Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: New Line Cinema

by Jason

New Line Cinema was, in a word, awesome. This studio put out some of my favorite movies growing up, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mortal Kombat, and Blade. New Line seemed to be tops at creating movies that teenagers and young adults enjoyed. Sometimes they were hits like the aforementioned three movies, other times they would go on to be cult favorites, like The Cell, The Lawnmower Man, or Dark City. Then New Line struck box office gold by adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy into three hit movies, with the third film earning over a billion dollars worldwide and netting 11 Academy Awards. How could a studio with such a track record possibly fail? Just read on...

Who Were They?

New Line Cinema was created in 1967 by Robert Shaye as a film distribution company that supplied foreign and art films for college campuses in the United States. One of the company's early successes was its distribution of the 1936 anti-cannabis PSA film Reefer Madness. Starting in 1976, New Line started making its own movies, but it wasn’t until 1984 that it released its first big hit, A Nightmare on Elm Street. New Line earned the nickname “The House That Freddy Built,” as further sequels fueled the studio’s coffers. The studio scored another big win with the smash hit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). From there, New Line just took off.

What Were They Known For?

Movies that appealed to teens and young adults, mostly horror, martial arts, comic book or video game-inspired flicks, comedies, and some offbeat cult hits. In its later years, the studio would also distribute some critically acclaimed films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

Arguably the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For sheer prestige and box office success, it was hard to beat. However, for regular studio output, I’d probably nominate the mid to late 1990s. This was the era where the studio was releasing big hits like The Wedding Singer, as well as Blade, Austin Powers, Rush Hour, with successful sequels to follow.

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

North. New Line co-produced it, so it gets a share of the blame.

For movies that the studio is solely responsible for, Son of the Mask may be the top contender. A Jim Carrey-less sequel to The Mask, is considered one of the worst follow-ups ever made.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Quite a few, actually.

First, although New Line didn’t actually produce the film, it did distribute director Sam Raimi’s cult hit The Evil Dead, which would launch his and star Bruce Campbell’s careers.

Second, Jim Carrey. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective launched him into superstardom, but his next two movies, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber, were made and released by New Line Cinema. Their successes proved that Ace Ventura wasn’t a flash in the pan. The Farrelly Brothers also count, as Dumb and Dumber was their first directorial credit.

New Line also launched Jackie Chan’s American film career. Chan had tried to break into American films before with The Big Brawl and The Protector, to no avail. But he scored big when New Line distributed Hong Kong-made Rumble in the Bronx in the states in 1996. The film was a big hit and began the flood of Chan’s Hong Kong output into the states. New Line would give Chan an American-made hit two years later in Rush Hour.

The studio also boosted the directorial careers of two guys named Paul Anderson. First, there was Paul W. S. Anderson, (he of the Resident Evil films fame) who got the director’s chair for Mortal Kombat, his second picture ever. Then there was Paul Thomas Anderson, whose breakout film Boogie Nights was distributed by New Line, and later the studio would release another movie directed by Anderson, the ensemble cast film Magnolia.

Finally, the studio also rescued director David Fincher’s career from the ashes of Alien 3 by making his sophomore effort, Seven.

Notable Movies.

The original Nightmare on Elm Street series plus Freddy v. Jason, the Critters movies, the Lawnmower Man films, the first three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pictures, the Austin Powers trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Blade trilogy, the Rush Hour trilogy, the Hobbit trilogy, the Mortal Kombat films, the Sex and the City films, the Final Destination films, Drop Dead Fred, Seven, The Mask (and its prequel), Dumb and Dumber (and its prequel), The Cell, Spawn, Dark City, Lost in Space, Pleasantville, Rumble in the Bronx, Elf, the Final Destination movies, Wedding Crashers, Snakes on a Plane, About Schmidt, Magnolia, Mr. Deeds, Hairspray, We’re the Millers, and Horrible Bosses.

What Killed the Studio?

After bankrolling a lot of movies the public wanted to see, New Line started bankrolling a lot of movies the public stayed away from.

Town and Country. A Warren Beatty-starring flick that ended up making just 10 million worldwide, yet cost 90 million (!) to make.

Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. At the time, Jim Carrey wasn’t interested in doing sequels to his old works, so New Line tried the prequel route. Manages not to count as a total flop because it barely cost anything to begin with, but it made nowhere near the money the first one did.

Son of the Mask. Again, no Jim Carrey, so we focus on a different character played by Jamie Kennedy, who sires a baby that ends up born with the powers of the mask. The result was the scariest film baby since the babies from Superbabies: Baby Geniuses.

The Last Mimzy. An E.T.-esque sci-fi family flick directed by Shaye himself that tanked even after a lot of studio spending on marketing.

Rendition. Because anti-Iraq war movies were proven box office gold. Really.

