Struggling through the costly, back-to-back box office debacles of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and “Jack the Giant Killer” this past March, New Line chief exec Toby Emmerich knew not to panic. Having risen up the ranks of the Time Warner-owned production outfit over the past 22 years, including nearly six as its president and chief operating officer, the 50-year-old executive has seen the company score momentous successes and endure its fair share of failure.
Indeed, New Line came roaring back in the summer with two surprise hits — James Wan’s supernatural thriller “The Conjuring” and Rawson Marshall Thurber’s comedy “We’re the Millers.” Combined, the midbudget smashes have amassed about $600 million in worldwide ticket sales.
The company returns to the spotlight this week with the global launch of Peter Jackson’s sequel “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” — a year after “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” took in $1 billion worldwide. New Line hopes the same is in store for “Smaug,” which premiered Dec. 2 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and opens Dec. 13. The final chapter, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” debuts next December.
At the “Smaug” after-party, Emmerich and Jackson talked about their decade-old collaboration, which began with the New Zealand filmmaker’s blockbuster “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and has continued with the “Hobbit” series.
“Toby is a ‘Lord of the Rings’ geek, and knows these stories very well,” Jackson mused. “We can talk with each other in a really honest way. It’s important to work with people whose opinions you respect.”
Emmerich is a savvy survivor who was promoted to the top slot at New Line in 2008 after parent studio Warner Bros. slashed 450 jobs and took over the company’s marketing and distribution duties as longtime toppers Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne departed. Since then, New Line’s mandate has been to make four to six movies annually and deliver consistent results from genre, comedy and the occasional tentpole pics.
The slate includes sequels such as “Conjuring 2,” which would tap a similar vein as the first film. Emmerich is especially proud that the picture didn’t descend into conventional horror film ploys. “‘The Conjuring’ is incredibly effective and scary without the use of blood, gore and death,” he said. “It’s a horror film that emphasizes atmosphere and suspense in the tradition of classics like ‘Psycho’ or ‘The Others.'”
Wan, who will be involved in some capacity on the sequel, said he and Emmerich were totally in sync when it came to “Conjuring’s” tone: “We both felt that if we made (the movie) seem more real, the scares would work better. New Line wasn’t into cutting this like an action horror film, because you need to let the characters develop and the action play out —- and I give them a lot of credit for letting me make a quiet, brooding film.” Wan also gave Emmerich high marks for his creative input. “Toby is really smart when it comes to characters and story beats.”
“We’re the Millers” director Thurber also said he appreciated what the New Line topper brought to the table creatively, as well as giving him the leeway he needed to make his movie work.
“New Line really has a mom-and-pop feel, because Toby does not micro-manage,” Thurber noted. “But he’s very good about coming in with a pair of fresh eyes. We were in the middle of cutting, and we had a problem with the scene where (some of the characters) get pulled over by a crooked cop. (Toby) suggested just flipping two small moments, and the scene worked much, much better.”
“Millers,” which stars Jason Sudeikis as a pot dealer with a fake family that includes Jennifer Aniston and Emma Roberts, had been in development for nearly a decade, which Emmerich said is warranted in most cases. “There’s a delicacy in the alchemy between directors and cast, because you really only have one chance to get it right,” he noted.
For 2014, New Line has four films on tap: Melissa McCarthy’s road-trip comedy “Tammy,” set for July 2; Stephen Quale’s tornado drama “Into the Storm” (Aug. 8); “Horrible Bosses 2” (Nov. 28); and the final “Hobbit” installment Dec. 17, 2014.
Emmerich is hopeful “Tammy,” directed by McCarthy’s spouse Ben Falcone, will lead to the company producing more comedies with the duo. As for “Storm,” he sees the pic as timely, given growing awareness of extreme weather patterns, adding, “We’re often fascinated by the things we can’t control, and the devastation caused by these storms is terrifying.” Emmerich noted that it’s been nearly 20 years since “Twister” was released: “With the advances in visual effects, we thought we could take the audience into this world in an immersive way,” he said.
New Line plans to shoot five films next year: “Mean Moms” with Beth McCarthy-Miller directing; “How to Be Single,” a comedy with a similar tone to “He’s Just Not That Into You”; earthquake disaster tale “San Andreas”; “The Conjuring 2”; and “Going in Style,” with Ted Melfi directing. In addition to R-rated comedies and horror films, Emmerich will continue to focus on female-driven stories like “Valentine’s Day” and “The Notebook.”
“We also want to keep working with talent we’ve had success with in the past,” including Dwayne Johnson on “San Andreas,” and Jackson, who is “part of our New Line family,” Emmerich said. That continuity extends to New Line’s own ranks. Production president Richard Brener has worked there for 18 years; exec VP Carolyn Blackwood has logged 14.
“The camaraderie and longevity make us strong,” Emmerich said.