The Best-Known Face You Won’t Recognize

Times Staff Writers

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.

“It’s a challenge,” he says back in his Santa Monica offices. “I’m a curious person, and it’s the same reason I like to direct movies and the same reason I like to run studios. It’s something new.

“I’ve been watching the show since I was a kid, and every time I got up to get a sandwich, people were dancing around on stage. I just couldn’t figure out what this had to do with being in the movies. To me, the interpretation has been done by the movie artists.”

Much of Roth’s show will nevertheless look familiar.

Many of the show’s key behind-the-scenes players are longtime Oscar veterans. Willing to put the show ahead of personal baggage, Roth hired Crystal, who’s doing the show for the eighth time, even though the two had clashed making “America’s Sweethearts.”

In an effort to add wit to the Oscar show’s music, Roth hired Shaiman, who cowrote the music for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Hairspray” as musical director.

What obsesses Roth the most, though, is crafting a show filled with memorable moments.

“Like the Super Bowl, people don’t remember the score. But they remember the moments. Adrien Brody and Halle Berry. Jack Palance and Billy Crystal,” Roth says of the participants in the Oscars’ famous lip lock and one-armed push-up scenes respectively.

No matter how much he jazzes up the show, Roth may have trouble getting anyone to notice, since ABC’s prime-time ratings are so dismal.

“I’m terrified that ABC has done so poorly,” he says one afternoon, in his temporary office underneath the Kodak Theatre. “It scared me to death when I saw the ratings and ABC had not a show in the top 33.”


Total Independence

In a business overflowing with perks and lucrative deals, Roth enjoys the ultimate status symbol: his very own studio. Formed in 2000 after Roth left as Disney’s studio chief, Revolution Studios came together just as entertainment capital was vanishing. “Joe forged one of the most amazing financial deals ever,” director Rob Cohen says.

Roth was able to attract $250 million from investors Fox Entertainment Group, Liberty Media and Sony, which distributes Revolution’s films. The Japanese conglomerate owns 7.5% of the company but pays about half of Revolution’s production budgets, as well as marketing costs, which can run up to $50 million per film. With none of his own fortune at risk, Roth got 62% of the company, as well as ultimate ownership of Revolution’s films, and complete independence to make the movies he wants.

Undeniably, part of the attraction for the Revolution investors was not only Roth, but also his relationships -- specifically acting commitments from such stars as Adam Sandler, Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts to make three films apiece for the fledgling company. Filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Ron Howard flocked to Revolution because Roth was decisive and didn’t meddle as much as many studio chiefs.

Roth approved Howard’s dark Western “The Missing” over lunch without having read the script. He says he never e-mails, because it lacks the human touch.

“He’s the last mogul,” says Brian Grazer, who produced “The Missing.” “He’s the guy who can say without a committee, ‘I’ll do that.’ He can say ‘yes’ and he’ll actually follow up on his word.”

As its name implies, Revolution seemed poised to reinvent the movie business. And then the studio’s first movie, “Tomcats,” opened.

The cheesy comedy was emblematic of the frat house fare to come. While Revolution has made the occasional prestige piece such as “Black Hawk Down” or “Punch-Drunk Love,” its slate has favored forgettable teen titles like “The Animal,” “The New Guy” and “Stealing Harvard.”

At the same time, the very attributes that made the studio attractive to top-flight filmmakers cost Revolution dearly when expensive bets on directors Ron Shelton (“Hollywood Homicide”) and Martin Brest (“Gigli”) backfired. Even “Mona Lisa Smile,” a movie starring box-office behemoth Roberts, was among her worst-performing mainstream films, grossing $63 million.

“We had two movies that worked great, ‘Anger Management’ and ‘Daddy Day Care,’ ” Roth says. “And there are movies that didn’t work as well as we wanted to, and I still love the movies. I am not ashamed of ‘Peter Pan.’ I love ‘Peter Pan.’ I am not ashamed of ‘The Missing.’ ”

Although Roth says Revolution has been profitable each of its first three years, partner Sony lost money on the studio in 2003. “I haven’t tallied up all the numbers, but that’s probably right,” says Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Adds Roth: “Nobody’s happy, certainly [not] me.”

Some of Roth’s detractors seem to take some pleasure in his reversal of fortunes. Roth tends to use the word schadenfreude frequently in conversations.

“I’m really sick of people doing this to him and jumping on this bandwagon,” Amy Pascal, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture group chairman, says of the people who seem to be delighting in Roth’s missteps. Adds director Cohen, who made “XXX,” Revolution’s biggest hit: “Every studio has made ‘Gigli,’ but no one beats them into a bloody pulp.”

It’s not just a financial cold streak that has damaged Roth’s standing. It appeared that Roth and his wife had a successful show business marriage; they have even collaborated on film projects, including the upcoming Revolution romantic comedy “13 Going on 30.” He declines to comment about the end of the marriage.

In the wake of its bad year, Revolution is going through an evolution. It is now discouraging deals with filmmakers who have the final say on how their movies appear, and has tried to scale back how much screenwriters are paid. The studio is rethinking the quick-trigger decisions that led to some of its failures, even though rapid resolve has been a major selling point.

Other changes are afoot. Rather than pay Vin Diesel to star in a sequel to “XXX,” Revolution hired Ice Cube at a third of the price. Stung by the less-than-scintillating returns of Willis’ “Tears of the Sun,” Revolution declined to make the actor’s “Hostage.” The studio also is working harder to polish its scripts, and recently began overhauling its action project “The Final War” after director Jonathan Mostow (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) passed on the project.

Criticized by executives, agents and producers for arrogance, Revolution is becoming humbler, according to several people who do business there. At the same time, Roth still will bestow largesse on those projects and filmmakers he admires. Even though “13 Going on 30" tested very well with preview audiences, Roth gave director Gary Winick an additional $2 million to film new scenes.

“I believe we’ll have a much more successful year this year than last year,” Roth says. “Having seen these movies, I feel more comfortable about the direction of the company.”


Persuasive Power

Zellweger couldn’t be persuaded to sing the nominated “Chicago” song in last year’s show, but Roth has convinced her to do something tonight that’s possibly more difficult: walk down a spiral staircase in high heels.

That is among the minutiae an Oscar producer has to worry about: everything from picking out the musical themes to how to accommodate honorary award winner Blake Edwards, who recently hurt his leg.

With production deadlines looming, Roth seems to thrive as a constant stream of his staffers calls with last-minute adjustments to the script and music.

It’s not as if Roth doesn’t have other things on his mind. He sleeps only four hours a night, he says, and has a different secretary for each of his three full-time personas: Oscar producer, Revolution mogul and movie director. Six weeks from now, he will be directing the comedy “Skipping Christmas,” an adaptation of the John Grisham book.

“One of the things I do when pushed into a corner is sort of reach out and try to help out myself,” says Roth, who also directed “Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise” and “Coupe de Ville.”

“It’s one of the reasons why I [directed] ‘America’s Sweethearts’ early on; it was a way to help get the company off the ground. And I felt that [with] ‘Skipping Christmas,’ I understood how to make the movie, and felt like if I did a good job, it could reach a lot of people and be very profitable for the company.”

Roth’s friends, like Disney chairman Michael Eisner and Apple chief Steve Jobs, are convinced that he’s just experiencing one of those temporary cold streaks that besets every producer and studio chief.

“I’ve seen him have periods of great success,” Lynton says. “Obviously, the last six months have not been as successful, but I have every confidence in his ability to succeed in the future.”