His own Wonderland

Sounders FC owner and Alice in Wonderland producer Joe Roth has found the perfect counter to the movie business in Seattle, but has found the perfect storm in both worlds in a wondrous year.

"You're mad, bonkers, off your head! But I'll tell you a secret: All the best people are."
- Charles Kingsleigh, Alice In Wonderland.

Joe Roth comes from a land of make believe.

On the map, it reads "Los Angeles" and it gives him all the aesthetics he needs for his day job as one of the biggest movie producers in Hollywood today. Yet, despite all the glitter, he still pines for something a little different and out of the ordinary.

That is one reason his frequent trips to Seattle over the last couple of years have been so important to him.

35,000-plus. Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field. On matchday.

That is how Sounders FC owner Joe Roth describes his Wonderland.

"That, to me, is part of the fun of owning the team - being connected with the fans and hearing what they have to say," Roth said while preparing for MLS First Kick Thursday night at Qwest Field. "In the movies you'd love to have a pulse on what the buyers think. They live in their homes and they either come out or they don't. Here you can see them and hear them and feel them and that's very helpful in a business."

MLS First Kick comes on the heels of a great year for Roth. Not only did the Sounders FC have a largely successful inaugural season, winning the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, reaching the playoffs and smashing league attendance marks, but his latest movie, Alice In Wonderland, has been a smash hit in the box office, drawing over $500-million in its first three weeks in theaters.

With Johnny Depp, director Tim Burton and Disney on board, it would appear that the film was bound for success from the beginning, but it wasn't always so simple in Roth's eyes.

Written by Linda Woolverton, who achieved grand success with Disney's Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Alice was an aggressive effort by Roth.

"I thought she had a really good idea of a different take on Alice, which had been made many times into movies and most of the times not very fulfilling - just a story about a little girl in a blue dress who falls down a hole and meets crazy people," Roth said. "From the time Tim Burton committed, it was a producer's dream. Most of the time as a producer you're begging and borrowing and stealing and cajoling people to come be on your project. But when you get a guy like Tim Burton, everybody wants to be in it. Actors are calling, crew is calling. It becomes an event unto itself."

That experience, which started production well before lightning struck Qwest Field in the form of a 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls on opening night in 2009, certainly prepared Roth for what he faced with the Sounders FC. Though just one of many such experiences - Roth calls them cultural phenomena - that he has seen in his film career.

Whether it is Home Alone at Fox, Sixth Sense at Disney or his most recent works in Alice and the Sounders FC, everything has to line up right for the project to explode.

"Some of the things you make line up and other times they line up on their own. So in the same ways that Alice lined up - six or seven different areas that all connected - so did the first year with the Sounders," Roth said. "All things lined up and said this was going to be a first-rate operation. Some of it, you make happen and some of it falls into place on its own."

Where there is a Burton, Depp, Anne Hathaway and the great story of Alice in Wonderland, there is also Sigi Schmid, Kasey Keller, Freddie Ljungberg, Fredy Montero and the grand history of soccer in Seattle.

However, unlike the movie industry, professional sports are continuous. When one season ends, you begin preparations for the next season. For the Sounders FC, that means most of the same cast and crew. In movies, it's not quite so simple.

"I've been in the movie business my whole adult life. You're used to that rhythm - starting a project, putting it all together, going through the experience no matter how good or bad it is. Then it's over. The movie comes out and it's over. People you've made connections with and friends with go off and do their own things," lamented Roth.

"So for me after 40 years of doing it that way, to have something (the Sounders FC) that's an on-going experience is completely new for me. It's a great thing because it allows you to get better, allows you to correct mistakes which you can't do in a movie. It allows you to see what you might do the next year and look forward to the next year. It has a flow to it that movies, by definition, don't have."

With that in mind, according to Roth, nothing compares to the fans marching (like mad hatters) to the match.

"The passion of the fans is the most rewarding. No question about it," he said. "It's really important to me. I've been in a business my whole life that does not connect with the people for whom they make the product. In the movies, we don't meet with the ticket holders. It's all brand new to me and it's another way for us to establish who we are."

Roth will be among the horde of supporters at the March to the Match on Thursday at 5:30 pm in Occidental Park. Kickoff is slated for 6:30 as the Sounders FC face the Philadelphia Union in the MLS First Kick season opener. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN2.

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