Maybe one reason Bob Shaye, the founder and CEO of New Line Cinema, stands apart from the Hollywood pack is that he learned the film biz from the ground up. Much like the scions of the golden studio era of the ’30s and ’40s, Shaye began not as an MBA-toting junior exec, but as a distributor with a penchant for low-budget pics and an ability to haggle with theater owners who owed him money.
Seth Willenson, now a film consultant, recalls answering a newspaper ad when he was still a grad student at Perm in the late ’60s: “I first met Bob Shaye when he was operating out of his apartment on 15th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan. He was looking for someone to sell films on college campuses. I think I was the second or third employee of New Line.”
In 1994, Shaye sold New Line Cinema to Ted Turner for half a billion dollars. Which prompts the question: What’s the secret combo of qualities and experiences that has propelled Bob Shaye to the top of the indie heap over three tumultuous decades?
Touring New Line’s current offices in Beverly Hills – unpretentious, white-washed suites, cases of tapes and posters spilling over into the hallways – one meets a hardworking young staff with an informal, affectionate esprit de corps. “Playfulness and work ethic, that’s the spirit of the place – that’s what New Line’s all about,” says the firm’s prexy and Shaye’s law school chum Michael Lynne.
No one is more emblematic of the rebel spirit Shaye has fostered than his head of production, 28-year-old Michael DeLuca, an employee since age 17. DeLuca says, “The thing that’s informed what we do the most is Bob’s willingness to take risks, and the enthusiastic way he enjoys the filmmaking medium.”
DeLuca, whose smallish office is adjacent to Shaye’s equally modest office (he has a bigger one in New York), adds that his boss is “very indulgent of people’s ideas: It’s an open forum where he defers to the filmmaker and the creative element, because he’s a filmmaker himself.” (In addition to making a prize-winning short at age 24, Shaye helmed “Book of Love” for New Line in 1990, and has a clause in his contract with Turner stipulating he be able to direct two more features.)
Integral to New Line’s work atmosphere is Shaye’s loyalty to those who got him where he is. “Bob creates an atmosphere of giving people a chance,” DeLuca says. “There’s a feeling of fearlessness here: No one’s afraid of losing their job. There’s no anxiety, no musical chairs.”
But Shaye’s generosity extends beyond job security. When the firm went public in the mid-1980s, says former New Liner Seth Willenson, “Everybody was a co-participant; even the secretaries. Bob took a planeload of friends – not celebrities – down to the Caribbean to celebrate.”
Youthful employees are no accident: Shaye figures, who knows better what young ticket buyers want more than young employees? “DeLuca’s known for his youthful, cutting-edge taste, but that’s the same as Bob’s taste,” says Renny Harlin, the Finnish helmer given a shot by Shaye in 1987 at directing “Nightmare on Elm Street 4.” Harlin went on to direct big-budget actioners “Die Hard 2″ and” Cliffhanger.”
When New Line segued into bigger budgets in the wake of the Turner deal, Harlin and wife Geena Davis’ production company the Forge signed on with New Line in a multipic development deal.
In script confabs, Harlin reports that Shaye is passionate and opinionated. “He doesn’t know how to be polite or diplomatic,” Harlin says. “The first time can be jarring – Hollywood talent is not used to that. Bob is completely straightforward: when he likes something, he is wholehearted. What he doesn’t like he’ll say with the same honesty and conviction.”
Perhaps the most important feature of Shaye’s success is that he is equally comfortable and effective in the creative process as in business. Turner says, “Bob Shaye is an outstanding movie exec because he combines a highly creative mind with good business sense. He’s well known throughout the industry as an exec who can quickly gauge the potential of a script or movie idea – and he has the talent to communicate his vision to others.”
To make it to the top within the studio system is an accomplishment; to succeed as an outsider and independent as Shaye has done is amazing. “There is an astonishing amount of perseverance and a tremendous amount of sweat that has gone into what Bob’s accomplished,” says Lynne.
“Bob plays by his own rules, and has been extremely successful at that,” Harlin adds, illustrating his point with a story. “Once we were having trouble with a star, and someone suggested phoning the agent to smooth things over. Bob said: ‘I don’t talk to the agent.'”
Harlin says when he finished directing “Nightmare on Elm Street 4, ” his big Hollywood break, Shaye warned him: “Don’t smoke the Hollywood crack pipe – the fast lane makes you phony and burns you out.” Ever since, Harlin says, he’s taken Shaye’s admonition to heart.
It’s highly unlikely Shaye would have made such a success without his trademark frugality. Even after years in the biz, he insisted on rock-bottom budgets for all his movies. “We used to come to Bob and say, I think we can make this film for $10 million,” recalls Sara Risher, chair of New Line Prods., and one of its first employees. “Bob’s response was, ‘Make it for $3 million.’ He’s loosened up some, but it’s still against our moral grain to be profligate with money.”
“Bob Shaye has established an organization that is very much a family,” says New Line’s president of marketing & distribution Mitch Goldman. “He’s creates an environment to work in where you’re working for something other than money. He engenders a feeling that we’re working for the common good.”