Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum are two men in a hurry. Their Caravan Pictures, the Disney-backed start-up launched barely a year ago by the former chairman and president of production, respectively, at 20th Century Fox, expects to release 10 films through Disney labels in 1994 alone.
That’s double what Disney said it expected from Caravan when it entered into its agreement.
The pace is extraordinary in a business where the typical development-to-production cycle takes 18 months, and begins tojustify the $ 3 million-plus overhead that Disney puts up to house Roth and Birnbaum’s Santa Monica-based indie.
Amortized over 10 pix, or roughly $ 300,000 per title, Caravan is potentially cheaper than the myriad studio term deals with filmmakers and producers that are designed to pump out one or, in a good year, two movies annually.
But there’s a catch to all this efficiency.
Roth has a big financial incentive to produce as many films as he can, as fast as he can. It’s said that he stands to collect a producer’s fee of $ 1 million-$ 2 million, against 5% of the gross, for each film Caravan produces. By mounting the 10 productions, he’s potentially writing himself a fivefold pay increase from his days as chairman at Fox.
And by releasing 10 films in a year, Roth assures himself that Caravan’s slate won’t be lost amid Disney’s ambitious 50- to 60-film release schedule for ’94.
Roth and Birnbaum’s strategy means they’re on course to burn through their five-year, 25-picture deal in just over 2 1/2 years, setting the stage for negotiations on an extension that could begin as early as this summer among Disney chairman Michael D. Eisner and Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roth, Birnbaum, Creative Artists Agency chairman Michael Ovitz and attorney Barry Hirsch.
Many believe Roth, Birnbaum, Ovitz and Hirsch will angle for Caravan to become a separate Disney label, capable of handling its own business and legal affairs — close to a prefab studio operation, with an experienced chairman at the helm, potentially growing into a sizable — and salable — asset for the Mouse. The issues of marketing and distribution haven’t even been addressed yet.
“Anything really is possible,” Roth says. “Right now, we have a contract that calls for 25 movies in five years, whichever happens first. It appears we’ll complete the 25 pictures in 2 1/2 years, so obviously there are discussions since the Disney folks are quick on their feet and see we are moving faster than imagined. We could stay at our pace. We could fold into our own label where we actually staff up and do 10 pictures a year like we’re doing now but on a regular basis. Or, we could, you know … anything’s possible.”
Roth’s last statement explains why many in the industry speculate Roth and Birnbaum might opt for a quick exit from the family film firm. After all, Roth helped launch the indie Morgan Creek Prods. with former car dealer James G. Robinson. He could easily pick up the phone and bring together a few foreign investors and do the same thing again.
Currently, Caravan’s output feeds directly into Disney’s Buena Vista distribution pipeline, which Katzenberg intends to fill this year with 50 to 60 movies from Touchstone, Hollywood, Walt Disney, Miramax and Caravan. That may be why Caravan’s activity has yet to fray the nerves of the ever-excitable Katzenberg, who has managed to demonstrate that Caravan is one asset he can keep his hands off.
Asked where he would draw the line to limit Caravan’s activity, Katzenberg says Roth will “make as many pictures as he wants under the terms of his deal.”
Previous reports have stated Caravan has the right to greenlight any movie up to a budget of $ 30 million without Disney’s approval. “The stated mandate is to create a program of films that will deliver five to seven movies a year,” Katzenberg says. “In fact, this year, Roth will exceed his plan.”
A better Mouse
In the detente department, Roth and Birnbaum rave about their new corporate partner. Roth says the Mouse factory has “in my opinion the best combination of international video, marketing, distribution and movie-company leadership” in the biz.
If Caravan becomes a full-fledged production unit, it could prove to be a far leaner way for Disney to build a new label than other Eisner-Katzenberg attempts to build an expansion team. Hollywood Pictures, for example, was launched five years ago with at least $ 10 million a year allocated for overhead and another $ 15 million-$ 20 million for development, but the Sphinx label has yet to prove itself a consistent supplier of quality product.
Caravan also has certain advantages that Hollywood Pictures and the other Disney labels have not enjoyed. In the decision-making process, Roth and Birnbaum are not limited by the salary caps for talent that the other labels are typically restricted to, and several big-budget projects developed by those banners have landed in Caravan’s lap.
Katzenberg recalls, “Touchstone, Disney and Hollywood all made concentrated efforts to roll out the red carpet and support (Roth) in his business and getting him on his feet in any way they could. They’ve taken advantage of having this great asset. I think they did it not just to be generous, but also selfishly” because the Caravan movies help fill distribution slots for the labels.
A lot of Caravan’s leverage will depend on the performance of the movies, and all that is known so far is that not enough people went to Caravan’s debut entry. The big-budget “Three Musketeers,” which has grossed $ 50.6 million domestically so far, looks to be worth about $ 150 million worldwide, including ancillaries.
Roth and Birnbaum admit the pic was something of a disappointment — although it was the third top-grossing movie in a two-hit Christmas behind “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Pelican Brief.”
Roth, 45, and Birnbaum, 43, say their strategy for building a slate is relatively simple, including commitments to screenwriters as directors, bankable stars in expected roles and low-budget pictures that feature talent who just might break through.
Detractors include Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, who publicly suggested that Roth’s 3 1/2-year stint at Fox was less than stellar. The critics say that, minus $ 250 million in operating profit from “Home Alone” and another $ 150 million or more for the sequel, Fox’s performance was unspectacular. They point to such duds as “Toys,””For the Boys,””Shining Through,””Dutch,””The Five Heartbeats” and “This Is My Life” as factors in zonking the bottom line.
On the other hand, Roth and Birnbaum fired up a creative sizzle that hasn’t been seen at Fox since. They launched several movies in the mold of “My Cousin Vinny,” a daring $ 11 million greenlight because it featured then-unproven “Lethal Weapon” sidekick Joe Pesci. The comedy churned out about $ 55 million in operating profits and garnered an Oscar for Marisa Tomei. Other pix in that vein were “The Beverly Hillbillies,””Rookie of the Year” and the movie that marked Woody Harrelson’s emergence as a bankable star, “White Men Can’t Jump.”
In highbrow creative circles, Roth and Birnbaum are also credited with having the guts to greenlight the truly odd –“Dead Ringers,””Barton Fink” and “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka.”
At least one major difference in styles has emerged between Disney and Caravan. While Katzenberg & Co. continue to ink directors and talent to two- and three-picture deals, Caravan focuses on the project at hand. “I don’t feel the corporate imperative to lock up every piece of talent that comes our way,” says Roth. “If we were going to work with someone, I want to enjoy the experience.”