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THE BIZ / ALAN CITRON

Company Town : Shaye, New Line Cinema Hit Big Time

August 19, 1994|ALAN CITRON

When Ted Turner was negotiating to buy New Line Cinema during a meeting at his home last year, Chairman Robert Shaye made a surprising confession. Inside the frugal, conservative-minded executive lurked a big-time movie maker just longing to break free.

Low-budget series like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" were fine, the New Line chief said in so many words. But he wanted to also work with Julia and Geena and Renny and Marlon. "It was the one piece of our product puzzle still missing," Shaye explained. "And it was what I wanted to do with my life. Ted was OK with that."

He'd better be. In the eight months since Turner Broadcasting System acquired New Line for $550 million, Shaye has embarked on the kind of spending spree usually reserved for lottery winners and giddy divorcees. Julia Roberts, Jim Carrey, Demi Moore, Meg Ryan and Marlon Brando have all joined the "Ninja Turtles" in the New Line swamp. More recently, Shaye made a record-setting, $4-million deal for screenwriter Shane Black's latest script, "The Long Kiss Goodnight," which is earmarked for director Renny Harlin and his wife, actress Geena Davis.

That kind of profligacy always turns heads in Hollywood, since it intensifies competition and can lead to spectacular financial flameouts. But while Shaye, 55, concedes that his annual development and production spending has grown by "tens of millions of dollars" in the wake of the Turner sale, he insists that New Line remains true to its sensible past.

"We want to make three to four higher-budgeted films a year," he said in an interview this week. "But there's still a finite amount of capital available, and we're still accountable to our partners."

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Shaye's confidence in his own choices has been bolstered by the success of "The Mask," the $20-million Carrey comedy that has grossed more than $70 million in its first three weeks. With the movie expected to surpass $100 million at the domestic box office alone, criticism of New Line's $7-million deal for Carrey to star in "Dumb and Dumber" is fading.

By putting New Line into the big-league movie business, Shaye has dramatically altered the profile of the 27-year-old independent, New York-based production and distribution company that made its reputation on niche films such as "Ninja Turtles" and others less memorable.

Shaye and New Line President Michael Lynne won big fans on Wall Street for their cautious, steady management style, earning reputations as "terrific corporate citizens," in the words of analyst Jeffrey Logsdon of the Seidler Cos. But Shaye says they also boxed themselves in.

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Despite the healthy performance of New Line's stock, "there was always pressure to stick to our knitting," Shaye says. "Plus, we were restricted (on the kinds of films we made) by loan covenants. It was kind of onerous, but we accepted it because that was our persona."

The Turner deal unshackles Shaye and allows him to fill his distribution pipeline with a wider variety of movies. It also makes it possible for the company to expand production to as many as 15 films a year, not counting movies from its Fine Line subsidiary and other pickups. Shaye hopes to add even more movies to that pipeline after 1997, when Sony's distribution deal with Castle Rock Entertainment, the other entertainment company acquired by Turner in January, expires. But Shaye said nothing has been decided.

Turner is said to be honoring his hands-off agreement. Despite outside criticism that Shaye is acting like the proverbial kid in the candy store, the closest the cable mogul gets to New Line's spending is when his board approves the company's annual budget. Shaye says Turner was proud that New Line beat Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures in the $4-million bidding war for "The Long Kiss Goodnight."

Another big New Line project--"The Women," starring Roberts and Ryan--was literally a gift from Turner. The cable mogul gave New Line the project, a remake of an MGM film in the Turner library, as a thank-you for the sale.

Shaye also likes to point out that he still has more than a passing interest in New Line's performance, since his money from the sale of the company is in Turner stock. The proxy statement filed in the wake of the sale showed that Shaye received more than 3% of Class B Turner stock, which was valued at $86.9 million at the time. In addition, Shaye got an annual base salary of $1.5 million and a $750,000 home loan.

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Despite his big financial score, Shaye, a lawyer by training who met his wife while he was on a Fulbright scholarship in Sweden, still acts the part of the consummate Hollywood outsider.

He calls New York home, even though he spends more than half his time in Los Angeles now, says he'd rather read scripts at night than attend Hollywood parties and still drives a 1972 Oldsmobile convertible.

Asked why he hasn't traded up, Shaye responds with a shrug, "I guess it's because it has a big front seat."

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