Ask New Line founder Bob Shaye to reveal the secret of his company’s success and you may not get the answer you expect.
The scrappy entrepreneur who got his start distributing such groundbreaking fare as John Waters’ “Polyester” (in Odorama), Jean-Luc Godard’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” Bertrand Blier’s “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” emphasizes caution and fiscal conservatism when explaining New Line’s phenomenal growth.
‘We always took a realistic approach to the business,” says the Columbia Law School graduate, “both in terms of the resources we had to invest and the opportunities that we saw available to us. When we had success, we understood where it came from and how much of it ought to be saved, how much of it ought to be invested in new things, and how much of it ought to be invested in our stock-in-trade.
“We were always trying to grow,” he adds. “And I always had a personal vision and a public business plan, but I knew there was a time and place to move on it.”
Shaye says this cautious approach to growth, which he calls “prudent aggression,” informed the timing of all of New Line’s key strategic decisions: when to break out of niche-marketing into broader-based film distribution, when to increase film budgets, and when to go public.
It also affected the company’s choice of financing. “When we had an opportunity to raise a lot of money with so-called junk bonds,” he recalls, “we elected not to do it. We were afraid the interest rates made it an inappropriate financing vehicle for a movie company, and we were right.”
Despite his careful fiscal policy, Shaye says he thrives on the constant uncertainty of the entertainment business. “Every time we release a movie, broadcast a television show or market a videocassette, it’s a challenge,” he says.
“Every single product is original and has to stand on its own. There is no clear formula for success, and there never will be. It’s not stars, and it’s not production value; there is no one thing that always works. That to me is the most exciting part of the business, especially when you come up with something nobody thought of before.”
Shaye, who has profited from the type of mergers and acquisitions now gripping the entertainment industry – when TBS purchased New Line in 1993 – and is likely to again – if Time Warner or some other behemoth swallows TBS – admits that it probably would not be possible to repeat New Line’s success in today’s climate.
“The industry going forward is going to be more of a closed shop because there are not going to be a lot of opportunities to own cable systems, motion picture theaters, foreign distribution outlets and networks,” Shaye says.
“This gives tremendous stability to those companies that are able to create these kind of amalgams because it takes the most serious liability of filmed and taped entertainment out of the mix: The risk factor in making a film that’s a bomb. There are going to be so many opportunities that are inhouse, where there’s no question of being disadvantaged by dealing with outside buyers or sellers.”
Given that, does Shaye, whom IFP executive director Catherine Tait has described as “the quintessential independent,” still see New Line as an indie?
“I think the spirit of New Line, no matter how much money we have – no matter what access we have to the Turner library and other Turner resources – remains fiercely independent,” he says.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t make a successful movie that costs more than a dollar and a quarter. It just means that I think we have the intelligence, the spirit, the unfettered infrastructure to be responsive to the marketplace with much more clarity than the larger, more concretized companies.”
Not surprisingly, when asked to offer advice to indies just getting started, Shaye again stresses a cautious approach. “I don’t know if I’m in a position to give other companies advice,” he says, with what sounds like genuine humility. “But there are a couple of rules to follow: Know what you do well and what you can’t do well; and part of survival in a high-risk business is being sure you don’t blow your load every time out.
“If I really want to shoot craps,” he adds, “I generally go to Las Vegas.”