Roth lands at Disney in all-stops-out deal

Hollywood played its version of musical chairs again yesterday, as Fox Entertainment Group president Peter Chernin was appointed chairman of 20th Century Fox, replacing Joe Roth, who will ankle the studio at the end of the year to start his own company, based at Disney.

Roth, whose departure comes on the heels of last week’s resignation by Paramount Pictures chairman Brandon Tartikoff, will form his own independent motion picture production company based at the Walt Disney Studios.

Roth will remain at Fox to oversee the holiday release of “Home Alone 2, “”Toys” and “Hoffa.”

Under terms of the exclusive multiyear Disney agreement, Roth will produce at least 25 films over the next five years. The films will be distributed by Buena Vista, under the company’s Touchstone, Hollywood and Walt Disney Pictures banners.

According to Roth, his new, unnamed company will rely on existing Disney personnel for marketing, distribution, physical production and other duties, and will require “very little staff.”

Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg noted Roth will be responsible for creating a “fourth label,” which will turn out pictures for Disney’s distribution outlets. The new entity will not distribute, however, under a new name.

The deal is unusual for several reasons. Unlike most independent producers who pact with studios, Roth will have total autonomy and will have the authority to put into production any film — at any budget–he chooses.

“He does have the absolute right to greenlight any movie–within the philosophy of movies that we have talked about,” said Katzenberg. “There is no contractual number” beyond which Roth must clear a pic with Disney exex.

More importantly, Roth will be responsible for running the division; at the same time, he will personally produce the five films a year he’s expected to make. In other words, he will not be a conduit for other producers.

No TV for Chernin

Chernin, head of programming for Fox Broadcasting Co. since 1989, will now only be involved in the stewardship of the film division.

“This is exciting … although I have mixed feelings about leaving Fox Television,” Chernin said. Asked about his immediate plans for the studio, he added, “I want to make this a very attractive home for filmmakers, which is something I believe I did at Fox.”

And that seems to be one of Chernin’s strengths, according to many who have worked with him.

“He really opened up the Fox network and made it a place where people wanted to go first with ideas and projects,” said an agent. “He’s been the Fox network itself. He put his stamp on it.”

Chernin was always the choice of Fox Inc.’s chairman Rupert Murdoch to replace Roth, who had been rumored to be leaving the studio for several months, according to several insiders.

While sources contend Roth had the power to greenlight films up to a certain budget, in the range of $ 35 million to $ 40 million, they say that authority for greenlighting films will now rest strictly with Murdoch, although Chernin denied this.

“Rupert has never said to me that he’s doing this because he wants to get more involved,” Chernin said.

Excellent shape

Chernin, who was president of Lorimar Films prior to joining Fox Television, steps into a film division that’s in excellent shape.

Unlike many executives who are hired and faced with the burdensome task of trying to kick start a studio–a la Tartikoff and Paramount — Chernin faces no such obstacles. The studio is about to release “Home Alone 2,” sequel to the blockbuster that Roth put into production.

The last two years are the best the company ever had. The just-begun fiscalyear will most likely be the best year in Fox’s history. Roth leaves such upcoming projects as “Rising Sun” and “Hot Shots 2.”

Ironically, on the day that Chernin’s appointment was trumpeted, Fox announced that it was greenlighting another Roth development project, “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the debut film for Robin and Marsha Williams’ Blue Wolf Prods.

The comedy, which will be directed by Chris Columbus, will star Williams, who will produce with his wife. Based on the British children’s novel “Madame Doubtfire,” the screenplay was written by Randi Mayem Singer.

As one top agent said yesterday, “Joe Roth has left behind for Peter a pretty good slate of films in release and development and whole group of deals with high-end filmmakers. (Chernin) will be in very good shape.”

As for what Roth’s departure means for Fox filmmakers, it’s still too early to tell, even though one producer on the lot said, “It’s a sad day for anyone associated with Fox because Joe was such a powerful, successful force at the company. It’s the loss of a chairman who loves movies, likes to get his hands dirty and is filmmaker-friendly.”

Roth’s departure certainly didn’t come as a surprise to industry watchers.

Roth, 44, the former producer and director who co-founded Morgan Creek Prods. before taking over the reins of Fox in 1989, denied he left because Murdoch was unwillingness to shell out more money.

“I fulfilled my term of duty, which is all I was going to do,” insisted Roth, who said he had always planned on leaving at the end of the year. “We never sat down and said ‘I want this or I’m leaving,’

“Nothing that he would have offered me would have made me stay. I longed for the life that didn’t have 1,300 people working for me. I wanted to get back to working on ideas.”

Others expressed skepticism at Roth’s claim.

“I don’t believe that’s the only reason he left,” said a rival studio chairman. “I think both reasons are true–Joe was not happy running the studio, but he would have stayed if he was given what he wanted.”

Testing waters

Sources close to the deal say that Roth’s agent, Creative Artists Agency topper Michael Ovitz, was involved with putting Roth’s production entity together.

The sources also say that once Roth decided to leave, Ovitz tested the waters , looking for a deal for his client. Columbia was in the running up to the very end, but Disney’s Katzenberg and Roth hammered out a better deal.

With Roth joining the Disney fold, Katzenberg and company have managed to pick up a filmmaker, who up to now, has been the competition.

“The greatest compliment I can pay to Joe is that as a competitor, we have admired tremendously the movies that he had made in the time that he was at Fox, ” Katzenberg said.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear what will happen to Roth’s team of executives. Murdoch, who was unavailable for comment, said in a prepared statement, “I have great confidence in Peter Chernin and the team already in place at 20th Century Fox and know they will build on the company’s success.”

Others have speculated that the team in place, including production president Roger Birnbaum and Fox prexy Strauss Zelnick, would soon be jumping ship. Birnbaum has a year to go on his contract; Zelnick’s has expired.

“I don’t have any plans on taking anyone with me,” Roth said. “… They’ll find their places in there. I don’t have any reason to believe that there will be any changes there. The company is in good stead.”

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