Los Angeles: Along time ago, when the mood here was less serious, Richard Brener, a young assistant at New Line Cinema, had a nickname for Toby Emmerich, then his boss in the studio’s high-flying music department.
He was “Toby-Wan Kenobi”.
Today, Emmerich is the president and chief operating officer of New Line—or what’s left of it since Hollywood’s hippest little movie company was folded into Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. last year. And Brener now oversees production there.
Granted, Warner isn’t quite the Death Star. But invoking the Jedis and the Rebel Alliance may not hurt if Emmerich and Brener are to succeed in one of filmdom’s trickier quests: keeping New Line and its special flair alive inside the biggest, most corporate of major studios.
Almost 16 months into its adventure, New Line has been surprising those who thought the rump operation—it has only about 50 employees, down from nearly 600 before Warner absorbed it—would be crushed by corporate politics and the sheer weight of Warner’s own, blockbuster-oriented moviemaking machinery.
Mavericks at work: New Line Cinema produced and championed Wedding Crashers, with Owen Wilson (left) and Vince Vaughn, and it turned into a rare R-rated comic film to achieve great box-office success. Richard Cartwright / New Line Cinema
New Line’s journey is also a parable about the post-indie boom in Hollywood. An era ushered in by films such as My Left Foot and Pulp Fiction in the late 1980s and early 1990s encouraged major studios to join the fray, trying to corporatize what had historically been the province of the industry’s most creative, and often wayward, solo pilots. But then, the big studios saw the freewheeling mojo of it all run aground in relatively short order, on lacklustre profits and uneven quality.
The list of failed alliances between major studios and independents of one kind or another is telling: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.’s troubled union with a retooled United Artists Corp., the Walt Disney Co.’s contentious waltz with Miramax Films under the Weinstein brothers, and Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.’s ill-fated mating with the Guber-Peters Entertainment Co. All are reminders of how the big boys couldn’t really preserve the magic of smaller firms once they swallowed them. Only last year, Paramount Pictures Corp. parted company with Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Stacey Snider after failing—despite the success of jointly made movies—in a two-year effort to find space for their DreamWorks SKG and its culture as a separate, creative unit within the Paramount empire.
There are certainly vibrant examples of Hollywood’s dominant companies learning to grow without losing sight of the fact that small can be beautiful. Fox Searchlight, a little unit founded as an offshoot of 20th Century Fox, showed its mastery of the awards game with its handling of films like Slumdog Millionaire, which recently won the best-picture Oscar.
On the other hand, Fox acquired rights to Slumdog from Warner in the middle of last year, after Warner shuttered a pair of arty, in-house boutiques, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse. That left New Line virtually alone as an indie standard-bearer inside Warner, and New Line has flourished so far, leaving Hollywood watchers a tad surprised.
“It’s totally amazing,” says Peter Guber, a former studio chairman, a co-founder of Guber-Peters and now an independent film producer who is working on a project with New Line. “That’s not been the case anywhere else; it almost never works.”
This year, New Line has contributed nearly half of Warner’s domestic box-office sales through mid-May, thanks to films such as He’s Just Not That Into You, a romantic ensemble, and Friday the 13th, a horror remake. Neither is typical of Warner, but each was a hit around Valentine’s Day.
Last year, Sex and the City, also from New Line, gave Warner its No. 2 hit—just behind The Dark Knight—with about $153 million (Rs720.6 crore) in domestic ticket sales. It reignited the market for female-friendly films, and, coupled with a strong performance by Four Christmases and Journey to the Center of the Earth, both from New Line, helped to make Warner No. 1 at the box office, with nearly $1.8 billion in sales.
Alan F. Horn, president of Warner Brothers Entertainment, is unapologetic about the demise of Warner Independent and Picturehouse (“They were not profitable,” he says, speaking specifically of Warner Independent). He offers the same profit-oriented rationale for why a truncated New Line has been kept alive while Warner’s parent, Time Warner, has shed jobs and assets.
“They have to make money,” Horn says. “Not every movie has to make money. But they have to make money on balance. And New Line makes money.”
Truth be told, New Line is a mere fragment of the company left behind after Jeffrey L. Bewkes, Time Warner’s chief executive, decided not to renew contracts with its founder, Robert Shaye, and Michael Lynne, Shaye’s long-time co-chairman, a year and a half ago, ending the studio’s run as a stand-alone unit.
After town hall-style meetings in Los Angeles and New York, about 575 employees were terminated. Marketing and distribution operations were folded into Warner, leaving a handful of creative executives and support staff members to make six-eight films a year for the new parent, down from 12-15 when New Line stood on its own.
The moves effectively eliminated a “mini-major” studio that had contributed hits as breathtaking as the Lord of the Rings trilogy after Time Warner acquired it along with Turner Broadcasting System in 1996, but that had sometimes gone embarrassingly cold, as in 2006, when its strongest performer was the horror dud Final Destination 3.
“It was a big decision; it hurt a lot of people,” says Bewkes, who describes closing the old New Line as “a tough call”.
Ultimately, however, Bewkes decided that New Line, with what he called its “quirky, eclectic” mix of films, was most valuable as a supplement to Warner’s film slate, which he had also pared down to about 20 pictures a year from 30. Still, Bewkes’ move has its detractors. Shaye, now teaming with Lynne in a new film company called Unique Features, said New Line was fundamentally healthy when Time Warner shut it down.
“We met our corporate goals every year until we were asked to close,” says Shaye, who briefly tried to finance a buyout of New Line, but was thwarted by a deteriorating credit market.
To date, the winner in all of this has been Emmerich. He was once a protege of Shaye, and was among the writers of The Last Mimzy, a critical and box-office disappointment that Shaye directed for New Line before Warner absorbed the studio.
Emmerich says he was drawn to New Line by its reputation as a loose-jointed company where newcomers could rise. Though working on the music side, Emmerich wrote the screenplay for Frequency, a science-fiction thriller from New Line.
When Michael De Luca, the boy wonder behind signature New Line hits such as the Austin Powers films, left as the indie’s production chief in 2001, Emmerich took the job. Seven years later, when Bewkes pulled the plug on New Line, Emmerich says he got calls from Bewkes, Horn and the president of Warner’s pictures group, Jeffrey Robinov, urging him to remain with a downsized company. Their basic assurance was that he would be in charge of an operation with its own creative identity—a promise that has been kept so far. Emmerich got his own budget to develop scripts, as well as his own executives to oversee deal-making and physical production, although marketing and distribution of New Line movies still belong to Warner.
For Emmerich, saying yes was the easy part. In fact, he acknowledges that there is still no sense of permanence about the new New Line. “Every studio executive should expect a ticking clock,” he says.
Both Emmerich and Brener say they are well aware they are now housed inside a corporate giant and that they’re ready to assume the best about their parent’s intentions.
“We were always the maverick studio; other studios were supposed to be the lumbering giants,” says Brener, perhaps best known for championing Wedding Crashers, a rare R-rated comic blockbuster New Line produced to great box-office success. “But when we looked a little closer, we realized Warner could be pretty daring, too.”
So, what are the downsides to being brought into the Warner fold? Emmerich and Brener are either too content, or too politic, to complain. “I feel like I was traded to the Yankees,” Brener said in an e-mail.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES