PARK CITY, Utah — Bob Shaye held the spotlight here on Jan. 23 — Shaye the filmmaker, not the “suit,” that is. The evening offered its share of surprises.
For one thing, “The Last Mimzy,” the movie directed by the curmudgeonly Shaye, is a children’s film, the last thing industry colleagues expected. Shaye’s mood, which often can be downright cranky, was collegial throughout the evening.
But during an onstage interview with Sundance fest director Geoffrey Gilmore, as part of a 40th-anniversary salute to New Line, he returned to type. When Gilmore tried to say Shaye had never gotten the recognition he deserved as a champion of arthouse fare, Shaye cut him off.
“I’m not an arthouse guy,” he snapped. “The only reason we played arthouse films is that we got them for free.”
The celebration of Shaye seemed unlikely, when the 67-year-old co-founder of New Line was suffering from pneumonia and on the critical list for weeks in 2005. But at Sundance he was vital and rambunctious, and seemingly eager to confront new challenges at New Line.
After a series of box office disappointments in the past year, the company is banking heavily on “The Golden Compass,” a $150 million dark fantasy starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig that opens at Christmas; it’s the most expensive movie that the studio has ever made. And the company is looking for other tentpoles to invigorate its slate.
There’s also the rumor that New Line will disappear as a separate entity and become a label at Warner Bros. Shaye says it is not true. He and the rest of the senior management have contracts that run through 2008.
“We’re not going away,” Shaye told Variety last week. “After 40 years, I don’t expect to quit and go somewhere else.”
There also was his recent decree that Peter Jackson, in the midst of a legal tangle with New Line over DVD revenue from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, would not work for the company again. Not only was it a statement of war against the filmmaker who’d made some of the studio’s biggest hits, but it also alienated some of the online geeks most studios are courting so assiduously.
Shaye founded and runs New Line with silver-haired, soft-spoken co-chair and co-CEO Michael Lynne. They built their company on raunchy John Waters comedies and the “Nightmare on Elm Street” fright film franchise, but it was “Rings” that provided their greatest critical and financial windfall.
Shaye himself is an exercise in contradictions. He’s an aging hippie who has mastered the corporate world. He got insanely rich on Time Warner stock, before watching the conglom take a tumble on Wall Street. He embraces rock and art — his spacious hilltop house overlooking Beverly Hills boasts originals by Chagall, Monet and Diane Arbus — yet he always keeps his eye on the bottom line.
“A good film is one that is successful, as pagan as that sounds,” he told Gilmore.
As evidenced by the gamble on “Compass,” and the one he took on “Rings,” Shaye is a risk-taker.
“My guiding philosophy has been to entertain people,” he says. “I’m totally uninterested in what Hollywood thinks.”
Often seen on the Hollywood party circuit, he can be friendly if he wants to, but also can turn on the sarcasm. One former exec laughs about it. “Bob was always cranky no matter how successful the movie was. The thing that is great about him is how he’s willing to think outside the box.”
Or, as Gilmore says, he is a “steer who strays away from the herd.”
Certainly, his steps into directing prove that. Few moguls have been willing to helm projects for the studios they run — putting themselves out there for the inevitable snickering.
After directing two small indies in the 1960s, Shaye returned to the director’s chair for the 1990 movie “Book of Love” and then took a 16-year hiatus. Now there are rumblings that he wants to direct one film every year.
“Movies are in my blood,” he says. “I got into this game because I loved movies. New Line has really been a means to an end.”
For the Sundance screening of “Mimzy,” a whimsical fantasy about children who discover magical toys, Lynne flew in, as did production chief Toby Emmerich, who co-wrote the script. Next month, Shaye will take the movie to Berlin.
“If I can find another story, I would do it,” Shaye says. “People direct into their 80s. It’s not necessarily a young man’s profession.”
The son of a Detroit wholesale grocer, Shaye was a self-described sci-fi geek as a kid. He helped out in his father’s business, roaming Detroit, pushing pork and beans, but was attracted to film from a young age. In his early 20s, he made an experimental short, “Image,” that tied for first in a Society of Cinematologists competition. His fellow winner: Martin Scorsese.
Shaye studied law at Columbia, where he met Lynne, but he continued to pursue a career in movies. At age 25, while working in the Museum of Modern Art’s film stills department, he founded New Line out of his Greenwich Village apartment.
The company subsisted on a diet of genre, cult and foreign films, servicing theaters on college campuses and other venues. His first deal was a 50-50 profit-sharing pact to distribute two Czech films. Through the ’70s and ’80s Shaye embraced not just arthouse fare, but horror pics and movies from filmmakers like Waters.
During the Sundance Q&A, Gilmore asked, “How did you see the commercial potential in Divine? You must have been on drugs. You gave something they’d never seen before.”
Shaye replied, “If it turns us on, we think it will turn the rest of the world on.”
That proved especially true with “Rings,” which took the company to a whole new level, especially as an asset in the Time Warner empire.
But the company recently has been much more commercial than indie, even as studios have launched their own studio specialty labels. Although Gilmore says New Line was, for a time, the defining company for independent film, it passed on the 1989 pic “sex, lies and videotape,” which became a breakout hit for Miramax. The studio then was veering into a more commercial direction, so the movie didn’t make sense.
Shaye and Lynne did start another label, Fine Line, with some success, but Shaye confesses neither one of them had the passion needed to sustain it. Now they are partnered with HBO and Bob Berney’s specialty distrib Picturehouse, which is enjoying success with “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
“Bob has the passion we needed,” Shaye says.
On the day after the screening, sipping coffee during breakfast at the Lodges of Deer Valley, Shaye admitted he had been nervous over the previous night’s unspooling of his movie, mainly because there were no kids in the audience.
After a career in which he has given notes to such directors as Robert Altman and P.T. Anderson, with “Mimzy” Shaye was on the other side of the fence. He says he paid close attention to test screenings, and was open to ideas.
“I don’t believe in the auteur theory,” he says. “I think a director’s job is to listen. People knew I was open to listening to suggestions.”
He did take feedback, according to the film’s producer Michael Phillips. “First, he would say, ‘No. No. No.’ Fifteen minutes later, he says, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea.’ ”
In other words, it took a little bit of time to find this Bob Shaye. But the mogul assures that despite this foray into directing, he’s still guarding New Line with his life.
“I may be willing to take off my jeans to go into a boardroom,” he says, “but I won’t sell my soul.”