Hollywood’s endangered entrepreneurs


IT’S hard to imagine New Line Cinema without Bob Shaye, its prickly paterfamilias. The company is being absorbed into Time Warner’s Warner Bros. film division, with Shaye and most of the employees being cast adrift. Long after he’d sold his company in 1993, Shaye continued to treat New Line as his personal mom-and-pop movie store.

During the company’s “Lord of the Rings” heyday, Shaye would host a pre-Oscar party at his stylish home off Mulholland Drive. One night I found myself chatting with the New Line founder when one of his aides scurried over, eyes bright with big news. Shaye’s then boss, Time Warner chieftain Richard Parsons, had arrived. “Shall I bring him over?” the aide asked breathlessly.

Irritated at being interrupted, Shaye waved him away, saying, “He can wait.”

As the curtain rings down on New Line, a bigger question remains: Is there still room for entrepreneurs in today’s corporate entertainment business? One thing seems certain. The new breed of entrepreneur will look very different from the generation that produced Shaye and others like him.

Rumpled and shaggy, rarely seen in a business suit, Shaye was unimpressed by the corporate pashas who run today’s media conglomerates. Shaye tended to trust his own instincts, sometimes for the best -- being the only person in Hollywood willing to let Peter Jackson make his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy -- and sometimes for the worse, hastening his demise by ducking out last year to direct a flop (“The Last Mimzy”) at a time when New Line was in a downward spiral.

Most of the stories about New Line’s demise last week focused on the company’s recent string of failures. But New Line left us with an impressive body of work because it was run by an entrepreneur always willing to roll the dice. Aided by his longtime production chief, Michael DeLuca, who left the studio in 2001, Shaye helped create the modern-day comedy business, making stars out of Jim Carrey (“The Mask”), the Farrelly brothers (“Dumb and Dumber”), Mike Myers (“Austin Powers”), Chris Tucker (“Rush Hour”) and Will Ferrell (“Elf”).

New Line championed a host of young African American talent, making such films as “Menace II Society,” “Set It Off” and the “Friday” series. It also showcased the work of such daring filmmakers as John Waters, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Never blessed with the glad-handing skills of Harvey Weinstein, Shaye drove Anderson away by trying to edit his last film, got sued by Jackson over profits from “Rings,” alienated the Farrellys and lost most of his comedy stars to bigger studios who offered higher salaries and fewer blunt Shaye-style critiques of their work.

STILL, historians will look back at the last few years as a pivotal moment in the movie business. Shaye was the last of Hollywood’s true owner-entrepreneurs, bowing out just two years after DreamWorks’ founders sold their studio to Viacom and three years after Harvey and Bob Weinstein were forced out of Miramax after years of battles with the studio’s Disney owners.

In a way, Shaye’s struggles with Time Warner weren’t so different from David Geffen’s spitting match last summer with Sumner Redstone or the Weinsteins’ bickering with then Disney czar Michael Eisner. Entrepreneurs often have seller’s remorse -- just ask Ted Turner, the colorful creator of CNN, who fumed for years after selling his company to Time Warner in 1996. (Shaye would probably still be around if Turner, who bought New Line in 1993, hadn’t sold his empire to Time Warner.) When you’ve built something from the ground up, it’s hard to take orders from a corporate overlord whose priorities involve schmoozing stock analysts and boosting quarterly earnings.

“New Line was always an extension of Bob’s own passions and desire,” says Brett Ratner, who made five films at the studio, including the “Rush Hour” series. “At other studios, I deal with people who have to report to GE or Time Warner, but at New Line, if I wanted an actor and the money wasn’t in the budget, I’d just call Bob and it was either yes or no. I was asking the guy who bought the first pencil at the company. You felt like you were making a movie for Jack Warner or Sam Goldwyn. The company had a face, and it was Bob’s.”

A business of constant change, show business rewards new energy and fresh ideas. In the record business, the original label founders have all cashed out. The new entrepreneurs are often performers themselves, with hip-hop artists like Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and Eminem leading the way, having turned themselves into brands far more familiar than the faceless conglomerates they make records for.

In TV, the new entrepreneurs are reality TV impresarios like Mark Burnett, who created “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” and Ben Silverman, who built a business out of hit shows imported from other cultures, notably “The Office” and “Ugly Betty,” before taking the reins of NBC Entertainment. Silverman has a kindred spirit in Roy Lee, who created a business out of selling the studios American movie remake rights to Asian thrillers, a cross-cultural adaptation process that brought us “The Departed,” “The Grudge” and “The Ring.”

One of the boldest innovators in today’s Hollywood is Mark Cuban, whose entrepreneurial spirit led him to build a vertically integrated business with an indie film production company, a growing chain of theaters and the HDNet satellite-TV network. And where would we be without Apple’s Steve Jobs, who has created a string of potent new brands, the iPod, the iTunes music store and Pixar, whose animated films have an unparalleled record of critical and box-office success?

What is the common denominator here? “It always seems to come back to new technology,” says Jordan Levin, former head of the WB network, who is now the chief executive of Generate, a new media production and management firm. “Whether it’s the early movie theater owners, the early broadcast TV titans and cable entrepreneurs, they were people taking risks on something new.”

If I were picking one team of young entrepreneurs to watch over the next few years, it would be Modi Wiczyk, 36, and Asif Satchu, 37. They are the duo behind Media Rights Capital, a financing company that, having attracted a big chunk of Wall Street and private equity money, is backing a slate of ambitious pictures by such filmmakers as Robert Rodriguez, Walter Salles, Todd Field and Ricky Gervais. It has also become a leading independent supplier of TV programming and is moving into digital entertainment.

Most entrepreneurs are people with one big idea. For Wiczyk, “it’s not when a person owns an idea so much as when an idea owns you. We’ve been talking about this company since our first year of business school, to build a partnership directly with talent so that artists can own their own work.”

Adecade ago, Wiczyk wrote an influential memo laying out MRC’s big idea -- that with studios less willing to take risk than ever, there would be room for new companies to attract financing and develop their own talent relationships, essentially making the pictures themselves. The studios would simply distribute the end product, but the talent and MRC would keep creative control as well as eventual ownership of the film.

It’s a classic entrepreneurial play, with MRC raising independent capital and betting on their creative instincts. In a way, it’s not so different from how Shaye started 40 years ago when he was as young and restless as the MRC duo is today. In Hollywood, history keeps repeating itself. Or as Satchu puts it: “The business has a history of people crashing through the brick wall that kept them out and then building a new wall around them to keep the business going.”

The new boys on the block look to the entrepreneurs of the past for their inspiration, whether it is the first generation of movie moguls or Rupert Murdoch, who has gone from newspapers to television to satellites to MySpace.

“People thought Ted Turner was a lunatic when he started a 24-hour news channel, but he was just ahead of everyone else,” says Wiczyk. “So was Bob Shaye with New Line. Look at what that company achieved. It’s an incredibly strong testament to the value of being an entrepreneur.”

Maybe that’s some consolation to Shaye: His company dies, but his spirit lives on.

The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar.

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