Produced By: Joe Roth Traces Journey from Production Assistant to Powerhouse Producer

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From failing his way up to out muscling directors, the veteran shared stories with an audience on the Warner Bros. lot.

Regaling a full house at the Produced By conference on the Warner Bros. lot Saturday, veteran producer and executive Joe Roth shared anecdotes that painted a picture of his trajectory from PA on a commercial shoot for Lipton Tea to studio head and successful producer.

“I failed my way to the top,” Roth said, revealing that an early assignment ended in disaster. In a job as a location manager, “I got an entire commercial crew lost in Oakland for four hours and got fired.”

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Other notable missteps included the 2003 flop Gigli – “when those things happen, there’s nothing left to do but cry,” he said – and spending many months working on a project in which the director, not Roth, controlled the rights. Eventually the project moved forward without Roth’s involvement. That film turned out to be a runaway success – it was Back to the Future – but Roth didn’t see a dime from it.

Of course, Roth himself is known more for his successes: Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Black Hawk Down among them. Most recently, Maleficent opened last weekend at $70 million domestically ($171 million worldwide) and is expected to reach at least $126 million domestically by the end of this weekend. Nice numbers but, Roth said, in today’s world of media conglomerates, “Maleficent doesn’t move the needle.”

Paramount and Sony, he said, aren’t “major movie companies” because they’re not part of conglomerates. They’re “out there without parental guidance,” he joked.

The secret of his success? Stay focused on the project and the audience. “Market the intent of the producer, not what the director wrought,” said Roth.

He later elaborated. “My feeling about directors is … if I hire a [director like] David Fincher, there’s nothing for me to do except get fat at craft services.” So instead, he prefers to work with directors who are “great at one thing, [rather than] good at many things. It’s a way for me to maintain control. It’s more fun for me.”

Twitter: @jhandel