Roth’s Revolutionary rites

The hyperactive new indie continues to rev up production and profits, but will its mainstream pics start swimming upstream?

It’s too early to issue a report card on Revolution Studios after a mere 2½ years, but three things happened to Joe Roth and his company in the past week that bear notice.

In these pinched times, Revolution nonetheless regenerated its stash of capital, securing an additional $250 million credit facility from JPMorgan Chase, bringing its total line to $650 million.

Secondly, “Anger Management” soared past the $100 million mark, reminding the marketplace that Revolution, despite occasional setbacks, can generate hits as well as cash.

Third, Roth quietly moved into a more formal relationship with Sony Pictures, joining a newly instituted seven-person operating committee that will oversee its strategy. While this does not necessarily portend a broader role for Roth, the clout of the operating committee will clearly increase as John Calley glides toward retirement.

One point is clear: At a time when studio decision-making seems to be gridlocked in committees around town, Roth has no inhibitions about pulling the trigger.

By the end of year three, Revolution will have brought forth some 20 movies, and it plans to continue a 10-per-year agenda.

Hence, while most of the studios are trimming back production and passing the hat for funding, Roth’s company has essentially established itself as an “instant major” — no small feat in these times.

This is not to say that Revolution has entirely lived up to its name.

With an occasional exception, such as “Black Hawk Down,” its slate has been resolutely mainstream, if not downstream. There have been lowbrow pictures like “Tomcats” and more than a few projects like “Punch-Drunk Love” that proved more promising in concept than in reality.

Some Roth-bashers, and there are a few, have pointed to the Bruce Willis flop “Tears of the Sun” as an example of Revolution’s tendency to lock into subjects that resonated a generation ago — a sort of ’80s mindset, as one agent describes it.

A bottom-line kind of guy, Roth’s answer would be that his neophyte company will generate projected profits of $235 million for 2003 with an overhead of just $20 million.

For a startup, he argues, his batting average is damned good, and it will improve markedly in year three when a series of high-end projects — utilizing the talents of Ron Howard, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Mike Newell and Robert Redford — hits the market.

To be sure, Revolution’s initiation was made vastly more complex because of a conflict in backend deals.

A key Revolution investor was Encore, owned by John Malone’s Liberty Media, which put up some $150 million in equity funding. Revolution’s distributor and surrogate parent, however, is Sony, whose films are committed to HBO for pay TV, at least through next year.

The net effect: Revolution was unable to draw upon Sony properties during its startup period — a resource that would have made life a lot easier for a new entity seeking viable material.

Apart from this problem, however, the stars seemed in perfect alignment when Roth and the ubiquitous Skip Brittenham began to cobble together the new enterprise. Overseas investors, including the Germans, were eager for product. Sony wanted assurances that distribution pipelines would be full. Spurred by the emergence of DVD, a pervasive optimism gripped the film business.

Those sunny times proved evanescent. Efforts by other producers to replicate Revolution have been dashed — a fact that has stirred more than a little institutional jealousy. Rivals are understandably resentful of the fact that Roth edged to the front of the bank line just before the bank shuttered. And, quite predictably, they’re asking: Is he making the best use of his precious resources?

A thoughtful, cool-headed man, who has served some of the town’s toughest bosses, from Michael Eisner to Rupert Murdoch, Roth understands the second-guessing that surrounds his company.

It was just 30 years ago that he got his first movie job, working as a production assistant on “The Conversation,” a movie that Francis Ford Coppola dreamed of making for years but, having made it, couldn’t figure out how to cut together.

Roth has witnessed the magic of movies that click perfectly with their times, such as “Home Alone” or “XXX” (which did $150 million in DVD in the U.S. alone), as well as crushing disappointments that, for whatever reason, seem to miss the zeitgeist, such as “Tears of the Sun.”

Revolution doubtless will have its share of both. But along the way it also will generate a lot of jobs as well as profit. And that, in itself, represents a formidable achievement in problematic times.

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