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Invited twice, Roth now the life of Disney party

SIX MONTHS AGO A CURIOUS THING happened to Joe Roth. He received two invitations essentially to the same party. The question: Would he consider taking over the production reins at the Disney studio?

The first contact was from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who wanted Roth to succeed him , with the expectation that he, Katzenberg, would be moving up in the Disney hierarchy into the “No. 2” slot formerly occupied by the late Frank Wells. The second, shortly thereafter, was from Michael Eisner, who, while recruiting Roth for the same job, knew something that Katzenberg did not. Eisner knew that Katzenberg was not moving up; he was moving out.

And so it came about that Joe Roth ended up saying “yes” twice, and anyone who has seen him lately knows he is not regretting it. For while the Eisner-Katzenberg imbroglio attracted enormous media attention, Joe Roth over the past six months has been pretty much left on his own to proceed with the task of reshaping Disney. There have been no flashy headlines and few news reports, but those at the studio report that this has been a period of pervasive and dramatic change, not only in terms of dealmaking activity, but also in terms of corporate culture.

In short, Disney is taking on a new personality.

THOUGH IT WAS KATZENBERG who initially signed Roth to a lucrative production deal after Roth left Fox, it is hard to imagine two men whose approaches to a job are more sharply divergent. Jeffrey Katzenberg is the ultimate corporate creature — a man who relishes mobilizing his corporate echelons and issuing bureaucratic pronunciamentos. Roth, low-key, contemplative and perpetually tie-less, thinks of himself more as a sort of executive producer, a man who wants to focus on casting and story, to coax along his program of pictures and to remain aloof from corporate intrigue. Not surprisingly, Roth has been quietly dismantling his predecessor’s multitiered production structure. Aides suggest his goal is to shepherd through his docket of films with roughly 25% less executive personnel and 50% lower development cost — and also with no policy memos.

While Katzenberg liked to hold forth about expanding his program of pictures to include at least 50 per year, Roth becomes irked if he hears anyone even mention a production target. “We’re not meeting quotas, we’re making pictures,” he intones.

None of which is to suggest that there’s not a lot of action at Disney these days. Several omnibus deals have been closed involving the likes of Robert Redford and John

Hughes. New projects have been lined up with Julia Roberts, Tim Allen, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer and Robin Williams. Expensive properties are being acquired. Talent relationships are being cemented. And meanwhile the studio’s various “boutiques” like Miramax and Cinergi also are humming.

Agents have been keeping a wary eye on Roth’s dealmaking propensities, noting that he seems to be steering the same down-the-middle path he’d adopted at Fox. In years past, the Disney studio has kept negative costs at a lower level than that at other studios, but, critics suggest, revenues from foreign sources also have been sharply reduced, reflecting this austerity.

“Joe Roth knows he needs his big ‘tentpole’ projects,” says one agent. At the same time, he seems determined to steer clear of projects costing in excess of $ 45 million — a sort of psychological cutoff point.

SOME OF ROTH’S FRIENDS assert that his relatively short career running Caravan — the unit he established at Disney — proved a valuable reality check for him. Falling right into the Disney hustle, Caravan churned out 11 projects in about 18 months, with results that were acutely disappointing to Roth and his partner, Roger Birnbaum (who still runs the label). For every “Three Musketeers” and “Angels in the Outfield” there seemed an abundance of films like “Angie” and “I Love Trouble.”

Though Roth made a lot of money, he was irritated with his strategy and impatient with himself for “going for the stars and not stories.”

Sobered by that experience, Roth seems to be setting a cautiously aggressive path for himself in his new role. Unlike Katzenberg, his focus is on Disney live-action movies — not TV or animation — an area that some feel did not receive sufficient attention in recent years. While Roth is keenly interested in marketing the fabulously successful animated product, he does not go careening into animation meetings with creative suggestions about new characters or plot lines.

Indeed, attired in his usual uniform of plain white shirt, open at the neck, and slacks that look like they were bought at the Gap (yes, Roth wears khakis, too), Roth does not look like a man trying to attract attention as he quietly plies the stone hallways of Disney headquarters. Graying and flinty-eyed, he looks like he knows the score and yet, as one director put it, “Joe has this remarkable way of making you feel like he’s on your side, or at least understands your side. He’s banished the them-vs.-us attitude you always got at Disney.”

In short, for a man who got not one but two invitations to the party, Joe Roth acts like a man determined to enjoy it.

The Daily Variety family salutes Army Archerd and wife Selma on their 25th wedding anniversary.

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