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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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
Roth has said that he turned to sports as a kid “to get away from the theological reverence of communism in my house.” An indelible part of his history is that his father, a foreman in a New York plastics plant, volunteered the younger of his two boys, 10-year-old Joe, to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling abolishing school prayer in 1962. (Roth’s background may help explain his response in 1997, when, as head of the Disney studio, he declined to endorse a petition on behalf of Scientology that had been backed by five studio chiefs. Roth bluntly said that the others might have signed because they were “whores for Tom Cruise and John Travolta and they wanted to be on the right list.”)
Living in a heavily Roman Catholic part of Long Island, this family of “left-wing atheists of Jewish descent,” as Roth puts it, faced harassment — a cross was burned on the lawn — and some of Roth’s schoolmates crossed themselves before they would speak to him. “It was in my life from the time I was 10 to 14,” says Roth. “Thank God I played sports.” The experience left him combat-ready. “The only bosses I’ve ever had are Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller and Michael Eisner,” he says. “People say, ‘Aren’t those guys tough?’ and I say, ‘I got used to it early on.’ “
Some associates believe these childhood experiences made Roth wary, private and self-protective even as he appears to be open and direct. “What he shows to the public is not who he is,” says one former studio chief. “He trusts only himself.” Los Angeles film czar Tom Sherak, who has known Roth for 30 years and was his partner in Revolution, says Roth can be exceptionally generous at times and remains loyal to some of his boyhood friends. But he adds that getting to know him is not easy. “He holds things close to his chest,” says Sherak. “He’s giving but not outgoing.”
Roth got a degree in public communications from Boston University and moved to San Francisco, where he took various temporary jobs with plans to go to law school. One of those jobs, he says, was running a sports camp, “and the woman who was the waterfront instructor was living with a guy who was a ‘movie producer.’ At the end of the summer, he asked me if I wanted to be his assistant, so I took a mattress and lived in his garage in Mill Valley.”
From this accidental beginning, he rose through the ranks in the movie business. The first film he produced was Tunnel Vision, a 1976 satire of television that had a $33,000 budget and grossed $19 million (Roth says he didn’t get to keep much of that haul). In 1988, he co-founded Morgan Creek Pictures with Baltimore car salesman Jim Robinson and got to work making hits, including the Charlie Sheen vehicles Young Guns (1988) and Major League (1989). After a mere 18 months with Morgan Creek, the then 41-year-old Roth became chairman of 20th Century Fox, replacing Leonard Goldberg. Facing a dearth of movies, he found a novel that could be the basis for Die Hard 2, which he rushed into production to save the studio’s summer of 1990. It grossed $249 million globally. And he rescued that year’s Christmas by picking up Home Alone — which went on to gross $476.6 million worldwide — in turnaround from Warner Bros.
One of Roth’s defining traits as an executive was strong talent relationships, especially with Julia Roberts, which Sherak attributes to Roth’s skill as “a great listener.” Roth left Fox with a mixed track record, following bombs including 1991’s For the Boys, with Bette Midler as a singer-dancer entertaining the troops in World War II, and Shining Through, a 1992 drama that expected audiences to buy Melanie Griffith as an undercover agent in Nazi Germany. Later that year, Roth founded Caravan Pictures with Roger Birnbaum, striking a deal with Disney to make five pictures a year for five years. In some ways, Caravan was a preview of Revolution in that Roth came out splendidly even though Disney did not. Three of the first four films were bombs, including I Love Trouble with Roberts and Nick Nolte — which cost about $60 million (a lot, in those days) and grossed $30.8 million. (The fourth, Angels in the Outfield, was a moderate success.)
By 1994, Roth owed Disney $15 million (he had agreed to cover any production overages if I Love Trouble wasn’t profitable). He might have had to produce as many as 15 movies over three years for free to make up the debt. But Disney’s then-chairman, Michael Eisner, urgently wanted to oust Katzenberg as studio chairman and put Roth into the job. He not only forgave the $15 million debt but also paid Roth about $40 million to cover fees he would have received for producing the remaining 21 pictures on the Caravan deal — an amount based on the most optimistic assumptions about the performance of those films. The result: Roth collected some $55 million before he even negotiated a rich deal as studio chief.
