Alexander Payne is a final-cut director, which means that when he showed New Line Cinema his new Jack Nicholson film, "About Schmidt," it was essentially the movie he wanted released. But rather than defer to the Oscar-nominated "Election" filmmaker, New Line invoked a rarely exercised contract clause that allowed the studio to enter the editing room, re-cut the film and test its own version on an audience.
The studio excised Payne's opening sequence in which Nicholson's insurance agent retires, and suggested the director give the melancholy film an upbeat coda. New Line's cut didn't prove as popular in research screenings as Payne's, and the version debuting Friday is the director's. Yet the editing-room episode nevertheless reinforced the message that a studio that recently made one of Hollywood's most fearless deals is growing ever more cautious.
Not long ago, New Line was a bastion of brashness. It released Paul Thomas Anderson's three-hour "Magnolia," complete with a blizzard of frogs falling from the heavens; David Fincher's provocative "Seven," which concludes with Gwyneth Paltrow's decapitated head in a box; and Tony Kaye's bleak neo-Nazi drama "American History X." These days, the studio's slate reads more like opening night at a drive-in film festival. Upcoming titles include a remake of the vermin thriller "Willard," a prequel to "Dumb and Dumber," a remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," a "Final Destination" sequel and "Freddy vs. Jason," pitting the villain of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" against the bad guy from "Friday the 13th."
"We didn't like where we were going, making $80-million and $90-million movies where our fingers were crossed. This company couldn't survive making only those movies," says Bob Shaye, New Line's founder and co-chairman. "We needed a program that mostly dealt with lower-budget movies. We try to learn from experience. We are not a cultural temple."
Some directors and producers say the studio remains one of the best places to work, but New Line has made it clear its priorities have changed.
"In a business so risky, [these remakes and sequels] are less risky and more likely to pay off," says Toby Emmerich, New Line's president of production. While that's probably accurate, what's remarkable about New Line's wariness is that it comes just one year after one of the brassiest and most successful gambles in modern show business history: New Line's "The Lord of the Rings."
It was an expensive, make-or-break deal no other studio wanted to make, and in the weeks preceding last December's release of the first "Lord of the Rings" film, New Line's future looked uncertain. Although New Line had sold off foreign rights to "The Lord of the Rings" to minimize its investment, the studio had been stung by a number of flops and forced to lay off staff. With profits down, the studio couldn't make any movie costing more than $50 million (including "Austin Powers in Goldmember") without permission from AOL Time Warner. Before "The Fellowship of the Ring" opened, top executives at the parent company publicly ignored Peter Jackson's bold adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien tale and instead exalted Warner Bros.' less ambitious "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
A few senior New Line executives privately worried that if the first "Lord of the Rings" film fizzled, New Line would be packed up and folded into Warners. New Line didn't have to call the movers. The first "Lord of the Rings" collected more than $860 million globally, earned a leading 13 Oscar nominations and won four Academy Awards. (The second installment, "The Two Towers," opens Dec. 18.)
Flush with box-office momentum and a fresh lease on life, New Line began to reinvent itself. But rather than build on the "Lord of the Rings" success with an eclectic slate of filmmaker-driven stories, the studio first focused on middlebrow franchises, with only a smattering of sophisticated fare in the mix. In a way, New Line was simply returning to its roots; before it became part of a global entertainment conglomerate, New Line was one of Hollywood's top independent studios, thanks mostly to B-movie blockbusters like "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
As New Line became more successful, it flirted with more expensive and much riskier fare, often with disasters like "Lost in Space," "The Long Kiss Goodnight," "Little Nicky" and "Town & Country." Even highly praised movies like "Magnolia" didn't make money, New Line says, and the studio's "Unconditional Love," a Rupert Everett movie that cost more than $40 million, turned out so poorly it is never going to be released theatrically. As the first "Lord of the Rings" movie was nearing completion, New Line began retrenching. The first and most dramatic step was ousting production chief Mike De Luca, a champion of both New Line's coolest movies but also some of its biggest busts.
"Our obligation is to operate in a profitable manner. Maybe we were not cautious enough," says Michael Lynne, New Line's other co-chairman. "But obviously, you can't make only franchise films. That would be ludicrous."
Agents and producers who work with New Line -- and even some people inside the studio -- say the studio's obsession with franchises has damaged the studio's reputation. Because New Line sells off foreign rights to its films, A-list actors and directors who get a percentage of global gross profits tend to get a smaller profit paycheck if they make New Line movies.
Some talent relationships have been strained as well. New Line handed director John Boorman ("Hope and Glory," "Deliverance") its script for "Cellular," a thriller in which a college student has only the battery time left on his mobile phone to save a kidnapped woman who's calling him. Boorman, intrigued by the plot, started exchanging story ideas with the studio about the film, thinking he was going to get the job.
Then New Line hired David Richard Ellis ("Final Destination 2") to direct, stunning Boorman and infuriating his representatives at International Creative Management, who briefly boycotted New Line. Says Emmerich, who took over for De Luca nearly two years ago: "I handled it poorly. I've learned a lot of lessons on the job. I just didn't feel [Boorman] was going to be the best director for the film."
Emmerich says a number of films in the future, including a new work from "Three Kings" director David O. Russell and an adaptation of the David Eggers memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," will prove that New Line's commitment to daring, top-flight filmmaking remains intact. Next fall, Emmerich adds, New Line's schedule includes "The Notebook," an adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel; "Secondhand Lions," a Haley Joel Osment movie about an eccentric family, and "Elf," with Will Ferrell in a "Santa Clause"-style comedy. Several producers currently working on New Line movies say Emmerich's background as both a writer (he did uncredited, last-minute rewrites on "Rush Hour 2") and a longtime music executive make working with the studio pleasant. "Creatively, I am having one of the best experiences I've ever had," says Dean Devlin, the producer of "Cellular" and "Independence Day."
New Line has such strong relationships with some filmmakers, the directors consider the studio family. When Brett Rat- ner's "Red Dragon" opened in October, the "Rush Hour" director couldn't sleep because he was "going out of my mind" worrying about the film's early box-office returns. Rather than make a late-night call to Universal, the studio releasing "Red Dragon," Ratner woke up Shaye at 1 a.m. Shaye gave him the numbers. "That's why I love this guy," Ratner says.
Next trilogy on time?
But New Line's string of blockbusters every Christmas could be in jeopardy. After the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy concludes next December, the studio had hoped to launch its next multipart literary adaptation, a two- or three-part series based on novelist Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" fantasy trilogy, in December 2004.
But screenwriter Tom Stoppard is still working on the adaptation, and complicated special effects mean the first movie probably will not be ready until the summer of 2005, if not later.
Payne says he didn't mind New Line re-editing his movie, and says he was treated better at the studio than he was at Miramax ("Citizen Ruth") or Paramount ("Election").
"I would absolutely make another movie there. I have no complaints," he says. "It was all done in a very friendly way. There was no bullying. It's always the studio's duty to pull the filmmaker in a commercial direction as much as possible."
Every other studio, Payne says, would have tried to do the same thing and soften "About Schmidt's" rough edges. Until recently, though, New Line wasn't every other studio.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times