The studio that returned from the dead: How did New Line get its mojo back?
When I had lunch with New Line President Toby Emmerich the other day at a hip industry eatery in Hollywood, he advised me that the next time I went to the restaurant I could save money by parking my car across the street. "There's plenty of meters there," he said. "Why pay $6 for valet parking when you can get a meter right nearby?"
At New Line, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in the 1980s and '90s, New Line was run by its founder, Bob Shaye, as if it were the last of the independents, even if by the mid-1990s it was actually owned by bigger entities, first Ted Turner, then Time Warner. Until he was put out to pasture by Warners in early 2008, Shaye was famous for running New Line as if it were still a mom-and-pop movie store, keeping a close eye on costs, even if it meant offending a big star by refusing to pay his entourage fee.
When New Line was absorbed into Warners in 2008 after having to fire the vast majority of its 500-plus staff, industry pundits, myself included, figured the remaining employees wouldn't last long inside Warners, which had traditionally treated New Line as more of a bitter rival than a corporate sibling. After all, in its last few years of autonomy, New Line had stumbled badly, unable to follow up on the huge success it had with its fabled "Lord of the Rings" franchise.
The studio had endured misstep after misstep, including such duds as "Snakes on a Plane," "Domino," "Number 23," "Nativity" and "The Last Mimzy," an ill-fated project that Shaye had directed himself. The easy bet was that it wouldn't take long before Warners quietly put New Line out of its misery
But that's not how it turned out. In fact, New Line has enjoyed a striking turnaround in the last two years. It had a huge summer in 2008, led by the launch of "Sex and the City: The Movie" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth," the industry's first big 3-D-driven hit. In 2009, the studio had a string of modestly budgeted hits, led by "He's Just Not That Into You," "17 Again," "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" and a revival of its "Friday the 13th" horror franchise. It also kept its "Final Destination" franchise alive by making its third sequel, "The Final Destination," a 3-D film, which boosted its box office over the previous sequel entries.
This year it had another hit with "Valentine's Day," rebooted its "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise and is hoping for another global success with "Sex and the City 2." The reviews for "SATC 2" were witheringly bad, but Emmerich isn't taking it personally. "I was a little caught off guard by how harsh the reviews were," he told me Friday. "But I saw the movie in a theater last night and there was lots of loud laughter and applause. I guess you'd have to say that sometimes the audience is smarter than the critics." (Well, maybe not this time: SATC opened disappointingly in the U.S., though things looked more promising internationally.)
So how has New Line managed to stage such a comeback? First and foremost, it has had hits, which are appreciated at any studio, even at a well-oiled assembly line like Warners. It's also helped that New Line's hits came from the kind of movies that Warners rarely made, or made well: in particular, horror thrillers, female-driven romantic comedies and low-budget franchises like "Final Destination," which, unlike most franchises, was never subject to any significant salary escalation as it went along. Or as Emmerich jokingly put it, "It's never been an expensive franchise because we kill off all the actors every time."
Warners also had to appreciate New Line's consistency, especially since Warners' other regular movie suppliers, notably Dark Castle and Alcon, have delivered far more flops than hits, Alcon's "The Blind Side" not withstanding. Warners insiders also give Emmerich credit for making a smooth adjustment to the studio's corporate environment, always willing to show deference to his studio superiors, Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov, who now hold the greenlight power over New Line releases.
New Line also benefited from Warners crack marketing and distribution machinery, which represented a huge step up from New Line's often ramshackle system of releasing movies. "It's definitely true that our movies got better, but we were really helped by Warners' marketing and distribution," says Emmerich. "I think we also managed to learn from our mistakes. Going to Warners also allowed us to in essence hit the reset button, since we were only asked to make six or so movies a year. But having Warners resources really made a difference. It allowed us to play to win instead of playing not to lose."
Emmerich admits that New Line had gotten into trouble trying to duplicate the runaway success of "Lord of the Rings." "We made too many expensive movies trying to offset the loss of the 'LOTR' income," he says. "There was a lot of pressure to re-create that franchise, which turned out to be unhealthy for us, because it's such a once-in-a-lifetime success. It would be like trying to re-create 'Avatar' over and over again."
New Line still takes risks, which gives it a healthy creative environment. There were few true believers in 3-D when New Line released "Journey to the Center of Earth" in 3-D. But when Emmerich and his team saw the enthusiastic audience reaction, they decided they could justify another entry in the "Final Destination" series if the film was in 3-D, since the storyline lent itself so well to 3-D effects. "Otherwise it was probably a dead franchise," says Emmerich.
New Line also still functions as something of an in-house film school. The original story for the "Final Destination" franchise was written by Jeffrey Reddick, who was working at the time as an assistant to a New Line TV executive (and ended up sharing a script credit on the first film). The original idea for "Going the Distance," a Drew Barrymore relationship comedy due out this summer, came from Dave Neustadter, who had started his career at New Line as an assistant to production chief Richard Brener. Neustadter pitched the idea to Geoff LaTulippe, a New Line script reader, who ended up writing the script himself.
"If there's a secret to New Line, it's the people here," says Emmerich. "There's only 45 of us, but what we learned from Bob [Shaye] and Mike DeLuca that's carried down to Richard Brener and myself is that we always have an appetite for risk but with an accurate assessment of a film's commercial potential."
New Line has always had to reinvent itself as a company, so it's hardly a surprise that it has enjoyed a new lease on life at Warners. "We never had a giant library or owned a lot of commercial characters the way most studios did," says Emmerich. "And since we didn't have a lot of internal resources, we had to find ways to be inventive and resourceful, which I think is a healthy way to run a good business."
Photo: Toby Emmerich, the president of New Line Cinema, in 2008.
Credit: New Line Cinema