It's more evolution than Revolution

Ask Joe Roth how revolutionary his Revolution Studios actually was in its first year of production and he shrugs. Four lightweight moneymakers comprised a first-year slate redeemed artistically only at the last minute, with the shift of “Black Hawk Down” to an Oscar-chasing opening three days from the end of the year.

“We made a lot of money,” Roth says. “We always wish the movies were better. But we started from scratch. We had no sequels, no remakes, no properties to start with. I left Disney two years ago this week, and it took me nine months to get the financing together. But unless I’m wrong, I think we’re ending up with the top two Sony films.”

He means “Black Hawk Down,” whose results will mostly be realized in 2002, and “America’s Sweethearts,” which did lead the way in 2001 for Sony with $94 million in domestic box office.

But he could also be talking about “The Animal,” which was No. 3 for Sony last year at $58 million. Throw in the widely panned “Tomcats” ($14 million) and the sci-fi chopsocky of “The One” ($44 million) and you have a slate better filed under “Remunerative” than “Revolutionary.”

But ask Roth where he’s heading and it gets more interesting.

Calley successor?

He’s regularly noised about as heir apparent when Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman John Calley retires, probably next year. Whether he’ll take the job is a question Roth gets all the time, and he looks pensive when asked yet again.

“It’s a reasonable question, but it doesn’t have a reasonable answer,” Roth says. “My goal is to grow the company. We’ve all agreed to take a look at things when John retires. I’m hoping it becomes clearer in 18 months. In the meantime, my job is to grow this company into an asset that has some value.”

Some speculate Roth wouldn’t want or need the challenge of piloting yet another big studio through the bureaucratic shoals of yet another massive conglom, as he did for 10 years with Disney and Fox.

Nonetheless, to do so he would leave behind one of the best deals in Hollywood: heading a small, collegial company populated with high-profile pals/execs culled mostly from his Fox and Disney days.

Investors Sony, Fox and Starz Encore have all agreed to buy rights to 36 Revolution pics over six years, and Roth has other output deals with Germany’s Senator and Japan’s Toho Towa and Pony Canyon.

Safety net

Funding from all those deals virtually guarantees he won’t lose money with mainstream pics he delivers to them, even a mediocre one like “Tomcats.”

“A movie that costs from $50 million to $90 million, we’re two-thirds covered (by upfront money),” Roth says. “Smaller films, we’re completely covered.”

Thinking small keeps Revolution’s costs low; its average pic will cost $39 million, compared to the Hollywood average of $53 million.

The average studio also creaks under the load of 60-80 deals with stars, directors, producers and writers, all of whom need to be fed projects even if they’re not quite right for the job.

“You have to service it in a way that may not be the best thing for the movie,” Roth says. “I want to be proactive about things, like with (Nicole Kidman starrer) ‘The Forgotten.’ I read it over a weekend and decided I wanted to make a deal.”

Add it up and maybe a revolution is in the offing.

‘Hawk’ soaring

All of which makes “Black Hawk Down,” with its $92 million budget and unflaggingly intense combat scenes, the studio’s biggest gamble so far, as well as its biggest artistic success.

The Jerry Bruckheimer production was supposed to open in March, but after seeing director Ridley Scott’s first cut, Roth moved it up to catch the Oscar season and post-Sept. 11 patriotic fervor. That schedule shift strained the company’s small staff (just 20 people and their personal assistants), but Roth says it was worth it.

“It’s been good to take a risky film into an unknown environment,” he says.

That effort is part of what makes Revolution’s future more interesting than its brief past.

This year, the company will release eight films (plus “Black Hawk Down”) that are more a product of Revolution’s own development process, rooted in its deals with Julia Roberts, Adam Sandler and Bruce Willis, and of the fruits of Roth’s nimble dealmaking and sensitivity to talent.

The Sandler deal in particular has been fruitful. This year alone, he is appearing in a still-untitled comedy helmed by Paul Thomas Anderson coming this fall, producing and starring with Jack Nicholson in “Anger Management” and producing kidpic “Master of Disguise,” due in May.

Roberts is choosing among three projects to shoot this summer. Most likely to go first is the drama “Mona Lisa Smile,” about the impact of a young teacher upon a group of girls during the 1950s.

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