Four years ago, on the night before the Academy Awards, I found myself at the Beverly Hills home of Bob Shaye, the founder and co-chairman of New Line Cinema.
The annual New Line party chez Shaye was a popular stop on the pre-Oscars festivity circuit, and to an outsider the scene seemed to fit every stereotype of Hollywood power and the aspiration to it. There was the blue-chip contemporary art on the walls (“Is that a real Francis Bacon?” I heard someone ask); the panoramic views of the Los Angeles basin and the San Fernando Valley; the Wolfgang Puck-catered dinner; the endless parade of agents, executives, movie stars and aspirants to influence and fame.
Wasn’t that Richard Parsons of Time Warner? Is she Paris Hilton? Is that the guy who used to be on that TV show? And that must be his agent. It was like something from The Player, speaking of New Line releases.
This impression, however, was a bit misleading. Yes, it’s true that in February 2004, New Line Cinema was on top of the world, and Mr. Shaye and his colleagues, including his co-chairman, Michael Lynne, were riding high. The night after the party, to no one’s particular surprise, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King swept every category in which it was nominated, collecting 11 Oscars, among them best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay. But New Line was hardly a typical blockbuster factory, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was not a typical franchise, and Bob Shaye was far from a standard studio boss.
And that is why New Line — which ceased to operate as a full-fledged studio on Thursday, when Time Warner announced that it would be folded into Warner Brothers and Mr. Shaye and Mr. Lynne would depart — will be missed. New Line was not a specialty division or a genre label. It went highbrow and low, sometimes playing for the niches and sometimes for the mass audience. It was an oddity and an anomaly.
Last year, in commemoration of its 40th anniversary, New Line put together a DVD sampler of some of its more memorable productions. It was handsomely bound and presented, but the impression was less of a catalog of masterpieces than a collection of betting slips, a compendium of gambles, hunches and long shots. The Lord of the Rings was the most successful of these. (Others included Elf, Blow and the Austin Powers trilogy.)
No other studio was willing to sink several hundred million dollars into the simultaneous production of three movies directed by an obscure New Zealander named Peter Jackson. And when New Line did just that, there were a lot of smirks and raised eyebrows in Hollywood.
As perhaps there are now, since schadenfreude is as essential to the health of the Hollywood body politic as Diet Coke. The triumph of the Rings was followed by a long losing streak, exacerbated by messy litigation over the spoils and the future of the Tolkien franchise. Mr. Shaye decided to dabble in directing, turning out a ghastly kiddie-magic movie called The Last Mimzy. (I didn't think it was that bad; certainly better than anything fellow studio head Joe Roth's directed... America's Sweethearts, anyone? Thought not.) It began to seem as if New Line’s days were numbered.
It’s not for me to argue the merits of the decision to snuff out New Line’s independence. The dissolution of one corporate entity by another is rarely an occasion for sentiment, except perhaps among stockholders. But New Line Cinema was a link between the smooth, conglomerated present and a gamier, more entrepreneurial past. Mr. Shaye may live like Hollywood royalty, but his roots are in New York retail and in the nervy, disreputable world of grindhouses and exploitation pictures.
He was the man who made the 1930s drug-scare propaganda movie Reefer Madness into a staple of the late-’60s campus counterculture. He picked up, on the cheap, North American rights to Bruce Lee movies, and he helped turn John Waters’s Pink Flamingos into a cult classic. And let’s not forget Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Not a bad art collection, after all.
And given Warner Bros.' fondness for going all Stalin on the pasts of its companies (see: Lorimar), expect them to suddenly claim credit in future for The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. Though probably not The Golden Compass and Quiet Cool.