Joe Roth shakes things up -- The new Disney executive has his own ideas on how to create successful films

By Anne Thompson
Updated January 20, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

As he poses for a photo beside a Donald Duck picture, the man newly responsible for Disney’s live-action films looks as uncomfortable as if someone had slapped a pair of mouse ears on his head. ”I used to pose with Julia Roberts,” sighs the producer of I Love Trouble and former Twentieth Century Fox studio chief. ”Now it’s a duck.”

While he may be as driven to succeed as ex-studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, Joe Roth does not live and breathe the Disney corporate ethic the way his predecessor did. In fact, when Roth — the first director (Coupe de Ville) ever to chair a studio-took over Katzenberg’s office in September, he replaced the posters for such Disney features as Aladdin with distinctly un-Disney art: They Drive by Night, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. And the differences aren’t merely decorative. ”Jeffrey’s portfolio cast across all kinds of disciplines,” says Roth. ”I don’t interact, I don’t do TV. I am purely a film executive.”

Disney’s 46-year-old motion-picture chair now oversees a billion-dollar movie empire. Though it’s been five months since Katzenberg’s noisy leave-taking, his stamp remains, from the execs signed to long-term contracts to the company’s 1995 movie slate. But Roth’s ascent from Disney’s Caravan Pictures (where his output ranged from Angels in the Outfield to Angie) to the top job will clearly hasten the demise of Katzenberg’s mass-production ethos in favor of fewer films and bigger names. And while results of his management philosophy won’t appear on screen just yet, its principles are already clear:

Be more filmmaker-friendly. Katzenberg’s Disney clashed with Hollywood’s agencies and sought to control filmmakers throughout the making of a movie. Not so Roth, who involves himself during development and steps back once production starts. ”I’ve been a producer for 20 years,” Roth says. ”I’m not going to come across like a member of the gestapo to the creative community — it’s just not right.”

Disney CEO Michael Eisner, for his part, doesn’t see as sharp a break with the past: ”I think Disney’s obsessive hands-on reputation (was) not the case. But Joe having been a director and producer is healthy for the company.”

Cut back on movies and staff. Right off the bat, Roth told Eisner that he wanted to halve Disney’s production. Though the company is trumpeting its record 1994 grosses of over $1 billion, it got there with a handful of hits and a bushel of flops; for every Lion King, Disney released a squad of Cabin Boys. ”There aren’t 40 great stories (a year) for the entire industry,” Roth told his boss. ”Let’s only make the movies that we believe in for the idea, and only if we can get people to come and see it.” With a target of two dozen films a year, Roth will have to cut overhead. ”If in fact we don’t need as much personnel,” he says, ”we won’t have them.”

Spend more money. So far, Eisner seems to be accommodating Roth’s desire to loosen the Disney purse strings, a marked departure from the ’80s mode of signing talent on the cheap (Bette Midler, Richard Dreyfuss), then trying to rebuild their careers through several movies. The company bid $3 million for rights to the novel The Horse Whisperer for Robert Redford, then signed him to a two-year deal; Disney will also pay Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer big bucks for Up Close and Personal, loosely based on the life of the late Jessica Savitch. And when Roth needed a major star for the upcoming thriller Last Dance, he gave Sharon Stone $6 million. ”If it’s worth going after,” he says, ”let’s try and win it. I’d rather make 20 movies having paid superstars their prices on three, than twice as many for half the price that have difficulty finding audiences.”

Other big deals are in the works: Producer-writer-director John Hughes has signed a six-picture pact with Disney and may film The Bee, a costly comedy that Warner declined to make, and Disney has new projects for Julia Roberts, a longtime Roth friend who says she admires his ”keen balance of art and commerce,” and Robin Williams, whom Roth is wooing after his public falling out with Disney over Aladdin. And in the wake of The Santa Clause, Roth is more than ever a believer in TV stars; he’s just signed Ellen DeGeneres (whose ABC series is produced by Disney) to star in the comedy Mr. Wrong during her next hiatus.

Make ’em laugh. Roth’s record at Fox, which included the box office flops Shining Through, Barton Fink, and Enemies: A Love Story as well as the hits White Men Can’t Jump, The Last of the Mohicans, Die Hard 2, and Sleeping With the Enemy — taught him, he says, that ”if it’s not fun, it’d better be great. It doesn’t have to (have) jokes. Just fun.” So look for a comedy- and action- heavy slate.

Make more event movies. Disney’s cartoons spread wealth throughout the company in videos, recordings, theme-park attractions, and merchandise; Roth wants exploitable live-action films to do the same. The studio is already developing Journey to the Center of the Earth, Gulliver’s Travels, and Mr. Ed, and is acquiring Mighty Joe Young. ”There’s money to be made in live-action,” says Roth, ”as long as the titles are done with the same degree of excellence (as the cartoons). I’m talking about Jurassic Park as a Disney live-action picture. I’m not sure this place has ever worked with that kind of budget.” Indeed, the spring lineup, with vehicles for Chevy Chase, the Jerky Boys, and Goofy, looks both low-cost and low-reward. But summer offers Crimson Tide, a submarine thriller starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman; the sci-fi comic-book adaptation Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone; and the cartoon musical Pocahontas. And the animated Toy Story, due at Christmas, will offer 1995’s biggest offscreen casting coup: the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.

Roth’s personal management style isn’t yet as decipherable as his filmmaking credo. In many ways, he’s more easygoing than his predecessor, who was known to call 7 a.m. staff meetings. Roth coaches his son’s soccer team on Wednesdays and spends evenings with his family, arriving home by 7:30 p.m., he reports, ”unless there’s a preview.” But he’s hardly a slouch. Weekdays, he awakens at 5 a.m., reads a script, goes to the gym, returns to his Brentwood home for breakfast with his wife, Donna, and their children, and gets to the office by 8:45. ”I think about work all the time,” he says. As he should — these days Donald Duck isn’t the only one looking over Joe Roth’s shoulder.