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A midlife crisis at New Line

IT’S not unusual for a studio marketing chief to get the boot after a string of box-office failures. But only at New Line Cinema, the studio that often seems to be operating in an alternate universe from the rest of the movie business, could the head of marketing be fired after opening the studio’s biggest hit in two years.

That’s what happened this week to Russell Schwartz, the respected New Line marketing chief who departed Monday barely two weeks after opening “Hairspray,” a movie nearing the $100-million mark, making it the studio’s biggest hit since 2005’s “Wedding Crashers.” Schwartz, who is being replaced by Fox TV marketer Chris Carlisle, oversaw a variety of successes, in particular “Lord of the Rings.” But he ended up taking the heat for a string of recent failures, including “The Last Mimzy,” a film directed by studio founder Bob Shaye.

As it turns out, Schwartz’s departure is just one of many wrenching changes sweeping through the studio. Though New Line made a big fuss celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the studio has been mired in a horrific slump. The real question facing New Line, with the contracts of its co-chairmen Shaye and Michael Lynne up next September, is whether the studio can be turned around in time to save it.

Relations have been rocky with parent company Time Warner, which many people believe is eager to turn New Line into a less autonomous production entity if Shaye and Lynne depart. For now, the studio ranks last in box-office revenue among all majors. By summer’s end, it will have released just six films -- and that’s counting “Full of It,” a drippy comedy so bad it merited only a one-city release this spring. The studio is counting on “Rush Hour 3" to match “Hairspray’s” success, but the rest of year is full of nagging question marks.

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September brings “Mr. Woodcock,” a Billy Bob Thornton-starring comedy that has bounced around the release schedule for a year, its humor so off the mark that the studio brought in “Crashers” director David Dobkin to do three weeks of re-shoots. “Rendition,” a Reese Witherspoon-starring thriller due in October, was so mystifying to preview audiences that its ending has been re-edited to allay audience confusion.

“Martian Child,” a romantic comedy due in October after being pulled from earlier release dates, has also undergone surgery, with director Jerry Zucker brought in to shoot new footage. That leaves a lot riding on “The Golden Compass,” a fantasy epic that’s being positioned as a successor to “Rings.” But even “Golden Compass” has soared over its original $180-million budget because of re-shoots, though the studio has limited exposure because of extensive foreign pre-sales and outside investors.

New Line’s biggest challenge is finding a way to focus its fuzzy identity. Once a cutting-edge youth comedy and horror film factory, it has lost much of its creative energy. Lionsgate, a hungry indie studio, has replaced New Line as the horror-film franchise leader. Bigger studios have wooed away a variety of hot comics who had their first hits at New Line. Because of various financial deals, New Line’s back-end gross deals are worth less than rival studios’, meaning the studio is usually the last stop for movie star projects.

If there is any good news here, it’s that the studio is trying to reinvent its entire filmmaking process. “We’ve had a couple of bad years and it’s very hard to figure out -- is it the films or is it the marketing?” says the famously blunt Shaye. “It felt like a disservice to everyone to just patch things up. I wanted someone with a fresh approach. It’s exciting to me that Chris is from another medium -- he won’t have the ‘same old, same old’ attitude. When you’re in a rut, your job is to lift yourself out, which is something we’re trying to do on the production side too.”

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Last October, production chief Toby Emmerich led his entire development staff off to a two-day retreat at the Ojai Valley Inn. “It was a way of saying -- what did we do wrong and how can we fix it?” he explains.

The most dramatic change to come out of the retreat was a new studio attitude toward marketing, which may have played a role in the arrival of Carlisle, a proactive marketer known for such innovations as giving away free DVDs of TV episodes in magazines like Entertainment Weekly.

“We’d always been a very script-driven company,” Emmerich says. “But now, with so much competitive pressure in the marketplace, we have to focus as much on marketing as on the script. If we’d had a vision of the one-sheet when we were hearing a pitch, not just after we’ve made the movie, maybe we wouldn’t have suffered through so many of our mistakes.”

Emmerich not only invited OTX market research guru Kevin Goetz to speak to the troops, he had him do a market test of some of the films they had in development. “He’s the guy who’s there when the rubber meets the road, so having him assess the marketability of our casting ideas was a lot better litmus test than a bunch of development execs sitting around talking about whether the third act worked or not.”

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The studio has also been scrambling to recapture an old strength -- delivering against-the-grain movies. Many of the studio’s biggest hits have been with films no one else would make, like “Lord of the Rings,” or films in out-of-favor genres, as with “Wedding Crashers,” which set off an explosion of R-rated comedies after the genre had been abandoned by studios eager to make safer PG-13 fare.

The studio begins production next month on the big-screen version of “Sex and the City,” a project Warner Bros. passed on, despite the presence of all four female stars from the TV series. It is also making “My Sister’s Keeper,” a Cameron Diaz-starring drama about a dying girl who needs a kidney from her sister. It is a film rival studios would dismiss as a Lifetime TV movie, but New Line is banking on director Nick Cassavetes, who delivered a surprise hit for the studio with “The Notebook.”

When it comes to counterintuitive thinking, nothing beats making a sequel to “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” a 2004 stoner comedy that was a box-office dud. “Everyone said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ Why would you want to do a sequel for a movie that lost money!’ ” recounts Emmerich. However, the original film was a DVD smash, much like the first installments in the “Austin Powers” series that spawned hit sequels for the studio. Emmerich believes the “Kumar” sequel, due next spring, is more outrageous than the original, citing a plot twist in which its heroes escape from Guantanamo Bay and end up getting high with the president.

“At our test screening,” he explains, “George Bush was the highest-rated character in the whole film.”

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Eager to move ahead with “The Hobbit,” New Line has quietly been trying to mend fences with “Rings” filmmaker Peter Jackson, who has sued the company over his share of profits from the first “Rings” films. When asked if it was true that company insiders had been in talks with Jackson’s reps, Shaye replied, “Yes, that’s a fair statement. Notwithstanding our personal quarrels, I really respect and admire Peter and would love for him to be creatively involved in some way in ‘The Hobbit.’ ”

Moving ahead with “The Hobbit” would tie in to another pivotal New Line issue: In an era when Hollywood is deluged with equity money, will Shaye and Lynne make a run at buying back New Line from Time Warner? Shaye’s response was worthy of a U.N. diplomat: “We have not expressed that point of view publicly. And if we ever do, [Time Warner chiefs] Dick Parsons and Jeff Bewkes would be the first to know about it.”

A lot is riding on whether New Line can reinvigorate itself. It’s often the company on the skids that is most willing to take the kind of daring risk that can turn everything around. Staking the company’s future on “Lord of the Rings” was one of the great long-shot gambles in Hollywood history. The real question about New Line is: Can lightning strike twice?

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“The Big Picture” normally runs on Tuesday in Calendar. Send ideas or criticism to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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