With a tighter focus, Toby Emmerich readies a pair of "Hobbit" pics

Two years ago, the 40-plus-year run of New Line as a largely autonomous film entity came to an abrupt end with the ouster of founder Bob Shaye and a restructuring that brought the company fully under the mantel as a unit of Warner Bros. After a run of films that had seen less-than-stellar B.O. returns (“Shoot ‘Em Up,” “Nativity,” “Number 23,” “The Golden Compass,” “Tenacious D,” “Domino,” “Snakes on a Plane”) and Shaye’s attention diverted to his pet helming project, “The Last Mimzy,” New Line was given a new mandate: Go through studio toppers Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov for greenlights, make about six pictures a year and focus mostly on bread-and-butter genre and comedy fare … along with the occasional tentpole.

Now, with a leaner New Line having banked a run of solid performers (mostly romantic comedies such as “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “17 Again”) and a genuine blockbuster (“Sex and the City”), the division is looking to return to its glory days of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy with a pair of “Hobbit” prequels directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

In short, it’s tentpole time at New Line again — but with calculated bottom-line prudence shaping the rest of its slate.

Despite its longstanding reputation for seat-of-the-pants decisionmaking, president Toby Emmerich says the new New Line is a more calculating enterprise these days. With only six films a year — about half the pre-2008 slate — Emmerich and production president Richard Brener say no to much more than they used to.

The more discerning approach seems to have paid off: Of 17 total films released since the division was subsumed into Warner Bros., “Semi-Pro” and “Inkheart” have been the only underperformers.

“We’ve been incredibly consistent,” says Emmerich.

Horn emphasizes that it was “sad and painful” to downsize New Line, but says he’s pleased with Emmerich’s strategic execution and his ability to remain calm and focused amid the seismic changes that reshaped what used to be the town’s leading mini-major.

“We are feeling pretty good about our relationship with these guys,” Horn says. “The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding tastes pretty good.”

And the Warners chiefs say they have no plans to impose any changes on how New Line operates.

“They have their own sensibilities, and it gives us a diversified slate,” says Horn. “This is very much a collaborative partnership so that if Toby wants to do a film it’s a long way down the road toward getting a greenlight.”

New Line took in more than $950 million in grosses worldwide last year from eight films, led by “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “17 Again,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Friday the 13th.”

The unit will release just five films in 2010, the first year for which its projects had to go through the greenlight process via parent Warner Bros. It’s got four romantic comedies — “Valentine’s Day,” “Sex and the City 2,” “Going the Distance” and “Hall Pass” — and a relaunch of “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Tracking on “Valentine’s Day” is already looking promising with high awareness among young women.

New Line began putting more comedies into the pipeline when it elevated longtime exec Brener to production president three years ago. Brener’s probably best known for shepherding “Wedding Crashers,” which grossed nearly $300 million worldwide six years ago.

For 2011, New Line will likely include more horror films in the mix, with “Friday the 13th,” “Orphanage” and “The Rite.” It’s also got two comedies — “Horrible Bosses” and “Valentine’s Day” spinoff “New Year’s Eve” — along with a “Journey to the Center of the Earth” sequel and a musical, “Rock of Ages.”

And then there’s “The Hobbit.” Emmerich’s on familiar turf when it comes to the two-pic project thanks to his extensive involvement with the “Rings” trilogy and the presence of producer-director-screenwriter Peter Jackson on all five films.

Emmerich was promoted to head of production at the point in 2001 when the first cut of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the King” was prepped for post-production, and he oversaw the pic’s reshoots.

“It’s similar, though this is more expensive and much more of a known entity,” says Emmerich of the “LOTR” ramp-up vs. the advance work being done on “The Hobbit.”

JRR Tolkien’s novel is set 60 years before “The Lord of the Rings,” with Bilbo Baggins as its unassuming hero in an adventure that centers on his acquiring from the evil Gollum the all-powerful ring that figures into “LOTR.” A few “Rings” cast members, such as Andy Serkis and Ian McKellen, will make return appearances in “The Hobbit.”

New Line’s “LOTR” financing scheme, in which foreign presales provided much of the budget for the trilogy, is not how “Hobbit” is being bankrolled. Instead, New Line shares financing rights with MGM/UA, which bought the original rights in 1969; the complication this time around is that the Lion could conceivably sell those rights as part of MGM’s restructuring.

Once the script for the second film is in — Jackson and his longtime collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens are working on it with Del Toro — New Line will work up a budget for both films and start casting. New Line exec Michael Disco, who was once Emmerich’s assistant, will oversee for the studio.

Horn won’t predict when the first of the two “Hobbit” films will be out, but says the most probable scenario would be a release in the fourth quarter of 2012.

“It’s a big bet for us. But it’s one we think will pay off given the success of ‘Lord of the Rings,'” says Emmerich. “This is one of the few movies it feels like people are waiting for.”

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