New Line rebounds on epic's B.O. success

Not that anyone needs a reminder that movies are a cyclical business, but consider the case of New Line.

A year ago it had just released two turkeys — “Town and Country” and “Little Nicky.” Michael De Luca, its estimable young chief, was removed as production head. There was talk that New Line’s corporate parent, AOL Time Warner, had lost patience — and hope.

So now New Line is coming off its best year ever.

“Lord of the Rings” has already grossed $700 million worldwide, the company is reveling in 14 Oscar noms and buzzing along with a new business plan that will result in 14-15 films a year. And the AOL mavens are counting the company as a major asset.

How did this turnaround happen?

For one thing, the 35-year-old company seems, after a year-long blip and 100 layoffs, to have regained its nerve and recharged its batteries.

In the executive suites, New Line founder Bob Shaye — newly pumped up from the huge payoff of his “Lord of the Rings” gamble — is exercising more hands-on involvement than he has in years.

And his new production prexy Toby Emmerich is overseeing a slate that emphasizes the elements that originally built New Line’s business: niche product, sequels and mid-range franchises.

A longtime New Line employee whose last post was president of New Line Music, Emmerich was best known as the writer of the studio’s 1998 time-travel drama “Frequency.”

His appointment did not immediately inspire enthusiasm around town.

While eager to meet a new production chief, one could almost see the thought balloons over industryites’ heads: Placeholder. Short-timer.

“When I got the job, there were a lot of people that I became important to and it made me nervous,” says Emmerich. “They didn’t know me.”

Emmerich says he quickly figured out that there was really just one thing the town wanted to know about him: Could he move their business forward?

As it turns out, he could. “I get my phone calls returned more quickly now,” he says.

The intense Emmerich lacks De Luca’s casually ingratiating personality, but he is a straight-shooter who is fearless when it comes to speaking his own mind.He wouldn’t, for example, hesitate to pour cold water on a production exec’s bold assertion that his development project would become “an important movie.” (“It might become an important movie.”)

“He’s efficient and brave,” says Shaye. “He doesn’t seem fearful or hesitant in dealing with problems. When you duck and hide, that’s when big problems come up.”

Shaye met Emmerich in 1990, when he was an A&R exec at Atlantic Records and worked with Shaye on Shaye’s feature directorial debut, “Book of Love.”

Says Shaye, “We got along very well. He came to see me and said he wanted to be involved in movies — was there a job?”

There wasn’t, but Shaye created one as a Gotham-based creative exec who helped with the film’s soundtracks. Eventually, as music became more significant for the company, Emmerich topped the department. On the side, Emmerich contributed to the development of New Line projects.

When he was tapped to head production at New Line in early 2001, Shaye was looking to make what he called “a change in goals.”

His co-chairman and co-CEO, Michael Lynne, is more blunt in his assessment.

“We did get a little distracted,” he says. “There was a rush to higher-budget, star-driven product and less emphasis on mining the value of our own franchises. Bob and I made changes to bring in more discipline from a budget (angle) and a new creative point of view, which is what Toby is about.”

Many of the films that New Line believes in today are the same ones it believed in a decade ago.

Franchises and sequels form the core of Emmerich’s development slate.

These include “Final Destination 2,” the “Nightmare on Elm Street”/”Friday the 13th” showdown “Freddy vs. Jason” and sequels to “Dumb and Dumber” and “The Mask.”

The company is also prepping a remake to the 1971 Cinerama release “Willard,” the story of a boy and his rat.

“It was our proposal to AOL TW that we were comfortable with a $50 million cap on our greenlight per project,” says Lynne. “I don’t see us significantly in the over-$50 million business.”

The average budget of a New Line picture, he says, is $30 million.

Original pics expected to fall in that category include the historical romantic comedy “American Princess,” quirky comedy “The Ballad of Paul Finley, Accountant,” “Solace” from “John Q” helmer Nick Cassavetes, and two literary adaptations: Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook” and Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

There are exceptions: The third installment of “Austin Powers” crossed the $50 million mark and if “Rush Hour” ever goes for round three, the above-the-line budget alone will exceed that number with ease.

There may even be occasions when New Line will go to AOL TW with a project that has a risk/reward ratio not unlike “Rings.”

“His Dark Materials,” for example, is a trilogy of books that New Line will co-produce with Scholastic.

No writer or director is attached and no one’s decided how many films should be created from the property. However, New Line Intl. prez Rolf Mittweg plans to spend much of the upcoming Cannes market drumming up excitement about the project among his distributors — the same people who paid for 65% of “Rings” and are very happy that they did.

“There’s no agenda to move New Line from (AOL TW) or change the content,” Lynne says. “We are situated very, very well. We provide vitally important delivery of content.”

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