The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Back from the dead, Hollywood style

December 10, 2008 |  4:52 pm

If you want to win a bet in a bar full of industry insiders, you can stump 'em with this question: Who's the hottest studio in town? The answer speaks volumes about the strange ways of Hollywood. It's New Line Cinema, the studio Time Warner essentially put out of business earlier this year, firing hundreds of employees along with studio founders Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne. A small shell of the original New Line, headed by Toby Emmerich, has been absorbed into the Warners firmament, where it continues to make genre-oriented films that will be marketed and distributed by Warners.

XmasposterHowever, as soon as New Line was shuttered, the studio has rattled off a string of hits, all greenlighted by the Shaye-Emmerich-led administration that couldn't buy a hit in the past couple of years. The No. 1 movie at the box office for the past two weeks is "Four Christmases," which has made $72 million and will end up as the studio's third $100-million U.S. box-office movie of the year. "Sex and the City: The Movie," which came out this summer, has grossed more than $400 million worldwide, making it one of New Line's biggest hits since "Lord of the Rings." It was followed in July by "Journey to the Center of the Earth," a co-production with Walden that's made more than $200 million worldwide.   

New Line has also had two more modest hits. "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" is a $14-million comedy that made nearly $40 million in the U.S. and has been a big winner in home video, so big that the studio is already putting together another sequel in the series. "Appaloosa," a low-budget Ed Harris film that the studio co-financed with Groundswell, earned a surprising $20 million, which already puts New Line in the black, since it sold the movie overseas for $18 million. The studio's sole money loser is "Pride and Glory," which opened in late October to minimal business.

So how did New Line manage to make such a comeback? I called Emmerich, but he's not talking, either because he's the most modest executive in Hollywood or because he's eager to be viewed by his new Warners bosses as a loyal team player, not a credit grabber. But other old New Line hands say it's the result of New Line doing what it does best -- taking relatively low-budget risks and marrying the right talent to the right material. After all, "Four Christmases" costars Vince Vaughn, who became a major comedy star in New Line's own "Wedding Crashers," which also took advantage of his broad comic talents.

The back story of "Four Christmases" shows the value of risk taking. The project was developed by Spyglass, who originally set it up at Sony. When Sony put the script in turnaround, New Line jumped in, attaching Vaughn and co-star Reese Witherspoon. But instead of hiring one of the many lackluster comedy directors who make their living churning out Adam Sandler vehicles, New Line took a chance on a newcomer, Seth Gordon, who'd never even directed a feature film before, having been an editor, cinematographer and documentary filmmaker. (He did "The King of Kong," a clever documentary that New Line had bought at Sundance.) Having hired unknowns to do big comedies in the past -- no one had heard of Jay Roach when he got the gig making the first "Austin Powers" film -- New Line knew that Gordon's experience as an editor was particularly valuable, since many modern-day comedies find their pacing and rhythm in the editing room.

It's only fair to give Warners' marketing staff some credit here too, since they are at their best when someone delivers them good high-concept material, be it a holiday comedy like "Four Christmases," a pre-sold concept like "Sex and the City" or a solid summer programmer like "Journey to the Center of the Earth." But as so many studios -- MGM , Universal, 20th Century Fox -- have struggled in the past six months to find consistent success, it seems ironic that New Line, the studio that saw hundreds of staffers tossed out of their jobs last spring, turns out to be the studio with the hottest hand of all.   

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