Assumes Disney chairman duties as Roth goes indie

Roth is out, Schneider is in, and the Mouse House is caught up in a frenzy of speculation.

Joe Roth on Wednesday announced his exit as Walt Disney Studios chairman to form an independent film company, with studio president Peter Schneider assuming the chairman position as soon as next week.

Schneider — the first studio topper ever to come from a background in animation and theater — inherits an infrastructure of studio management and talent that are loyal to Roth.

As a result, the industry offered up an array of theories about who will stay, who will leave, and how the studio’s live-action division in particular will fare.

Roth said he hasn’t yet formulated the precise nature of his independently financed company. However, it is expected to involve major talent relationships, with such A-list performers as Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis — and it will likely not be tied to Disney.

Among the rumors du jour is one that Roth may link in some way with producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Another focus of rumors was Roth’s reasons for leaving.

The exec emphatically told Daily Variety: “This move has nothing to with having a bad relationship with anyone. This is about my own ambitions — going out and building a company. It’s crazy to see people imply that Michael Eisner and I hate each other. We don’t!”

Roth said Walt Disney Co. chairman Eisner tried to persuade him to stay, but that he was adamant about leaving to explore opportunities and to work for himself.

For more than a decade, Roth has worked for such forceful bosses as Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller as well as Eisner, and many industryites said he simply wants to be on his own.

Eisner told Daily Variety: “I enjoy Joe. I like working with him. I’ll miss him. I’m extremely confident about the people we have in place. They are dedicated to maintaining the quality of our product.”

But an ex-Mouseketeer offered a more cynical view: “Schneider makes sense for what they need,” he said. “The plan at Disney has always been to make Disney-branded movies. The only other stuff they’ll make is one or two Touchstone movies, and two Bruckheimer and Spyglass movies. That, and two animated movies a year. It’s a pretty limited scope and I think Joe just got sick of that.”

Roth told Variety (Nov. 22-28, 1999) that the price points on sophisticated adult dramas are “worrisome,” though he also emphasized the importance of laying off risk on certain films in the current climate.

But Roth’s taste and support of talent has led the studio this year to an industry-topping 15 Golden Globe nominations for pics including “The Insider,” “The Sixth Sense” and “The Straight Story.”

Schneider has served as Walt Disney Studios prexy since January 1999. He will be responsible for worldwide production, marketing and distribution of all motion pictures released by Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures.

Many call Schneider the consummate Disney franchise man. Best known for spearheading the studio’s hugely successful “The Lion King” stage production and revitalizing the animation division, Schneider was also instrumental on such animated pics as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Mulan” and “Tarzan.”

If the studio is in fact retrenching from adult-drama to focus even more on pics from Animation and Walt Disney Pictures divisions — such as last year’s “Inspector Gadget” and “Toy Story 2″ — Schneiderites argue: who better to lead them?

But one source close to the studio said: “This will be a sea-change at Disney in terms of style.”

A Mouse House exec said: “Joe’s style is much more about investing responsibility in filmmakers. That’s why he is popular with talent. Peter’s style, more typical of animation, is about having a singular vision.”

These style considerations underscore a feeling of uncertainty, even skepticism, not about Schneider’s abilities as an executive but about his relationships to talent and how the studio’s live-action division — a place of tumultuous change at the exec levels under the stable Roth — will function with new leadership.

But Eisner sought to allay such fears: “It’s about scripts,” he said, “not about contacts. It’s about material, not friendships.”

In his years at Paramount and Disney, Eisner has had Don Simpson, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roth as his production chiefs and managed consistently to be the No. 1 or 2 studio in terms of market share, so he is confident there will be few bumps in this latest succession.

When Roth left Twentieth Century Fox in early 1993 to form Caravan Pictures with Roger Birnbaum, he did so with an independent financing deal in place.

Asked why he hasn’t secured a structured deal before announcing his departure, Roth said: “I want to go out there and see what is the market value of my services — and those I take along with me.”

Roth enthused, “It’s an exciting time for those of us who make movies and seek content. I’m really interested in the Internet. What happened with ‘Blair Witch’ and marketing is very intriguing.”

“It’s thrilling for me — and fear-provoking — to forge a production company.”

Roth, who would not say who at Disney will be joining him in the venture, did stress that he will keep his staff lean and his overhead low. One persistent rumor late Wednesday was that several top execs, if asked, would follow Roth, who has been something of a mentor to them.

Directors such as Jon Turteltaub and Michael Bay — both working on projects at the studio — say they will be committed to the new management.

“I feel like I am losing a friend. Joe took me under his wing and he is why I joined Disney. But I still think there are a lot of great people at Disney and I am committed to them,” said Bay.

The helmer is working on the $140 million Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Pearl Harbor” — which Eisner insisted has not been greenlighted, despite word to the contrary.

Turteltaub, who begins shooting “The Kid” with Willis next week, said: “Joe will be missed. I made four films with him. In some ways, I feel like I am under the ocean looking for treasure, while the hurricane is raging over me.”

He added that Schneider has been very supportive of “The Kid.” Production will proceed as planned, he said. “It just means that I don’t have Joe to father me.”

Bruckheimer, who during Roth’s tenure at Disney produced such cash cows as “Armageddon” and “The Rock,” said, “It’s the nature of the business to have to constantly play musical chairs with executives. I have had a great run with Joe and he was a terrific creative partner. It’s unfortunate that he has decided to leave.”

But Bruckheimer has been with Eisner since his days at Paramount and “American Gigolo.”

Birnbaum, who ran Caravan with Roth and whose Spyglass Entertainment is Disney-based, said: “The fact that Joe has chosen to leave is a sad day, but I am also excited for him. This is a guy who is not only great at what he does, but beloved. Peter Schneider has been extremely successful, and I think Michael Eisner has obviously thought about this thoroughly.”

Added Spyglass co-prexy Gary Barber: “I have the utmost respect for Joe. He was a mentor to me. I know he will do well. Peter is a natural choice. He has a keen eye to spot the hits. He is a natural successor and Roger and I look forward to working with him.”

Under Roth’s leadership, the Mouse House led industry box office market share five times in the last six years and the studio became a bedrock while the company as a whole has been caught in a fiscal undertow.

Disney shares fell 7% Wednesday to close at $33.69. Part of that dip could well be due to Roth’s departure, but showbiz stocks were mostly lower across the board as the market continues to assess what the just announced AOL/Time Warner merger plan means.

Entertainment analyst Jeff Logsdon of Seidler Cos. said Wall Streeters weren’t surprised by the changes at the Mouse House. “Peter comes from a very profitable segment of the business, and it’s a very different segment,” Logsden said.

In a studio press release, Eisner offered long-winded praise for Schneider: “In the entire entertainment industry, there are few executives who can match Peter Schneider’s record of success,” he said.

Roth added: “I am confident that Peter will continue the studio’s legacy of creative excellence and box office success. Under his leadership, Feature Animation created another golden age of animation. His strong sense of storytelling will enable the studio’s to maintain its leadership in both live-action and animation.”

(Jill Goldsmith in New York contributed to this report.)

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