Bob Shaye is back!
There are certainly lots of people in the movie business who are more charming and less volatile than Bob Shaye. But few are as brutally frank and emotionally engaged in the craft of filmmaking as the founder of New Line Cinema, who had a great 40-year run before Time Warner put him (and his partner Michael Lynne) out to pasture earlier this year.
Each year I write a column that is, essentially, a report card about the performance of the major studios. I recently offered a withering assessment of New Line's slate, saying the studio had lost its focus, made some hapless sequels and managed to go an entire year without releasing a decent youth comedy, once the studio's bread and butter. When Shaye called the day the column appeared, I held the phone away from my ear, expecting fireworks. Instead, he said calmly: "Everything you wrote was completely accurate. Trust me, I'm just as disappointed as you are."
Bob's biggest problem was that (as the father of two daughters) he brought a series of surrogate sons into the New Line fold--i.e. the family business--put his faith in their talents and usually ended up being disappointed by the results. Son No. 1 was Mike De Luca, who came to New Line as an intern, learned at Bob's feet, put New Line in business with all sorts of young filmmaking stars (notably Paul Thomas Anderson), but eventually chafed at what he viewed as constant second-guessing from Shaye. When the company hit the skids in the late 1990s, hurt by flops like "Town and Country," De Luca took the fall.
Son No. 2 is Toby Emmerich, who joined New Line in 1992 in the music department. He was still largely unknown in Hollywood when Shaye handed him the production chief job after De Luca's departure. Emmerich did a better job of managing Shaye's expectations, but in recent years, he was also frustrated by Shaye's blunt critique of films like "Sex and the City," which Shaye wrote off as a failure after a first look at the director's cut. Son No. 3 is Brett Ratner, who was an obscure video director when Shaye gave him his first directing assignment, a comedy with a young comic named Chris Tucker. Ratner made three of his first four movies at New Line and kept the studio's "Rush Hour" franchise alive by sheer moxie and charm. But when the series' third installment fell behind schedule, Shaye railed at what he perceived as Ratner's lack of discipline. Sometimes, all was forgiven. Sometimes, not.
Now Shaye (and Lynne) are announcing the launch of a new film company that will put them back in the filmmaking business. Is there a fourth surrogate son--or perhaps a surrogate daughter--in Shaye's future? What kind of movies does Shaye want to make this time around? And how is he handling life after New Line? Here's an exclusive interview with Shaye that also appears in a more condensed form in Thursday's Calendar section:
New Line founder Bob Shaye is easily the most complicated, combative and prickly studio boss the modern day movie business has ever seen. Perhaps that's why I'm so delighted to see that he's poised to make a comeback after being given the boot earlier this year by Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes, who axed most of New Line's 500 employees in a get-tough cost-cutting measure designed to impress restive Time Warner stockholders.
In an era where the business is dominated by timid bean-counters in stylish suits, Shaye is a throwback to the riverboat-gambler types who used to thrive in Hollywood, having risked his company's future time and again, most notably when he agreed to make a trilogy of "Lord of the Rings" films after everyone else had shown "LOTR" filmmaker Peter Jackson the door.
After laying low and licking his wounds for several months, Shaye gave me his first interview since Bewkes folded New Line into Warner Bros. back in February. It has long been rumored that Shaye and New Line co-chairman Michael Lynne would resurface with a new production company. Now Shaye is making it official, saying he and Lynne have formed a new company, Unique Features, which will make two to four films a year, funded and distributed by Warners as part of a three-year first-look distribution deal with the conglomerate.
Shaye says the company will have a dozen or so employees, most of them in Los Angeles in temporary digs just a floor above the old second-floor New Line headquarters on Robertson Boulevard. "It'll be a very democratic company," Shaye told me. "Everybody will share in whatever success we have. I'm expecting the receptionist to be as prescient about the marketplace as I am."
Shaye's critics would probably say it wouldn't be hard to find a receptionist with a better eye for hit movies than the boss. New Line had a great 40-year run, helping to create the modern-day comedy business, championing African American talent and overseeing such hit franchises as "The Lord of the Rings," "Rush Hour," "Austin Powers," "Blade" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street." But in the past few years, New Line was an also-ran among major studios, hurt by a lack of creative energy and focus.