After six years at Disney, Roth — who had established a reputation for spending heavily on marketing to help sell such hits as 1998’s Armageddon and 1999’s The Sixth Sense (and 1999’s Oscar-nominated misfire The Insider) — was at odds with Eisner. Despite the friction, the Disney chairman was confident that Roth would never leave. But in January 2000, Roth surprised his boss by joining an exodus of executive talent. Eisner stated publicly, “I don’t consider him a great loss to this company,” and predicted privately that Roth would vanish off Hollywood’s radar. But Roberts promptly announced that she would abandon an expiring deal at Disney to go “wherever Joe goes.” In May 2000, Roth had the satisfaction of announcing the advent of Revolution.
He financed the company by selling 25 percent for $250 million, including $25 million from Fox, $150 million from Starz Encore and $75 million from Sony Pictures. Hungry for movies in the days before it launched the Spider-Man franchise in 2002, Sony agreed to put up 42.5 percent of the budget for Revolution’s movies and cover marketing costs in exchange for a 12.5 percent distribution fee. Roth would make 41 films over six years and retain ownership of them all.
Roth fell short in his stated mission, which was to make quality pictures with moderate budgets. There were some successes, including Ridley Scott‘s Black Hawk Down (2001) and Adam Sandler‘s 2003 comedy Anger Management, but there also were a string of lowbrow underperformers such as the raunchy comedy Tomcats and, of course, Gigli. Although Roth fulfilled his promise to pay back his investors, the company’s performance became an embarrassment. “It wasn’t that the deal was so rich,” says one longtime Roth associate. “It’s that it was so one-sided. Joe couldn’t lose money and Sony could — and did.”
As Revolution faltered, Roth’s divorce hit like a thunderclap. He faced a period of alienation from his son and daughter, then 19 and 14. “It was a very, very bad time,” he says. “I decided the only thing that I could possibly do was stand there and take the punches until they stopped punching. It took four years. Now we’re all closer than ever, but it took a long time.” (His son Zack works for him as a development executive and producer-in-training.)
Asked about a friend’s appraisal at the time — that he “flunked midlife crisis” — Roth says: “That’s probably a good phrase. It took me three or four years to get back on my feet.”
In 2006, as he was hobbling with a cane after hip-replacement surgery, Roth was plotting a comeback. “Everyone is entitled to a third act,” he told a friend. Sherak says it is no surprise that Roth has returned with a vengeance. “He never stops,” says Sherak. “If there’s something he wants, he’ll figure out how to get it. Joe is the ultimate entrepreneur — one of the smartest guys I know in this business.”
If there is one lingering disappointment for Roth, it was facing his limits as a director. He has tried five times over the years, on films including Revenge of the Nerds II in 1987 and 1990’s Coupe de Ville. Even before the latter film opened, he told The New York Times, “I realized, knew in my belly, that I didn’t have an original voice.” Nonetheless, he took three more swings during the Revolution years: the 2001 Roberts romantic comedy America’s Sweethearts, 2004’s Christmas With the Kranks and the 2006 thriller Freedomland with Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore. Confides Roth, “It was torture for me to work so hard at something when I knew I wasn’t going to be in the front of the class.”
What Roth has been able to do, in this third act, is to continue to spin gold out of Revolution. The Lionsgate-owned television syndication firm Debmar-Mercury has created two successful sitcoms based on titles from the Revolution library. Are We There Yet? — based on the 2005 Ice Cube comedy — was the first 10/90 deal that firm had done outside its hugely successful venture with Tyler Perry. (The 10/90 model involves selling 10 episodes of a show with a guarantee that it will be renewed for 90 additional episodes if it meets certain ratings targets.) Roth’s long-standing relationship with Sheen paid dividends with the second such deal, the FX sitcom Anger Management.
In the immediate aftermath of Revolution’s unraveling, Roth thought he’d confine himself to producing a film or two a year. But as he went to work on Alice in Wonderland, bringing Tim Burton aboard to direct, he realized he still had energy to burn. “I was afraid I was going to make bad movies just out of my own need to be busy, to work,” he says.
That’s when he started to get serious about soccer. “I had seen the uptick that David Beckham had brought [when he joined the MLS’ L.A. Galaxy]. It didn’t overwhelm the country, but it was a success,” he says. “Literally I woke up one morning and said to my wife, ‘I think I’m going to own a soccer team.’ ” He called his friend Tim Leiweke — then president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy — for a primer on the financials of team ownership.
