Risk-taking subsid never fit with parent studio

Indie maverick Bob Shaye never fit comfortably inside the Warner House. No matter how much Shaye played the Hollywood movie mogul, with his lavish parties and vacation cruises, there was still something of the ’70s ragtag rebel about him.

The Lower East Side company he founded in 1967 thrived on B-pics like “Reefer Madness,” John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester,” and such franchises as the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

“They were the first ones to mix art and exploitation,” says Waters, “which is where I was coming from. They had huge art hits, commercial hits, and invented genres.”

Always a showman, Shaye never stopped flying by the seat of his pants.

And for 40 years, that kept New Line Cinema kicking. The company was never safe, exactly. But even when he had no money, Shaye would always pull something out of his hat. He became a multi-millionaire when he sold New Line to Ted Turner in 1994, and when Turner’s holdings were folded into Time Warner in 1996, some observers suggested New Line was a superfluous addition to the big studio.

From the start, Shaye’s relationship with the parent studio was contentious and competitive. New Line was never absorbed into the larger Warners corporate culture. But Shaye survived, longer than any other studio head, by always coming up with a smash when he needed one. Over the decades, the company lived off a series of genre franchises that kept on giving, from “Critters” and “Friday” to “Blade” and “Rush Hour.”

Until, after a three-year cold stretch, Shaye’s luck finally ran out.

“New Line was a place you could go to bungee jump,” says producer Don Murphy. “It was a lot of fun, an amazing place. But after a number of bungee jumps, eventually the cord breaks.”

At the behest of Time Warner topper Jeff Bewkes, Warners is ingesting the studio as a smaller genre label, and plans to distribute such 2009 pics as “My Sister’s Keeper” and “Final Destination 4″ worldwide. Sounding very much the dispassionate bureaucrat, Bewkes stressed “the importance of coordinated strategy for international and digital distribution of filmed entertainment, and the need to continue to make sure that we’re running our businesses as efficiently as possible.”

Shaye and his 17-year New York partner, co-chairman Michael Lynne, are gone.

Now Warners execs Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov are figuring out who will stay and who will go, and what the final size and shape of the shrunken New Line will be. Production chief Toby Emmerich is expected to stay on for the initial transition.

New Line specialty label Picturehouse, led by prexy Bob Berney, is likely to merge with the floundering Warner Independent Pictures. As Warners scopes out New Line’s projects and development, many producers who don’t fit into the genre-label Dimension-style mold hope to escape turnaround by moving their scripts over to big Warners.

The parallels with the Weinstein’s Miramax Films and parent Disney are unavoidable. Both companies were about the same size, 600 employees on both coasts. Both were run by a pair of mavericks who ran afoul, after Oscar-winning blockbusters, of a big conglomerate’s needs for predictability and control over its subsidiary’s spending. Both had trouble getting along inside the corporate culture. “You’re seeing the dethronement of personality in favor of low-cost, low-risk, lower-exposure, controllable people,” says one ex-Miramax staffer.

There was always an aura of the dysfunctional family around New Line.

The nurturing mom was 10-year production chief Sara Risher, who moved the company into its current home on Robertson Blvd. in 1988 with four people. She was succeeded in 1995 by her one-time intern Michael DeLuca, Shaye’s surrogate son. Risher stayed on as an exec and, later, as a producer.”New Line was special in this corporate world,” says Risher, “because it still felt family-owned and run.”

Over the next 10 years, New Line made serious dough on genre pictures such as “Mortal Kombat,” as well as David Fincher’s “Seven,” and the “Austin Powers” series, which helped to pay for a smattering of artier pics like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.”

But while the distrib survived on bread-and-butter niches like horror, action, comedy and urban pics, New Line often fell down in the realm of higher-budget pictures, losing big bucks on such risky bets as Renny Harlin’s “Long Kiss Goodnight,” “The Astronaut’s Wife” starring Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron, and “Last Man Standing” starring Bruce Willis.

In 2001, after enduring the big-budget disaster “Town and Country,” industry observers speculated that Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” would finally bring down the company. But the biggest gamble of Shaye’s career — which scored $2.9 billion worldwide — gave new life to Shaye and Lynne’s autonomous run.

New Line never quite got back on track after the 2001 departure of DeLuca, Shaye’s brilliant alter ego and often bad boy, who finally acted out too much to be allowed to stay on. But talent loved him. And he knew how to make movies.

Emmerich was solidified as DeLuca’s successor with two smash comedies, Jon Favreau’s “Elf” in 2004 followed by 2005’s “Wedding Crashers,” starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. But the company’s comedies were more the purview of rising exec Richard Brener. While more mature and grounded than the unformed DeLuca, affable music maven and screenwriter Emmerich never quite commanded his predecessor’s level of respect inside the film community.

“He was the one who was pushing away from the brand,” says one former New Line exec. “He went away from horror.”

In 2005, Shaye spent six weeks in a coma, fighting a near-fatal staph infection.When he recovered, he returned feistier than ever. But instead of attending to his company slate, he immediately directed “The Last Mimzy.” With New Line’s leader sidelined, 2006 saw such duds as the $33 million “Snakes on a Plane” and the Jack Black comedy “Tenacious D: ‘The Pick of Destiny.” And “The Last Mimzy” was no help to the company’s 2007 bottom line.

There was often, over the years, a disconnect between production and marketing at New Line. While producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa praise the studio for greenlighting Todd Field’s “Little Children” and “taking chances all over the place,” they found less support in the marketing arena.

On the other hand, Shaye and Lynne were heavily invested in the 2007 hit “Hairspray,” based on New Line’s Broadway musical of the 1988 Waters film. “We could not have had a better experience with a studio,” says producer Craig Zadan. “They let us do everything we wanted to do, from production through marketing.”

Truth is, Warners and New Line never got along. Shaye never played well with others inside the corporate sandbox. They squabbled over release dates, hot auction scripts, even DC comics. Another source of friction with Warners was New Line’s insistence, with international head Rolf Mittweg, on hanging onto the old-fashioned distribution paradigm of hedging downside risk (and upside gains) by pre-selling foreign territories on their films. While the upfront guarantees would help them fund their slate, the returns on a hit were always slow in coming. It did not please Time Warner to see foreign distribs getting rich off “LOTR.”

New Line’s best hope for a last-ditch reprieve — as pressure from Time Warner increased — was dashed when yet another all-out bet, on the $180 million would-be franchise “The Golden Compass,” disappointed domestically — and kicked ass overseas. Bewkes won’t let that money walk out the door again.

Shaye and Lynne might have pulled off another win-win if Shaye hadn’t wasted years publicly wrangling with various talent connected with “Lord of the Rings” over who would get what share of the loot. Only recently did New Line finally come to terms with filmmaker Peter Jackson so that New Line’s most valuable asset, Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” prequel, could proceed with him as producer.

Mark Ordesky, the New Line exec who worked closely with Jackson’s camp on “LOTR” and developed “The Golden Compass” and the upcoming “Inkheart,” is expected to continue to supervise “The Hobbit,” possibly with “Pan’s Labyrinth” director Guillermo del Toro on board to helm.

At September’s Lincoln Center New York Film Festival tribute celebrating New Line’s 40th anniversary, complete with clip reels and a roster of stars including Morgan Freeman, Jane Fonda, Nicole Kidman and of course, New Line icon Waters giving testimonials, more than one attendee felt the evening was less than a gala. It was a wake.

“I feel like an orphan,” Waters says.

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