Toppers are talkin’ life after Tolkien

Pressure is on NL as it seeks post-'Rings' strategy

Gollum wasn’t the only gremlin that New Line Cinema brought to life with “The Lord of the Rings.”

For the last two years, corporate parent AOL Time Warner has been singing New Line’s praises.

Now, as “Rings” rolls to a close, the studio knows it must cope with higher expectations. What it hasn’t figured out is exactly how they’re going to fulfill them.

New Line still hopes to find a winner this year in upcoming horror movies “Freddy Vs. Jason” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but flops like “Willard” and “The Real Cancun” suggest that low-cost genre pics aren’t the answer.

And while fingers are crossed for the Will Ferrell holiday vehicle, “Elf,” directed by Jon Favreau, it wasn’t designed as a blueprint for future blockbusters.

New Line production prexy Toby Emmerich says he isn’t concerned if the smash hits aren’t immediately apparent.

“The company is set up so we don’t need tentpoles,” he says. “Historically, New Line has found them in places where you didn’t expect.”

At the same time, Emmerich is not willing to leave them entirely to chance. He’s overseeing the development of a number of pics that have the potential to flutter balance sheets such as the His Dark Materials trilogy, “Shazam” and “Iron Man.” All are earmarked for 2005 or later.

There are several sequels slated for 2004, including “Blade Trinity” and “Son of the Mask” with Jamie Kennedy instead of Jim Carrey.

However, the long-awaited “Rush Hour 3” is still a question mark for 2004. And there are no plans for another “Austin Powers” (though all it would take is Mike Myers saying he wanted to do one).

Emmerich says that New Line doesn’t feel lost without an outsized pic set for next year.

“If you believe (New Line wasn’t prepared for “Rings” to end), you don’t know Bob Shaye,” he says of his boss and mentor. “Having lived through ‘Ninja Turtles’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,’ he knew about the life of the franchise.”

New Line also knew about cultivating creative chaos. It was a process that could generate quirky hits but lacked the consistency needed to create event pics on a regular basis.

Today, it seems that New Line is doing its best to grow up.

Key to this change is New Line exec VP and chief operating officer Mark Ordesky, who’s been charged with handling the studio’s bad-cop duties.

As the plainspoken Emmerich points out, “Somebody’s gotta do it.”

“He isn’t telling people they’ll be fired, but he’s said there has to be more accountability,” one exec says. “Now it’s like it is at other studios. But that’s not a bad thing. No one wants to make movies that don’t make money.”

That accountability also extends to the long-held New Line perk of execs earning producing credits.

Back in the days of Michael De Luca, New Line execs at every level were charged with acting like producers. The theory was with responsibility came pride in ownership and, quite often, your name in the credits.

Sometimes the magic worked, as with “Blade” and “Austin Powers.”

Other times, it meant the only thing creative execs developed was an attitude.

Today, Emmerich says the perk is still a possibility, but “to put someone’s name on a movie, you have to make a significant creative contribution.”

Given the new executive structure now in place, that will be much tougher to prove. New Line has again taken its cue from studios by aligning teams of execs who work together on every project.

There have been few internal complaints about the changes. The lack of dissent stems from respect for Ordesky, the well-liked and workaholic Hobbit whose “Rings” obsession yielded New Line the biggest hit of its history.

“He can deal with anyone,” Emmerich says. “It’s very helpful to not have only one person for answers.”

On the other hand, those who might have complained the loudest aren’t around to do it. Today, executive VP Richard Brener is the only remaining New Line exec who was hired by De Luca.

It will take awhile to see if New Line succeeds in its bid for maturity, but Emmerich says he’s loath to look much beyond 2005.

“Oh man, after that I’m done,” he laughs. “I’m going back to my typewriter. Production is a unique opportunity that will probably come along once in a lifetime. I’ll go back to writing one day.”

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