New Line Cinema Hopes Box-Office Magic Again Comes in Threes

Times Staff Writers

New Line Cinema Corp.'s bet on its screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy hit big, amassing close to $3 billion at the box office worldwide. The final installment won a slew of Oscars, including best picture and best director.

Now the studio is ready to roll the dice on another trilogy, the far less well-known "His Dark Materials," by British author Philip Pullman.

New Line, which was behind such diverse offerings as the 2003 remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and last year's "Vera Drake," has committed to producing only the first of Pullman's bestselling novels. "The Golden Compass," a special-effects-driven fantasy, could cost more than $150 million to bring to the screen.

If it strikes a chord with moviegoers, the studio will consider making the next two in the series simultaneously, as it did with the "Lord of the Rings" films, which director Peter Jackson shot in New Zealand. New Line executives confirmed that the price tag for the trilogy would soar far beyond the $350 million spent on the "Lord of the Rings" films.

Can New Line work trilogy magic twice?

Studio co-Chairman Michael Lynne is confident the answer is yes, in large part because of the clout New Line gained with parent Time Warner Inc. after the success of "Lord of the Rings."

"If you create something of historic proportions with historic economic returns and you find a project of scale that you want to invest in," Lynne said, "no one is going to tell you not to do it."

The project has been on the drawing board for years. In 2002, New Line executives talked about wanting to complete "The Golden Compass" in time to have it in theaters last month. Now it looks like the release date will be Christmas 2006 at the earliest.

In fact, New Line is still on the hunt for a director. Chris Weitz, who with his brother Paul directed "American Pie" and "About a Boy," recently dropped out of "The Golden Compass." After spending six months researching the script -- he rewrote Tom Stoppard's original adaptation of the novel -- and meeting with design consultants and special-effects houses, Chris Weitz concluded that he didn't have the expertise to tackle such a technologically difficult movie.

"I didn't feel like I was willing to undertake the sheer scale of this," he said. "It's a remarkably daunting challenge for me."

New Line's production chief, Toby Emmerich, has begun meeting with potential replacements for Weitz.

In its early days as a wholly independent studio, New Line built its reputation with low-cost genre movies, including "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Today it remains primarily focused on movies that cost less than $50 million and are targeted at specific audiences.

It has experienced dramatic ups and downs. With a reputation for risk taking and creative marketing, it hit with such low- and moderately priced films as Jim Carrey's "The Mask" and "Dumb and Dumber," Adam Sandler's "The Wedding Singer," Mike Myers' "Austin Powers" series and, most recently, "Elf," with Will Farrell.

But it also produced costly flops, among them "Town and Country," "Little Nicky" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight." Such misfires led to the 2001 firing of then-production chief Mike De Luca. They also strained New Line's relationship with Time Warner and put the once autonomously run company under much tighter financial scrutiny and controls.

Then came the first "Lord of the Rings," which took in more than $860 million in worldwide ticket sales, followed in quick succession by its two sequels. New Line, which doesn't disclose financial results, reaped hundreds of millions in profit, according to studio executives.

New Line co-Chairman Bob Shaye -- who founded the maverick film company in 1967 and sold it to Ted Turner 26 years later for about $550 million -- said the success of "Lord of the Rings" was no fluke.

"We've had others and we anticipate others," Shaye said of the studio's hits. "And that's not the anticipation of fools. It's the anticipation of people who have been in the business for 37 years."

Rolf Mittweg, New Line's head of worldwide distribution and marketing, said the global popularity of the "His Dark Materials" books provided a good foundation for a major film. "There is tremendous box-office potential in properties whose appeal stretches beyond the borders of the United States," Mittweg said.

The first book, "The Golden Compass," follows the adventures of a 12-year-old orphan who goes on a magical journey in search of a kidnapped friend and discovers secrets of her own past, her world and parallel universes. The story features witches, angels, talking polar bears and "daemons" -- animals that serve as each human character's alter ego.

Only if audiences embrace the book in movie form will the studio consider shooting the next two novels in the series, "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass." New Line's sister studio Warner Bros. completed the "Matrix" sequels in the same way.

Emmerich said New Line wasn't betting the store on "His Dark Materials." He said he had other potential hits in the wings, including the $38-million R-rated comedy "The Wedding Crashers," starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. It is scheduled for release in July 2007.

On a more costly scale, the studio has signed Nick Cassavetes to direct "Iron Man," featuring one of the more obscure Marvel comic-book heroes. The company also is waiting for actor Chris Tucker to sign off on a script for its $115-million sequel "Rush Hour 3."

Although Emmerich said it was unrealistic to expect any studio to duplicate the success of "Lord of the Rings," he suggested that New Line might be able to do just that.

"We're interested in making this movie not because we're trying to re-create the success of 'Lord of the Rings,' " Emmerich said. "But the fact that the company was able to pull that franchise off shows we're capable of doing it again."

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Box-office drama

Founded in 1967 by Bob Shaye, New Line Cinema was a pioneer in independent film. The company is known for taking creative risks and for its niche marketing savvy. But like all studios, New Line has had its share of ups and downs at the box office, including:

Hits*

"Lord of the Rings" trilogy:

$1 billion

"Austin Powers" trilogy:

$473.1 million

"Rush Hour" 1 and 2:

$367.2 million

"Elf": $173.3 million

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles": $135.3 million

"Dumb and Dumber":

$127.1 million

"The Mask": $119.9 million

Misses*

"Town and Country": $6.7 million

"Last Man Standing": $18.1 million

"The Island of Dr. Moreau":

$27.6 million

"The Long Kiss Goodnight":

$33.4 million

"Thirteen Days": $34.6 million

"Blade: Trinity": $35.4 million**

"Little Nicky": $39.4 million

*U.S. sales only

**Still in theaters

Source: New Line Cinema

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