“I just couldn’t believe Americans were that different than everybody else in the whole world,” he says. “And in the rest of the world soccer is like the NFL meets church, right?” He concluded that he could, in effect, be the producer of a soccer team. “I don’t want to sound egocentric,” he says, “but I thought the league was so poorly marketed, I knew that I could help.”
Roth reached out to MLS commissioner Don Garber, who recalls: “Joe literally cold-called and said: ‘My name’s Joe Roth. I don’t know if you know who I am.’ … He had me at hello. He had great passion for the league and a lot of great ideas.” Given three choices of venues for an expansion team — Seattle, Portland and Vancouver — Roth ponied up the $30 million buy-in and went for Seattle. With the city losing its SuperSonics NBA team to Oklahoma City in 2008, Roth figured the town would be receptive. Leiweke’s brother Tod, then chief executive of the Seahawks, connected Roth with billionaire Paul Allen, who owned both the NFL team and its stadium. Roth made a deal giving Allen a piece of the Sounders in exchange for free rent and use of the Seahawks staff.
As he laid these plans, Roth got a call from Drew Carey. The two didn’t know each other, but both are represented by attorney Skip Brittenham. “I didn’t even know what we were meeting about,” says Roth. “And he comes in, he’s got a big bandage wrapped around his hand.” Carey had injured himself spinning a revolving wall used on The Price Is Right and told Roth the hand might be broken. “I said, ‘Let me take you to Cedars.’ But he said: ‘No, no, no. I’ll go to the hospital afterward. I need to be a part of your soccer team.’ So I wrote out a deal on a napkin.”
Carey says he had picked up an idea from observing Spanish teams when he was doing a Travel Channel show: engaging fans by letting them vote on whether to retain the GM. (Fans also picked the team name.) The Sounders scored a jersey sponsorship deal with Microsoft’s Xbox, which was that company’s first such pact in pro sports.
Garber says many sports professionals believe the Sounders had the most successful launch of an expansion franchise in history. “This is not dumb luck,” he says. “There has been a calculated plan [involving] branding, positioning in the market, how Joe has connected with the community, how he has aligned with Microsoft. … He’s a guy who owns a sports team but operates it like an entertainment property.”
Roth’s involvement is deep: Along with the team’s GM and technical director, he selected the players. He also has used his Hollywood association to promote the team, having personally auctioned off walk-on roles in Alice and Oz for team-sponsored charity events for $30,000 each.
Flying to and from Seattle in a private jet, Roth attends every game and leads every March to the Match. “I talk to the general manager at least once, probably more than once or twice a day,” he says. He also has the power to hire or fire the coach — which just now is a looming issue.
The team has gone to the finals twice in the past two years, losing both times to the Galaxy (which draws a smaller crowd). This year, the Sounders limped into the playoffs but were eliminated Nov. 7, losing to the arch-rival Portland Timbers.
“It sticks in our craw, I’ll tell you that,” says Carey. “None of us needs the money. … But everybody’s super-competitive, and we want to win championships.” Carey has “100 percent faith” that Roth can take the team there. “How could you not?” he says. “It’s hard to argue with success after success.”
Back in Los Angeles, reports are swirling through the industry that Roth’s Maleficent is in trouble. Reshoots have swelled the budget to more than $200 million, and first-time director Robert Stromberg has needed some outside help from The Blind Side‘s John Lee Hancock and second-unit director Simon Crane, who won star Jolie’s confidence on Tomb Raider and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Roth — who has rewarded Crane with his first directing job on the upcoming Hot Wheels — is sanguine about Maleficent, predicting it will gross upward of $750 million. Nonetheless, there is strain in Roth’s informal relationship with Disney: Oz the Great and Powerful also required reshoots and went over budget, meaning that its $493 million box-office take was not enough to justify the exercise for the studio. Maleficent could be another such film, with big grosses and undernourished profits — or worse. Aside from a possible Alice sequel, Roth and Disney are likely to drift apart — again.
If that happens, Roth will shrug it off. He says he values his independence and has movies at Universal, Legendary (where he was on the board until September) and Sony. “The reality is, no one has sold more movie tickets in history than me,” he says, referring to the 400 or so movies that he’s been involved with as an executive or producer. “The fact of the matter is that I’ve been doing this for 41 years, and I have more going now than I’ve ever had in my life with the smallest staff ever, with no deal with anybody — which probably tells you I’ve lived my life the whole f—in’ wrong way. I’m like Benjamin Button, right? I finally get it at the age of 65.”
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