Snakes on a Plane. Believe it or not, creating a Samuel L. Jackson internet meme actually does not result in box office dollars.

Semi-Pro. One Will Farrell sports comedy too many.

The coup de grĂ¢ce finally came in 2008. The studio, pressured by its failures and the need to recreate the success of Lord of the Rings, sought out another fantasy franchise to fill its coffers. Hey, this looks promising. A best-selling fantasy trilogy written by a British author? Sold! Let’s option the His Dark Materials trilogy!

Hey, did I mention the series is a blatant screed attacking theism and specifically the Catholic Church?

Yeah, this was not going to end well.

Desperate to recreate the magic of the LOTR adaptations, New Line sank about 200 million dollars into the movie and nabbed Christopher Lee for a cameo role and cast Ian McKellen as the voice of a drunken bear (I’m not joking). To even get the movie financed, New Line presold the foreign rights to the movie in advance, which effectively dug the studio’s grave. The movie would bomb in the U.S. but make over 300 million overseas, money that New Line would never even see because it went to foreign distributors instead.

Warner Bros, which by now owned the studio, had finally had it and absorbed New Line into the company. Almost all of its employees were summarily fired.

Legacy

New Line Cinema is still around, but as an imprint of Warner Bros; its days as an independent studio are over. Its biggest successes so far have been the three Hobbit movies, although they haven’t been as acclaimed as the LOTR films. They’ve also done well with comedies like We’re the Millers and Horrible Bosses, so New Line is at least enjoying a good second life, even if it isn’t the scrappy indie studio that we remember.

The failure of New Line stemmed from expensive investments in very bad movies and it seemed the studio just forgot its roots. It seemed to be on the cutting edge for so long that the fall it took is all the more astounding. At its best, the studio made modest but reasonable investments in cool pictures that either showcased up and coming talent or in the case of Mike Meyers, Burt Reynolds and Jackie Chan, reinvigorated existing talent. But once the studio got the taste of big success with Lord of the Rings, they wanted it again too badly and paid dearly for it.

So what is your favorite New Line Cinema picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?

13 comments:

ScottDS said...

Ah, North. One of my favorite lines from the Friars Club roast of Rob Reiner was when one of the comedians said, "You know that movie went straight to 8-track?" :-)

The TMNT films were important parts of my childhood, though I cringe at some stuff now. The first film is still effective (and surprisingly dark, more in form than in content), while the second film... well, "Go Ninja go!"

Town & Country... one of the all-time Hollywood disasters. Mix one part Warren Beatty perfectionism, two parts scheduling conflicts, three parts constant re-writes, and four parts re-shoots. According to Wikipedia, they started shooting in 1998 but didn't finish the film until 2000!

His Dark Materials... as someone who isn't religious, was there any happy ending to this? It seems like the ultimate catch-22: film the text and offend religious people, or soften that aspect of it and offend the fans.

Austin Powers... before everyone and their mother was saying "Yeah, baby!" I was there first, on opening night, with friends who had no idea what we were getting in to. I was a fan from day 1 and I still think Dr. Evil is one of the all-time great characters from the last decade of the 20th century.

It should also be noted that New Line was one of the great producers of excellent DVDs, with their Platinum Series and later Infinifilm line. Usually great A/V quality, and great supplements. Even a guilty pleasure like Detroit Rock City got the deluxe treatment.

tryanmax said...

When I saw the headline, my jaw dropped. I didn't realize New Line was no more. I've seen so many New Line films, that imprint is as familiar as the McDonald's arches to me.

If only New Line had steered away from His Dark Materials and instead tried to catch the superhero wave the same way they successfully caught the horror waves of the 80s and late-90s/early-2000s.

Jason said...

ScottDS-

The TMNT flicks were a big part of my childhood, too. For a time the second movie was actually my favorite over the first, but as I got older the order flipped around. The first film had some surprisingly poignant observations about family and that basically a crime syndicate is not a good substitute for the real thing, brought home when Casey Jones told the kids at the warehouse, “You call this here family?” And Shredder’s reveal in the warehouse, from the tracking shot to the awesome shadow cast by his cape to the music – brilliantly done. It is still the best TMNT movie to date (That’s right, Paramount, I’m looking at you).

If you discovered Austin Powers first in the theater, you were way ahead of the curve! The first film was only a moderate hit, it was only when it hit video that it caught fire. I’m surprised Meyers hasn’t tried for a fourth film. His career since hasn’t been all that great (The Love Guru, anyone?).

Jason said...

tryanmax –

New Line is still around, but it’s just an imprint of Warner Bros. It’s just no longer its own entity and it’s now severely downscaled. And Mini-Major Discussion isn’t purely about dead studios. There’ll be a few coming up that are still alive and kicking.

