Going After the Big One

TIMES FILM CRITIC

As chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, Joe Roth is responsible for production, marketing and distribution of Walt Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures, but there is more.

Roth also oversees Miramax Films, the mighty monarch of the independent world, which means he is the person Harvey Weinstein talks to when he wants to spend $20-something million to make "The English Patient."

Roth, 48, has even directed a few films himself, most notably "Coup de Ville." So he seemed the right person to ask about the state of movies in the year just concluded. And our mutual patronage of the same neighborhood deli simplified setting up a meeting.

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Question: To ask the broadest possible question first, how would you characterize the movie business in 1996?

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Answer: To me the headline is the trend of the event picture. The bulk of the time and effort, the energy and focus of the major companies is in trying to hook the big tuna.

I don't just mean making the movies themselves, but a trend I've seen over the last 20 years: The bigger the main six companies get, the more integrated they get in different media, the more the temptation is to go after the largest possible audience, selling every angle you have inside your company.

If that's the headline, the subhead is how do we continue to make, or try to make, better movies? How do we go after the movies we remember so well from the late '70s? And how do you paradoxically try to contain costs given that you're going after every person who's breathing on Earth?

Q: Is there anything good to be said about this trend, or is it just inevitable?

A: I think there is an inevitability to it that goes with the size of the companies that are producing most of the movies. Because of the temptation of only going after the home run, it's much more difficult for these companies to recognize and nurture good ideas that don't have that kind of potential. That's bad, there's no question about it. It's very hard to tell your staff to go after movies that a lot of people are going to see without worrying that your staff is going to miss "The English Patient."

One of the things that will turn out to be good is that the independents will start having more of a world to make better independent movies for. The majors will get so focused on these big event movies that by 1998 or 2000, something like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is an independent film. Audiences that were considered pockets will grow larger and make up another movie business. I think the statistic is that the over-40-year-old moviegoing audience has doubled in the last five years. So you'll see the "Shines" and "Secrets & Lies" getting large enough audiences to sustain them economically.

Q: The overseas market for films is growing. What kind of an effect does that have on the kinds of films that are made?

A: Six or seven years ago, when I was producing and selling foreign rights, 70% of the revenue came from the U.S. market and 30% overseas. Now people say it's 50-50, but it's not really, it's much more overseas, because movies that fail in the U.S. don't really get distributed overseas. So the better way of seeing it is that a successful U.S. picture should do 150% of its domestic business overseas. This works toward movies that don't say much, whose dialogue doesn't need to be translated because there's not that much dialogue.

Q: One of the things that fascinated me this year was the use of new technologies, not only in movies like "Independence Day" and "Twister" but also in comedies like "Multiplicity."

A: If you asked your first question again, I'd say the other headline is that this was the year of the computer, people's fascination with what you can do on a movie screen. My hunch is that it will be harder to get away with the same thing next year, people will say, "OK, now I get it, that's the computer. Now tell me what the characters are." But stories that are well-told and can take people into fantastical worlds I think is certainly a big trend.

Moviegoing itself is not exactly trending up. It kind of stays constant while other media jumps up all around it. One of the reasons it's a static ticket is that all the other technologies are more interesting. Movies are basically the same as they've been since the '30s, while a new generation came up on video games. But when a computer comes in and generates those kinds of effects, that's something you can't get in other technologies, so it's a real attraction.

Q: We've seen the cost of movies continually go up. How does that factor into what's going on?

A: People don't realize how much things have changed in the last 20 years in the movie business. The average cost of a studio picture is $35 million, with another $15 [million] or $20 million for prints and advertising. Movies used to cost $2 million to make, you could platform their release so you didn't have to be in a heavy print and advertising thing until the movie proved it to you. But though the costs have dramatically changed, the consumer need for them in its primary market, which is the American theater, hasn't changed. Yet to continue making movies at that volume--clearly there's something missing in that picture. One of the things I've been saying in my own company is we should make fewer films. I think if fewer films are made, the percentage of times you'll have a good time in a movie theater will go up.

Q: Another trend we're seeing is large numbers of major movies coming out within days of each other, or even on the same day. Why is this going on?

A: Hubris. Hubris. If you only think about your own business, you think, "I've got a good story department, I've got a good marketing department, we're going to go out and do this." And you don't think that everybody else is thinking the same way. In a given weekend in a year you'll have five movies open, and there's certainly not enough people to go around.

Q: What troubles you most about the state of the movie business?

A: Everybody's short-sighted. Nobody really sees movies as a long-term thing. Nobody sees movies as an art form, about telling a wonderful story. I shouldn't say nobody, it's the ethos of the industry. The ethos that drives Hollywood conforms much more to the corporate quarterly profit statement than "If I make a great movie, a lot of people will come." It's always been a balancing act, but what's happening now tends to take the balance and shift it toward quarterly profits as opposed to a movie that will stand the test of time. I think we're out of balance. "Raging Bull" couldn't get made today, and that's a worrisome thing.

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CROSSROADS

Through Saturday, the daily Calendar section will continue its series of interviews conducted by Times critics. The series follows Sunday Calendar's comprehensive look at 1996.

TODAY

MOVIES: Joe Roth.

WEDNESDAY

THEATER: Larry Gelbart.

THURSDAY

DANCE: Sali Ann Kriegsman.

FRIDAY

TELEVISION: Dick Wolf.

SATURDAY

ARCHITECTURE: Richard Meier.

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