'The Hobbit' marks crucial moment for former indie studio

After a complex legal and artistic process, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will hit the screens within 24 hours, and it raises two questions: The first is not whether it will be a hit, but how big a hit. And the second question is whether the film will redefine New Line Cinema. The Peter Jackson movie opens Wednesday in Jackson’s native New Zealand, as well as France, Benelux and Scandinavia, followed by Thursday openings in the U.K., Germany, Italy and South Korea. Pic opens in the U.S. on Friday, with early tracking suggesting the film could land as high as $100 million or more, far outpacing “The Lord of the Rings” openings. That’s auspicious for a nearly-three-hour epic.

And the film returns New Line to the spotlight. In early 2008, Time Warner wrote a whole new chapter for the 40-year-old indie by cutting 450 jobs and folding the studio into Warner Bros. — leaving New Line with 50 employees as longtime toppers Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne departed.

Since then, New Line’s mandate was to make about six pictures a year — about half its pre-2008 slate — and focus mostly on bread-and-butter genre and comedy fare. The company has delivered fairly consistent results under topper Toby Emmerich.

But the stakes are far higher on “The Hobbit,” with Warner Bros. on the hook for somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million to $600 million for production of the three “Hobbit” films. MGM decided in early 2011 that it would let Warners pick up the entire production tab, swapping nearly all of its distribution rights in exchange for its obligation to pay half the production costs.

If Emmerich is nervous about the pressure, it doesn’t show.

“Getting the first ‘Hobbit’ out feels really good,” he told Variety . “I’m very excited partly because there’s been a lot of great product so far in the fourth quarter — ‘Argo,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Skyfall’ — so it feels great to be opening something that’s totally unique that’s going to fit in well.”

First optioned by United Artists in 1969, “The Hobbit” faced an array of roadblocks — lawsuits, MGM’s uncertain finances, Guillermo del Toro bailing as director — before Jackson started shooting in March 2011.

“For me, the most satisfying part of doing ‘The Hobbit’ was overcoming all the obstacles,” said Emmerich, who was New Line’s production president during the “Rings” trilogy. “Because Peter has shot three movies at once before, once photography began, it became relatively simple for us because he actually knows how to do this.”

The three “Lord of the Rings” movies earned nearly $3 billion for New Line, and earning multiple Oscars, including a whopping 11 for the third installment of 2003.

Given the built-in fan base and love of J.R.R. Tolkein, the three “Hobbit” films might appear to be a slam dunk. But nothing is ever a certainty in the movie business. And while fans were relieved to see Jackson back in the driver’s seat, he’s said the new trilogy will have a different tone from the “LOTR” trio.

Even if the “Hobbit” triplets earn less than the earlier ones, the online buzz indicates huge interest. More important, it keeps the franchise alive for several more years, which includes more opportunities for merchandising and exploring new delivery platforms.

The films unquestionably give a higher-profile to New Line, but will this steer the company more in the tentpole direction, or are these just an unusual variation in the business plan of New Line and its parent company Time Warner?

The indie maverick started out releasing “Reefer Madness” but has now been part of a publicly-traded conglom for 16 years. Emmerich emphasized, “We’re still alive and well. We hope that the creative community will bring us their best because there’s no one better at making them than us and there’s no one better than Warner Bros. and marketing and distribution.”

The 2008 New Line “restructuring” was aimed at generating annual savings of $50 million along with giving Warners direct control over the international box office. As with other indies, New Line had financed its films by selling off foreign territories. That tactic reduced New Line’s risk on the “LOTR” films and put it on foreign investors, who were asked to invest in a trio of pricey films being shot simultaneously by a little-known director; the payoff was big for everyone, though New Line’s share of the huge international numbers was reduced..

So Time Warner had other financial plans for the “Hobbit” trilogy. “We look to make films for a price and we make sure that there’s going to be an international market,” Emmerich said. “We’ve had consistent performance and Warners has been super from Jeff Robinov on down,” says Emmerich.

New Line and MGM had first announced ambitious plans in late 2007 for two “Hobbit” movies to be shot back to back with releases in 2010 and 2011. The road to the bigscreen took an additional two years.

Since then, the leaner New Line has banked a run of solid comedy performers (“Horrible Bosses, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “Valentine’s Day”) and seen respectable results from franchises in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Sex and the City.”

For 2013, that means a pair of March releases — Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer” and Steve Carell magician comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” — followed by haunted house tale “The Conjuring” in July, Jennifer Aniston-Jason Sudekis comedy “We’re the Millers” in August and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” in December.

“The Hobbit: There and Back Again” is due out on July 18, 2014 — the only New Line title with a 2014 release date, though Emmerich said tornado movie “Black Sky,” now in post-production, will also be released that year. He said the most likely New Line projects to make it to the bigscreen in 2014 will be a third “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and a pair of comedies — a second “Horrible Bosses” and a reboot of the “Vacation” franchise with Ed Helms.

Emmerich said New Line is already at work on the 2015 and 2016 slates.

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