New Line Cinema production president Michael De Luca--considered one of Hollywood's brightest and most controversial executives--was fired Wednesday, following a disastrous year at the box office capped by the costly flop "Little Nicky" and the recent Kevin Costner dud "13 Days."
New Line music chief and screenwriter Toby Emmerich will succeed De Luca. Emmerich, who wrote and produced the company's film "Frequency," joined New Line in 1992 in a dual role as a development and music executive.
De Luca, 35, who had nearly a year left on his contract, is said to be deciding whether to exercise a lucrative preexisting exclusive production deal at New Line or leave the company he joined 16 years ago and has served as production chief for the last eight.
Like the track records of most top movie chiefs, De Luca's is largely mixed. But he is widely respected in the industry for his strong relationships with talent, creative instincts and willingness to take risks, which have paid off with such breakout hits as the "Austin Powers" series, "The Wedding Singer" and "Rush Hour."
The feisty Brooklyn native, known for being refreshingly frank, outspoken and sometimes misbehaved, has been wooed in recent years by major studios, including Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures.
De Luca's termination comes just days after the completed merger of New Line parent Time Warner with America Online. It is widely expected that De Luca's bosses, New Line founder Robert Shaye and President Michael Lynne, both of whom have long enjoyed operating autonomy, will come under increasing pressure and scrutiny by AOL Time Warner over bloated costs at the company.
There is speculation that Shaye and Lynne might be forced to downsize the company, cut overhead and possibly combine some New Line operations with Time Warner's larger studio, Warner Bros., to save money.
A maverick, autonomously run company known for making and marketing inexpensive off-beat movies that often hit big at the box office, New Line recently returned to bigger budget films--a move that got De Luca and the company in hot water in 1996 with such expensive flops as "The Long Kiss Goodnight," "Last Man Standing" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau."
In addition to the Adam Sandler comedy "Little Nicky" that cost $80 million, New Line has a current lineup of big-budget films in the works, not the least of which is the long-delayed Warren Beatty romantic comedy "Town and Country."
Under De Luca's watch, that film's troubled production was plagued by extensive script revisions, re-shoots and a budget that ballooned from $55 million to well over $80 million. The film is now scheduled for a March release.
Among New Line's other costly upcoming movies is its highly anticipated "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, with a collective production cost of $270 million.
De Luca, who joined the company as an intern at age 19, has spent his entire career at New Line, maintaining a close and sometimes tumultuous relationship with Shaye, whom De Luca considers his mentor. It was Shaye who delivered the news to De Luca on Wednesday.
De Luca, a casual dresser who prefers jeans and leather to suits and ties, is a controversial figure whose reputation as a Hollywood "bad boy" has made him one of the most colorful young executives in the business.
At a 1998 high-profile Oscar party, De Luca became the talk of Hollywood when he openly engaged in intimate acts with a guest and was promptly escorted from the property. De Luca also had a history of public fistfights and drunk driving arrests.