. Though his track record is impressive, it's not very long. Roth, nevertheless, is confident--even a bit cocky--about Fox's immediate future. Attributing some of the disappointments among his first batch of films to the haste with which he "fed the monster," he believes things will only get better.

"1992 will be the first year of the company in which everything comes from the sanity of taking time to develop and consider and reconsider," he says. "I predict that we'll be one of the top two companies over the next two years--that when you add up the market share of '91 and '92, you'll find us at the top . . . or very close to it."

Whatever its future, Fox is obviously savoring the moment.

"I see this as a van," Sherak says. "Joe is driving. We'll make lefts and rights, sure, but we know where we're going. And, for the first time in a long while, everyone wants to be on it."

"Home Alone," meanwhile, is still chugging along, racking up an additional $6 million in its 14th week.

"It reminds me of those MPAA meetings," suggests Goldberg, referring to meeting between the major studio bosses. "Lew Wasserman, an autocratic type, would run them. Every time he'd ruffle some feathers someone would whisper under his breath 'Forget it--he won't be here forever . . . will he?' In the same way, Fox is now reminding itself that 'Home Alone' will end someday . . . won't it?' "

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