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.
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 grâce 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.
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?