Shaye admits that New Line had its problems, saying, "We got too big and there were too many political dramas going on." He says he wasn't involved in most of the company's creative decisions in recent years. "I ended up being a cheerleader and an administrator, but I really didn't have an opportunity to implement my real production desires and interests. I missed putting my stamp on the movies we were making."
He says things will be different with Unique Features. "It won't have anyone else's stamp on it except Michael and myself. That's one of the things that I'm excited about. I'll be much more directly involved as an advocate for projects. I won't just be going with the flow. I'll be making hands-on decisions about what is entertaining."
Shaye bristled when I reminded him that, according to New Line lore, if he'd been picking the studio's releases, they probably never would have made any of their comedy hits. Shaye would often toss away comedy scripts, complaining they were too broad or juvenile. "That's total nonsense," he responded. "I liked a lot of our comedies. [New Line production chief] Toby Emmerich is fond of saying I didn't like 'Wedding Crashers,' but I think his memory is foggy. I wasn't enthusiastic about it as a script, but once Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson got on board, the movie's chemistry showed up."
It was Shaye who plucked Emmerich from obscurity in 2001, making him New Line's production chief after Shaye fired longtime production boss Mike De Luca. Emmerich's relations with Shaye have been strained in recent months, with Emmerich staying on to run the company after Shaye and Lynne were sent packing. Recalling a 2007 Cedric the Entertainer flop that Emmerich had championed, Shaye added: "If you want to talk about comedy taste, remember that I didn't like 'Code Name: The Cleaner' either."
Shaye's insistence on keeping his new company's offices in the Warner-owned New Line building struck many observers as an unusual move for someone who'd been unceremoniously ousted from the company he ran for 40 years. His presence on the premises led to a recent dust-up where Emmerich got into a noisy altercation with Shaye's assistant after Emmerich parked his motorcycle in Shaye's parking space one weekend. Shaye downplayed the conflict, saying "Toby and I are having a conversation about that right now. I'm sure it will all work out."
But Shaye couldn't downplay his feelings about the way Warners fired 450 staffers, refusing all of Shaye and Lynne's efforts to save as many employees as they could. When Shaye first tried to speak about his forced exit from the company he started in his Greenwich Village apartment four decades ago his voice cracked and he began to weep. He had to take a few moments to compose himself.
"It was profoundly sad and painful," he finally said, his voice raw with emotion. "I've only had two other times in my recent past where I've suffered so much. One was when I lost my dog and the other was when I lost such a huge amount of my net worth because I kept my Time Warner stock because I believed in the greater good at the company. You read stories in the newspaper about factories being closed and people's lives being displaced and imagining what happens when people have to start all over again...."
He stopped to compose himself again. "Well, it's one thing to read about it in the paper and another thing to walk down the halls of our building on June 27, which was the last day of the old New Line. There were a lot of tears. It was tough to deal with. I felt like a 40-year-old child had been taken away from me. This company was my best friend in my life."
Shaye is still wrestling with his feelings about Bewkes, who Shaye had considered a good friend. "Jeff is a very enigmatic and idiosyncratic guy," he says. "I don't have any animosity toward him. I still think of him as a, well, as a past friend. I just wish he'd let us go a different route and buy the company, but that wasn't in the cards."
Now Shaye is ready to start all over again. But why? He's an extremely wealthy man who's in good health and retains lots of outside interests. At age 69, why wouldn't he do what David Geffen is doing--get out of the business and cruise around the world on a yacht? It turns out that Shaye and Geffen have talked about that very thing, but Shaye says he's simply a different person.
"That's great for David, but for me, it sounds dreary to be on a boat for a year," says Shaye. "I love movies. And I'm excited about being a seller instead of just being a buyer. I'm excited about using the fertility of my brain, which thank god, isn't fallow yet."
He laughs. "You know, they once asked Stanley Kubrick why he never took a vacation. And he said, 'A vacation from what?' I just want to keep doing what I love."
Photo of Bob Shaye by Justin Lane