Joe Roth's 'Third Act': From 'Gigli' to Billion-Dollar Producer and Pro Soccer Superstar

Joe Roth
Joe Roth
 Annie Tritt

This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's a warm autumn afternoon in Seattle, and the hyped-up crowd at the sports bar Fuel is spilling onto the sidewalk when in walks Hollywood veteran Joe Roth -- former chairman of Fox and Disney movie studios and, at 65, one of the industry's smoothest, shrewdest, most gravity-defying producers.

Instantly the bar owner materializes at his side. "Can I announce you're here?" he asks. Roth, in black sweatpants and a hoodie, demurs. "Let's keep it low-key," he says. Too late. "Excuse me, Mr. Roth," asks a patron. "May I shake your hand, sir?"

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To the sports fans of Seattle, Roth -- whose recent films include Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful -- is a hero. As managing owner of the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer since 2007, he's delivered one of his career's biggest hits. A weeknight regular-season game packs in more than 40,000 fans, twice the league average, many wearing the "rave green" that Roth selected for the team that represents the Emerald City. In a town with two other major-league teams -- the NFL's Seahawks and MLB's Mariners -- the buzz in Seattle these days is all about pro soccer. The Sounders have had 85 consecutive sellouts for a sport that Americans traditionally ignore.

For Roth, the team's success is part of a comeback from a series of painful personal and professional injuries, largely self-inflicted. In 2006, his abundantly financed production company Revolution Studios -- which had launched six years earlier with a never-to-be-replicated deal (in terms of the autonomy and guaranteed profit that it conferred on Roth) -- disintegrated after belching out a string of bombs, including the notorious 2003 Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez vehicle Gigli. Roth did fine, but Sony Pictures, which had financed Revolution and distributed its movies, had lost in the ballpark of $200 million.

Roth's personal life was troubled, too: In 2004, the jaded entertainment community was shocked by Roth's split from his wife of 20 years, Donna, the popular daughter of B-movie producer Sam Arkoff. Divorce is not rare, but this particular couple, good-looking and successful and with two children, had been like the industry's homecoming king and queen. Roth acknowledges that it caught not only Hollywood off-guard but him as well, even though he concedes that his wandering eye had been the precipitating factor.

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From that low point, Roth has rebuilt. At a time when many alpha producers are floundering, Roth has a batch of movies on the horizon that includes Maleficent with Angelina Jolie (in theaters May 30); Heaven Is for Real, a faith-based story about the afterlife with Greg Kinnear; and the baseball movie Million Dollar Arm with Jon Hamm. "Joe is having a great third act," says DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. "Not only is he at the top of his movie game, but he's now become a successful sports mogul, too. He's having a ton of fun."

This appraisal pleases Roth. "Act 2 ended in divorce, it ended in [the demise of] Revolution … and I, like any normal human being, lost some confidence," he says with disarming -- and perfectly calibrated -- candor. "And when I started this team [in 2007], all of a sudden it turned into this phenomenon. And then right after I started the team, we did [2010's] Alice in Wonderland, which is over a billion dollars [in worldwide box office]." His momentum began to build.

Now Roth shares an 11,329-square-foot Holmby Hills residence (formerly the home of both Joseph Mankiewicz and Aaron Spelling) with his second wife, the former Irene Oh, now 36, who was an assistant in Sony's marketing department when he met her. The couple has a 4-year-old son and 20-month-old daughter. Roth also has a 29-year-old son and a 24-year-old daughter from his previous marriage, and he says he's finally on good terms with them as well as with his ex. "This third act has a very hard-fought collective family that is tight, has two new children for me, it has a great soccer team," he says. "And for good or bad, I'm the busiest producer in Hollywood."

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Roth takes pride in his roster of projects, but as a soccer player in his youth (and former coach of his elder son's childhood team), owning the Sounders is special. Before every game, a rollicking crowd gathers for the March to the Match, with fans chanting at the top of their lungs as they walk the few blocks from Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle to CenturyLink Field, accompanied by a 52-piece brass band -- an idea that came from Drew Carey, who also has an ownership stake in the Sounders. Roth walks at the head of the rollicking crowd, pausing for quick photos with fans.

Just outside the stadium, he nervously lights a cigarette and surveys the scene. Right before his eyes he finds yet more proof that the Sounders are a smash. "Scalpers," he says with satisfaction. "This does my heart good."

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