New Line brews eclectic stew

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During the 1980s and early ’90s, New Line was defined by such genre franchises as “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Then the company began a series of ’90s U-turns, including bigger budget hits and flops.

New Line redefined itself with the phenomenal “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. And after a 2005 dominated by high-concept comedies like the smash hit “Wedding Crashers” and the moderately successful “Monster-in-Law,” as well as strikeouts “The Man” and “Son of the Mask,” the maverick mini-major has a late-year lineup that one exec jokingly refers to as “cleansing our souls.”

Already out to mixed results: David Cronenberg’s thought-provoking “A History of Violence” and Tony Scott’s high-octane character study “Domino.”

Next up is the November comedy “Just Friends.” After that comes the biggest risk of all: Terrence Malick’s historical epic “The New World,” which gets an Acad-qualifying run on Christmas before going wide in January.

Twelve years after it was bought by Turner Broadcasting and nearly a decade since it became part of the Time Warner family, New Line remains almost as iconoclastic as when it was founded in 1967 as a distrib for foreign and art films on college campuses.

Mini-major is proud of the fact that it’s hard to define. For better or worse, ts mandate seems to be making pics that please co-founders Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne and production prexy Toby Emmerich (and, in the process, earn enough money to keep Time Warner management happy).

“I don’t think if you were to ask Bob, he could tell you what a New Line movie is in a satisfactory way,” Emmerich explains. “For me, it’s just about if I think it would be good for us and we’d be good for it.”

New Line’s fall lineup, which comes at a time when many pics by top directors (“Cinderella Man,” “Elizabethtown”) are failing to reach their targets, may seem like a tough sell. But New Line marketing prexy Russell Schwartz is confident in his prospects. “We picked these movies up because we see audiences to sell them to, not just because of the director,” he says.

Pics follow typical New Line economics. “Violence” cost $32 million, while “Domino” and “New World” are negative pickups estimated in the $30 million to $40 million range.

With the exception of an occasional action-adventure pic closer to $100 million, studio typically budgets in that range and sells off international rights. That limits the downside — and foreign upside — and means a single big hit, like “Crashers,” can make for a decently successful year.

But that careful economic planning doesn’t translate to the development process.

Under Emmerich and a remarkably stable team of top execs — including marketing president Russell Schwartz, distribution prexy David Tuckerman and worldwide distribution and marketing topper Rolf Mittweg — New Line very purposefully has no genre strategy.

R-rated comedies? Even after “Crashers” and “40 Year-Old Virgin,” not a trend worth following, Emmerich says. “There are no rules anymore,” he insists. “Whatever you think you are supposed to do, you had probably better do the opposite.”

In a business where execs typically chase what’s hot, that attitude can be refreshing. But it can be confusing for those trying to figure out New Line, even from the inside.

Production execs at the studio act largely as free agents, sinking or swimming in a culture where those who get films made often nab a producer credit and the rest don’t last long.

Execs from VP to development director say they feel more free to follow their instincts and trust their gut than counterparts at big studios.

“While it’s true that whatever Toby’s whim is that day is what constitutes a New Line movie, there really isn’t an enormous amount of pressure to cater to his tastes,” one says. “If you can make a good argument for it, you can get it bought.”

The only downside: They can rarely say for certain what will appeal to Emmerich and the duo with ultimate greenlight power, Lynne and Shaye.

Because the mini-major typically sells off foreign rights to raise production coin, Mittweg’s insights on what will sell overseas can also have a big influence on what gets made.

But it’s Emmerich who ultimately takes charge of the company’s slate. After more than five years in his post, he’s a tough man to pin down. “My ambition, be it ever so humble, is to help make New Line the most successful film company, period,” he opines. “It’s really that simple.”

Emmerich made the unlikely move from music topper to production prexy in 2001 and reaped the good fortune of already in the works “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and no-brainer greenlight of a third “Austin Powers.”

Company has otherwise had a mixed record uner Emmerich’s watch, with a couple of smash hits in “Elf” and “Crashers,” sleepers including “The Notebook” and homevid cult fave “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” and a handful of forgettable flops like “Willard” and “Laws of Attraction.”

But for a company that built itself on franchises, it must be worrisome that there are surprisingly few in sight.

“Elf” was the only success with obvious sequel potential, but a follow-up project has gotten bogged down thanks to the extremely busy and costly Will Ferrell.

A third version of “Rush Hour” has failed to make headway and is looking increasingly unlikely.

The only original pic made under Emmerich’s watch currently headed for a sequel is the moderately successful “The Butterfly Effect.”

Studio has several new franchises in the works, but they have been slow going. There’s fantasy kidlit adaptation “His Dark Materials.” After Chris Weitz came and went, studio recently found a director in Anand Tucker.

This year studio finally gave the greenlight to prehistoric shark pic “Meg” and ultraviolent “Shoot ‘Em Up,” long championed by several execs. But both are coming in 2007 at the earliest.

Marvel superhero “Iron Man” looks likely to revert back to the comicbook publisher after more than two years of fruitless development.

There are trends evident in the 2006 sked, including two Walden co-productions aimed at kids, “Hoot” and “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and a trio of horror pics in “Final Destination 3,” “Texas Chainsaw: The Origin” and “Snakes on a Plane.”

But at New Line, it’s best not to read too much into trends.