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Joe Roth Reshapes Disney With Stars in Live Action

June 30, 1995

Over the past several years, Walt Disney Co.’s movie-studio unit has turned out films featuring such lesser-known actors as Pauly Shore, Chris Elliott and Jim (″Ernest″) Varney.

Today, Disney is making movies with Robin Williams, John Travolta, Whitney Houston and Sharon Stone. That’s one of the many things Joe Roth is bringing to Disney.

Disney is on a drive to shore up its live-action film business, and the arrival of blue-chip movie stars is just the start. The company also has dropped its plan to release as many as 60 movies a year; it is now aiming to release 30 or so.

And the company plans to start making nonanimated ``event″ movies _ splashy, big-budget films with appeal beyond just families _ under its formidable Walt Disney Pictures label. Some at the studio believe profits from such movies could rival those of its blockbuster animated films.

Mr. Roth became chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group in August, replacing Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had a falling-out with Disney Chairman Michael Eisner. Mr. Katzenberg had had authority over both live-action and animated films. But when he left, Mr. Eisner split the responsibilities and made Mr. Roth responsible only for the live-action movies made by its Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures and Caravan Pictures labels.

Mr. Katzenberg had championed Disney’s animation department, presiding over the creation of such wildly profitable hits as ``The Lion King,″ but he did a poor job on the live-action side. His movies included duds like ``Blame It on the Bellboy″ and ``Aspen Extreme.″ Disney executives told analysts recently that the company has lost about $150 million annually on its live-action business over the past few years. By contrast, the animation side has been posting annual profits of about $800 million.

What’s more, the studio had a bad reputation among many actors, writers and directors in Hollywood. In a now famous 1991 memo, Mr. Katzenberg complained about rising movie costs and announced that Disney would generally refrain from hiring top movie stars and paying high prices for directors and hot scripts.

Mr. Roth, 47 years old, is now ``undoing the memo,″ as some executives call it. Stars took notice when he apologized on behalf of the company to Robin Williams, who had been angry that the studio breached an agreement not to use his Genie voice in merchandising products related to ``Aladdin.″ Writers paid attention when Mr. Roth paid $3 million for the movie rights to an unpublished novel, ``The Horse Whisperer.″

``If I am right, the actions we’re taking now will completely change the profit and loss of this division over the course of the next five years,″ says Mr. Roth, estimating the live-action division’s profits could be as much as $500 million a year by the end of that period. In the past 10 months, Mr. Roth says he has cut overhead by 20 percent and reduced the number of movie projects in development by 40 percent.

Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars say Mr. Roth is making a difference. ``Without question, there are an awful lot of people who would be more willing to go to Disney under Joe Roth than were necessarily willing to do so under Jeffrey Katzenberg,″ says Tom Hanks, who had a production accord at Disney but left to set up shop at Fox during Katzenberg’s tenure. Mr. Williams says the word is out that if you make a movie at Disney now, ``there will be minimum interference.″

Mr. Katzenberg, now starting up DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, says: ``Joe Roth has a very gracious style. He makes people feel really comfortable.″ He adds, ``On every account you’d have to give Joe an A today.″

Mr. Roth gained a reputation as a ``talent-friendly″ studio chief at Twentieth Century Fox before he joined Disney as a producer in 1993, and he has been persistent in courting talent personally. He called Mr. Williams or his representatives every day for five months to persuade him to make a comedy called ``Jack.″ Mr. Williams also has agreed to supply his voice for the next direct-to-video ``Aladdin″ sequel. For months, Mr. Roth has been pursuing Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in ``Crossbow,″ a film about William Tell that Mr. Roth sees as one of the Walt Disney Pictures ``event″ movies.

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