Less than five months ago, New Line Cinema co-chairmen Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the company that Shaye founded out of an apartment on East 14th Street in New York at the New York Film Festival. Needless to say, four decades in the movie business deserved a trip uptown, to the Lincoln Center’s tony Fredrick P. Rose Hall, where no less than Nicole Kidman glided down the red carpet and a full gospel choir accompanied Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur in a rendition of the “Hairspray” number “Come So Far.” Days later, the duo would get an hour on Charlie Rose en route to releasing one of the biggest budgeted films in their history, the $200 million-plus fantasy “The Golden Compass.” Now those days seem like a different age, after word came down yesterday that Warner Bros. will absorb the studio without the participation of Shaye and Lynne. It looks like the house that Freddy Krueger built and Gandalf retrofitted is about to undergo an extreme makeover.
It’s possible the result will look like the Disney subsidiary Miramax, which has thrived in recent years without its famous/infamous co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Then again, the Weinsteins might never have come up with the idea for Miramax (and Bob’s genre label Dimension) if there hadn’t first been a New Line, which Shaye built on college tours of cult films like “Reefer Madness” and Jean-Luc Godard’s Rolling Stones doc “Sympathy for the Devil” and theatrical runs of early John Waters films and low-budget horror flicks, including the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Evil Dead.” Naturally, Shaye segued from distribution to production, which paid off when “Nightmare on Elm Street” became a studio-defining hit in 1984. Besides the financial rewards reaped by what would become the Freddy franchise, it also introduced the world to Johnny Depp, and, over the course of six more films, future “L.A. Confidential” scribe Brian Helgeland (“Nightmare on Elm Street 4: Dream Master”), future “Shawshank Redemption” director Frank Darabont and indie stalwart Bruce Wagner (“Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors”) and. most importantly, future New Line production exec Michael De Luca, who penned “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.”
After all, that’s what New Line did exploit new talent, much in the same way that Roger Corman had done before, but on a larger level. When “Nightmare” became a success, New Line moved into the ’90s with aspirations of becoming a full-fledged studio and when Shaye sold the company in 1993 to Ted Turner, it paved the way for more films and bigger films. But there always remained room for the smaller ones. New Line was one of the first studios to form a specialty label with Fine Line in 1990, which countered the larger studio’s output of easy sells like “House Party 2” with Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.” Fine Line also reintroduced Robert Altman to a larger audience with “The Player” and “Short Cuts” back to back in 1992 and 1993. But New Line remained primarily in the business of introductions and, thanks to the keen eye of writer-turned-exec De Luca, they would shepherd in the director who would be Altman’s heir, Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as the breakthroughs of a host of other visionaries including Albert and Allen Hughes (“Menace II Society”), David Fincher (“Se7en”), Alex Proyas (“Dark City”), Tarsem (“The Cell”) and the late Ted Demme (“Blow”).
However, talking about New Line as some sort of bastion of artistry would be doing it a disservice. While the studio had a penchant for investing in both edgy indie-minded fare like “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and prestige projects like Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt,” New Line’s heart was always in pure entertainments like “Final Destination” and “Austin Powers.” Maybe that’s why Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” or more recently, Todd Field’s heavily lauded “Little Children” failed to get much award consideration, but why every moment of a New Line programmer like “Snakes on a Plane” feels as though someone at the studio is letting loose a joyous “wheeeeee” in the background. (In fact, after New Line bumped the Samuel L. Jackson starrer to a R rating from a PG-13, production chief Toby Emmerich started suggesting body parts for the snakes to bite.) The studio was also never shy about nepotism, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering that the always watchable character actors Lin Shaye (sister of Bob) and Noah Emmerich (brother of Toby) got a leg up in New Line fare.
Now, the fun is over for New Line, at least in its era with Shaye and Lynne at the helm. Some would consider that a good thing, especially since the steely reserve and aggressiveness that led the two men to great success has also been cited as a cause of their professional downfall, with that very public dispute between Shaye and “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson over the bookkeeping of his J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, not to mention the pair’s questionable personal behavior, which was detailed in a July 1998 article by John Connolly in Premiere. (As for the “LOTR” suit, Jackson ultimately settled with the studio, but only after New Line’s costly “Golden Compass” failed to ignite at the U.S. box office.)
Incidentally, Shaye and Lynne will likely go out on top New Line’s “Semi-Pro” is expected to top this weekend’s box office chart. And although making money was always at the forefront of New Line’s operation, more than enough truly innovative and quality films made it into the pipeline to call it an accident that it was also a bastion of independence.
[Photo: “The house that Freddy Krueger built and Gandalf retrofitted”: New Line’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) and “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001); “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Fine Line, 2001]