It’s ironic, but New Line was responsible for the first successful adaptation of a Marvel comics property when they put out Blade, way before the X-Mens or the Spider-Mans. Of course, Blade was closer to NL’s kind of movie: horror, martial arts, action, etc. It’d have been great if they could have gotten similar properties like Ghost Rider.

There were other fantasy works that were far less riskier that New Line could have gotten. I’d have loved it if they did live-action adaptations of The Chronicles of Prydain.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Sorry for the delay in commenting. I am stunned that the study that made a zillion dollars on LOTR could go broke. Seriously. New Line's catalog reads like my BluRay collection... so many big hits and amazing films. How can a company with such a track record and such profits fall apart? Stunning!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Not only was Golden Compass a no win, but the film wasn't even a good one. It completely felt like a set up for future films to such a degree that it was almost insulting. Really bad choice.

BTW, on which side to offend, remember that the people who are likely to see the film are kids, and that means you need to keep the parents happy. Satisfy your target audience first!

Jason said...

Thanks, Andrew. I sometimes wonder if that famed Hollywood accounting was also a factor. Some of that money may have gone down a few unseen ratholes.

I hadn’t commented much on the quality of The Golden Compass itself. I did check it out and I found it on the one hand to be great visually, but on the other the story felt choppy and uneven; the subplot dealing with the armored bears was unnecessary, and the movie had no ending, it just ground to a halt.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, You're welcome. This has been a great (and amazing) series! :D

I suspect that the profits were probably split a hundred different ways on each of these films, the studio probably didn't make as much as we think. And then you could be right about the accounting too. In any event, it's stunning that such a successful operation could implode.

On Golden Compass, I agree. The visuals are great. The story is choppy and incomplete. Politically speaking, it's also insulting at every turn. Nevertheless, the film would have done much better if it told a complete story.

Rustbelt said...

Count me as one of those who had't realized New Line wasn't independent anymore.
The output is incredibly varied. From Freddy to the Turtles to Austin Powers...
Well, I guess you can me someone who isn't surprised at the lack of a fourth film. 'Goldmember' was mostly a self-parody, which is often the warning sign that a series is spent or the creators just don't care anymore.

On 'Golden Compass,' I haven't seen this film and, after reading the comments here, on Andrew's article, and plenty of other articles, I have no desire to, either. (As far I can tell, as angry atheists go, the author of the 'His Dark Materials' books seems to make Penn and Teller look like nice guys by comparison.)
Thank God (phrase meany literally) New Line employees can always look back and say they made LOTR, which will always be remembered with fondness.

Question: Did New Line actually produce TMNT or just distribute it? I have an old Turtles book from 1990 that says the film was made primarily by Hong Kong-based martial arts studio 'Golden Harvest.'

And Jason, since you mentioned the legendary (in a 'Plan 9' sort of way) 'Reefer Madness,' this musical number is for you!

Rustbelt said...

Count me as one of those who had't realized New Line wasn't independent anymore.
The output is incredibly varied. From Freddy to the Turtles to Austin Powers...
Well, I guess you can me someone who isn't surprised at the lack of a fourth film. 'Goldmember' was mostly a self-parody, which is often the warning sign that a series is spent or the creators just don't care anymore.

On 'Golden Compass,' I haven't seen this film and, after reading the comments here, on Andrew's article, and plenty of other articles, I have no desire to, either. (As far I can tell, as angry atheists go, the author of the 'His Dark Materials' books seems to make Penn and Teller look like nice guys by comparison.)
Thank God (phrase meany literally) New Line employees can always look back and say they made LOTR, which will always be remembered with fondness.

Question: Did New Line actually produce TMNT or just distribute it? I have an old Turtles book from 1990 that says the film was made primarily by Hong Kong-based martial arts studio 'Golden Harvest.'

And Jason, since you mentioned the legendary (in a 'Plan 9' sort of way) 'Reefer Madness,' this musical number is for you!

Jason said...

Rustbelt - TMNT probably was Golden Harvest, and New Line was actually just the distributor. I try to separate out the movies that get made by the studio from those the studio just distributes, but hey, sometimes I miss a few. :)

LOL....thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

I generally don't pay attention to producers, directors and studios with only a few exceptions, but I do remember enjoying a lot of movies where I saw New Line Cinema at the start. And seeing the list of movies they produced and or distributed they were a large part of my young movie going experience and it is disappointing to hear they are no longer independent

You know that they will never reach the same heights that they had previously under the ownership of a large studio. While I wasn't as bigger fan of LOTR as the average person, those movies are masterpieces compared to the piles of crap that The Hobbit movies turned out to be. I don't know if it was Warner Bros that demanded a short book be made into three movies or not but the independent LOTR is worlds better then the major studio The Hobbit 'movies'.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm not a big fan of the LOTR either. As I've pointed out in my review, Jackson sucked the life out of the book. But yeah, the Hobbit is utter crap. Wow is it crap.

Post a Comment