In 2008, after New Line Cinema’s eclectic 40-year run — highlighted by “The Lord of the Rings,” Freddy Krueger, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Austin Powers and “Hairspray” — Time Warner cut the division’s staff from 600 to 50 and slashed New Line’s production slate from 12 movies per year to six.
Two years later, some of the key execs ousted in that retrenchment have gone back to their roots, with a production company that aims to be more nimble and author-friendly than their corporate-owned former home.
New Line alums Jane Fleming, Ileen Maisel and Mark Ordesky, along with British documentarian and TV producer Lawrence Elman, quietly launched Amber Entertainment last year. And while the execs admit that it’s not exactly an optimal time to have unfurled a new banner — amid the well-chronicled struggles at such places as the Weinstein Co., Overture and the Film Department — Amber has been able to tap private investors and start making low-budget films (mostly direct-to-DVD titles) while it builds out its longer-term ambitions.
Amber’s exec team declined to detail just who those private investors are, but say the banner’s ambitions center on finding opportunity in the niche film market and via partnerships, particularly with authors and filmmakers, in a way that they weren’t able to do at the Time Warner-owned New Line.
Amber is about to go into production with a New Line staple — the horror film — in partnership with Haxan, the production shingle that came out of nowhere with “The Blair Witch Project” more than a decade ago and laid the groundwork for such low-budget buzz hits as “Paranormal Activity.”
“Possession,” directed by “Blair Witch” director Eduardo Sanchez from a script he co-wrote with Jamie Nash, centers on a young newlywed who suffers the terrifying assault of a demonic spirit in the form of her long-dead father. It’s scheduled to begin shooting this fall.
Amber has signed a multipicture deal with Haxan, and plans to have another thriller — “Bad Luck” with “Final Destination” helmer David Ellis directing — in production by the end of the year.
The Amber team also is putting an emphasis on fantasy and sci-fi lit adaptations, such as Rebecca Stead’s bestselling kids book “When You Reach Me,” with a mantra to include authors as producers who will be involved every step of the way — a somewhat novel approach in Hollywood, where authors are often viewed as an impediment.
Maisel and Ordesky say their approach comes from an appreciation of J.R.R. Tolkien and his creation of “Lord of the Rings,” as well as their close collaboration with Philip Pullman on “The Golden Compass” in 2007. Ordesky served as exec producer on the “LOTR” trilogy and “Golden Compass,” while Maisel was an exec producer on the latter. “Golden Compass” grossed only $70 million domestically but it took in well over $300 million outside the United States, though New Line didn’t reap any of that windfall because the foreign rights had been sold off to finance the film and development of a sequel that never progressed once Time Warner downsized New Line.
Amber’s exec team believes that maintaining strong connections with authors in developing material is the best way to adjust to a fast-changing marketplace, and to foster relationships with the authors on additional work.
“So many times when you talk to an author about a project, they often say something like, ‘I sold the script and never heard back about it until I got invited to the premiere,’ ” Elman says. “We’re committed to keeping that access to the talent, particularly now that we are having to deal with so many multiple distribution windows.”
So Stead will be a producer on “When You Reach Me,” in keeping with Amber’s stated goal of getting authors directly involved with their films. Maisel met with Stead last week to talk about prospective screenwriters on the project.
“I’ve always found that authors have the best understanding of the material because they created it, so it makes sense to keep authors integrally involved through the entire process,” Maisel says.
“Authors really are the ultimate franchise creators. So we want to make the authors the stars.”
As production gears up on these higher-profile projects, Amber is building its nest egg with direct-to-DVD titles based on tomes by well-known scribes including Jackie Collins and Judy Blume, with an innovative financing arrangement through British supermarket chain Tesco.
It’s what Ordesky calls “meat-and-potatoes” DVD productions that pay the overhead. While he acknowledges that the overall DVD market has been on the decline, he reminds that it hasn’t exactly gone away.
“We raised a pretty good amount of money from investors, but these titles are what’s keeping us paying the bills,” he says.
Amber’s first production deal, announced in January, is a three-film partnership with Collins (whose 27 bestsellers have moved more than 400 million copies worldwide) and Tesco for direct-to-DVD movies sold in supermarkets. First film in the series is the $3 million romantic thriller “Paris Connections,” which will hit store shelves in September.
Amber plans to shoot Blume’s “Tiger Eyes” as another title for Tesco this fall, and just signed a Tesco deal with Karin Slaughter, who’s sold more than 20 million books, to adapt her novel”Martin Misunderstood,” about crime fiction-obsessive Martin Reed.
Amber is also expanding its TV biz. “Shanghai Tales,” a documentary it produced for the BBC, has been airing this summer, and it has a first slate of projects in the works with James Van Praagh (“Ghost Whisperer”), Scout Prods. (“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”), Conrad Riggs (“The Contender,” “Survivor,” “The Apprentice”), and Barry Krost (BKM Management).
By far the most ambitious project from Amber to date is its recently announced plan for a remake of “South Pacific,” produced with the holders of the Rodgers & Hammerstein rights and Bob Balaban. Plans are to keep the tuner’s beloved songs but pursue a harder-edged vision.
Maisel acknowledges that the notion of a 1948 musical working in the 21st century is perhaps counterintuitive, but she says she drew inspiration from a revival of the production at the Lincoln Center in New York a few years ago.
“We think that taking the story and then having people act and talk like they really did in the 1940s — which is mostly absent from the musical — is something that’s going to resonate with modern audiences,” she says.
Other feature projects in development include a pic based on Erich von Daniken’s bestsellers from the early 1970s such as ancient-astronauts tale “Chariots of the Gods,” and a feature based on the Lucky Santangelo character in Collins’ “Vendetta — Lucky’s Revenge.”
the flexibility to pursue a creative vision with closely involved talent while evolving along with the demands of the marketplace is a distinguishing point in the nascent banner’s favor.
Maisel says Amber’s a small-enough operation that its principals aren’t overwhelmed with developing a multitude of projects — as opposed to studio execs, who often have to track dozens of projects at once.
“We think we can do this with a lot more agility than the major studios, which sometimes don’t seem to have a clear idea of what they’re doing, at a time of real transition for the business,” says Fleming. “We’re not hamstrung with a lot of procedural constraints.”