Roth’s report card at Fox: Straight A’s

Reversing a Hollywood tradition, Joe Roth is leaving his Fox Film Corp. post at the top of his game and under his own steam. When he moves into his new Burbank indie production offices next January, he will close the books on an extremely successful 3 1/2 years in the executive suite.

Roth left his president and co-founder’s office at Morgan Creek Prods. in July 1989 to take over the Fox position vacated three months before when Leonard Goldberg resigned. Through the end of 1989 he oversaw the release of such troubled product as “The Abyss” and “Millennium,” as well as successful pix like “The War of the Roses.” Closing out the year were critical successes “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Enemies, a Love Story.”

The year ended with Fox holding an unprecedentedly low 6% of domestic box office share–the lowest since the late 1960s, according to the National Assn. of Theater Owners.

By the end of 1990, Roth’s jump-start approach to filmmaking and dealmaking–an eclectic mix of penny- and pound-wise budgetary and artistic considerations–had pushed that number to 14%, the highest share for the studio since it led the other majors, in 1983, with 21%. The bump in market share was principally, but not solely, due to the remarkable success of “Home Alone,” which grossed $ 285 million in North America alone, and became filmdom’s top-grossing comedy (and the No. 2 grossing title).

That year also saw hits with “Die Hard 2,””Edward Scissorhands,””Marked for Death” and “Young Guns 2,” the sequel to Roth’s 1988 Morgan Creek production. The “Home Alone” franchise, however, may have allowed Roth the extra money to make pics that, post-release, looked like unwise choices.

While 1991 included strong performers “Sleeping With the Enemy,””Point Break” and “Hot Shots!”–the apparent beginning of another franchise–the year also saw the disappointing Julia Roberts meller “Dying Young” and the expensive end-of-year disappointments “Shining Through” and “For the Boys” as well as the less-expensive bombs “The Super” and “29th Street.” Roth himself said that only two 1991 releases, John Hughes’ “Dutch” and Robert Townsend’s “The Five Heartbeats,” actually lost money (Daily Variety, Aug. 27, 1991).

But early 1992 posted a strong bounceback, with Roth-inspired product like “White Men Can’t Jump” and “My Cousin Vinny.” Despite scant domestic success with “Alien3” (a major money-maker overseas), the company has maintained a 1992 edge, and a 19-film, 12% B.O. share, with releases like “Unlawful Entry” and the dynamic “Last of the Mohicans.”

The studio also looks likely to dominate B.O. wickets and critical kudos for the end of this year. “Home Alone 2” is widely believed to be in the front position as biggest holiday earner. Barry Levinson’s “Toys,” which stars Robin Williams, and Danny De Vito’s “Hoffa,” starring Jack Nicholson, already have Oscar watchers buzzing.

During his tenure, Roth attracted some of filmdom’s most celebrated talent, including Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Mann, Ron Shelton and Chris Columbus.

Roth, along with able lieutenant Strauss Zelnick, also cemented significant deals with James Cameron and John Hughes. Under Cameron’s Lightstorm deal, Fox gets all domestic distribution rights to the filmmaker’s next nine pictures for a 20-year period, in exchange for a portion of the production budgets. Cameron’s company retains overseas rights.

With Hughes, Fox has a simple, non-exclusive multipic development deal. Hughes hit well for Fox with “Home Alone” and missed with “Only the Lonely” and “Dutch.”

Roth, a hands-on producer with 23 film credits to his name–13 of them Fox releases–thrived in part, sources say, because he kept his hands on the filmmaking side of running Fox, while leaving the business side to Zelnick. He is moving to Burbank, he and others say, partly to avoid administrative duties altogether. Asked what he takes to Disney in terms of developed projects, ideas or commitments, Roth says, “Nothing but my car keys and wallet.”

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