Power Lunch

Joe Roth, Back in Wonderland


Joe Roth and his three assistants share a cramped office suite on the Sony lot. It's a long way from the plush corner office the one-time Hollywood titan inhabited when he ran the Fox (NWS) and Disney (DIS) studios, turning out such high-profile flicks as Home Alone and Pearl Harbor. Then again, the 61-year old Roth has been out of the movie-making business for the past two years, launching, of all things, a professional soccer team.

In typically Hollywood fashion, Roth is back with a flourish, having persuaded Disney to remake its 1951 animated film Alice in Wonderland into a $150 million 3D extravaganza. If the movie is a financial hit, it will be as much a comeback for Roth as it is for the fabled Lewis Carroll tale that never quite made it big in Hollywood despite at least three efforts, including a 1933 version staring both Cary Grant and Gary Cooper as Wonderland inhabitants.

The film is an apt metaphor for Roth, who went down a "rabbit hole" of sorts himself. The last most people heard of Roth was in 2007, as he was ending a seven-year run making films for Sony (SNE). Roth's production company, Revolution Studios, for which he raised nearly $1 billion, produced some hits, including the Jerry Bruckheimer war flick Black Hawk Down, but it also made its share of flops, including the super-dud Gigli, known mostly for the rocky love affair between stars Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Even Roth has a hard time calling Revolution a success. "It was profitable, it was unprofitable, it started out well, it made some mistakes," says Roth, who owned more than half the company.

Fewer But Better

The experience soured Roth on owning a large production company. "You have to make 10, 12 films a year, because the investors have to show a rate of return," he says. This time around, he wants more control. "Let me make fewer films and make them well." He says he already has films and TV shows placed at several studios. A Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz action comedy called Knight and Day is scheduled to come out July 2 with Fox. Actor Vin Diesel is lined up to reprise his 2002 hit action flick XXX—Roth is waiting for the green light from Sony—and there are TV shows for TBS based on Revolution's 2005 comedy Are We There Yet.

Two years ago Roth was more concerned with bringing fans into a soccer stadium than a movie theater. Along with comedian Drew Carey and billionaire Paul Allen, Roth plunked down $30 million in 2007 for the Seattle Sounders pro soccer franchise. Roth's love of soccer came from an abbreviated college career and 15 years of coaching his now 25-year-old son's soccer team. "Seattle was this great city, with among the largest numbers of kids' soccer teams anywhere and two teams—football and baseball," he says. "This was a city that could use something else to cheer for."

The liftoff of the Seattle Sounders was pure Hollywood. With the fervor of a producer putting together a blockbuster, majority-owner Roth lured big name talent: The goalie is Washington native Kasey Keller, who became one of the world's best while playing in Europe, and the team's coach is Sigi Schmid, one of Major League Soccer's most successful coaches. The team's leading scorer, 22-year-old Fredy Montero, came from Colombia's Copa Mustang II team and became an immediate fan favorite.

Marching Band

Roth took players to parks and schools around Seattle to build a fan base among the soccer-playing kids in the area. He launched the "March to the Match," where Roth would lead fans to the stadium 90 minutes before game time. To encourage even more fan support, the team held elections to pick the team name. Roth's club has the only marching band in the league. Next, he plans to give season ticket holders the ability to vote out the club's general manager.

The team's biggest draw was that it was an immediate winner, making the playoffs in its first season (albeit losing in the first round) and selling out its home games. "That gave me the confidence to go back," says Roth. "Here I was running something I knew nothing about, and it was a great success."

Roth decided it was time to get back into the film business. Last year he sat down with then Walt Disney Co. studio chief Dick Cook at Art's Deli in Studio City, Calif., to pitch him on a 3D live action remake of Disney's 1951 animated flick. It was a film, Roth says, that had interested him while he was at Disney, but he never had a good script. This time Roth lined up a writer, Linda Woolverton, who had written the screenplays for The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. He also signed up director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. The new story line pitted Alice against the (evil) Red Queen in helping the (good) White Queen, which Roth says is closer to how Carroll intended the story. The film opens on Mar. 5, although the budget grew to a steep $150 million, Roth admits, before the flick was completed.

None of that will matter if Alice in Wonderland is the big hit Roth believes it will be. At a Hollywood screening five days before the film was set to open, the movie played well at the producer's screening at Disney's iconic El Capitan Theater. The film clearly was a favorite. But then again, so was Roth, who held court beforehand in the lobby, taking in the well wishes of the community he has climbed out of the rabbit hole to rejoin.

Ron_grover2
Grover covers the media and entertainment industry for Bloomberg Businessweek in Los Angeles.

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