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Company Town | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER and JAMES BATES

Firm Takes a New Line in Making Movies

August 27, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER and JAMES BATES

For a while there it looked as if New Line Cinema could do no wrong. There were the two back-to-back Jim Carrey blockbusters, "The Mask" and "Dumb and Dumber," both relatively cheap considering that the star now commands $20 million a picture. Then there was the $100-million-grossing sleeper "Seven" and "Mortal Kombat." The hits just seemed to keep on coming.

A two-year winning streak solidified the company's standing as a darling of Hollywood and Wall Street alike. Ted Turner, who purchased the 29-year-old independent in 1994 in a stock swap valued at $550 million, looked like more of a genius than ever.

But, like all movie companies that are vulnerable to the vagaries of a volatile, low-margin business, New Line has hit a prolonged dry spell at the box office that's lasted nearly a year. The company has not had a major hit since last fall's sleeper thriller "Seven," starring Brad Pitt.

Last year, New Line's market share was competitive with some of the major studios at 6.6%, whereas currently it's at 3.4%, behind Disney's Miramax.

Even so, market share isn't the full story. Most of New Line's recent offerings have been inexpensive films, which limits the company's losses.

Last weekend, New Line's trademark maverick marketing came through when the company unexpectedly opened the universally panned sci-fi remake "The Island of Dr. Moreau," starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, in the No. 1 spot with $9.1 million.

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New Line executives were understandably nervous heading into the weekend, ducking critical barbs such as "Moreau needs a doctor" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau is not worth visiting." Despite the strong opening, Hollywood executives expect a pretty steep drop-off in business.

That bit of positive news comes after a long drought not only at the box office but amid an uncharacteristic dip in New Line's normally active production and release output.

New Line representatives have declined to be interviewed. But the slowdown may be tied to the uncertainty of the company's future in the wake of the pending merger of Time Warner and Turner. In addition, the company strategy has changed. Instead of releasing a batch of low-budget films, it's now feeding its production dollars to a batch of bigger-budget movies as it seeks to go head-to-head with the major studios.

All this comes at a critical time for New Line. The Time Warner acquisition could close in as little as two months.

After that, it's widely expected that New Line would be spun off or sold to the highest bidder after the merger is final. Turner's other movie company, Castle Rock Entertainment, has already been officially put on the block and has been in negotiations with both MCA/Universal Pictures and Sony. Selling New Line and Castle Rock would give Time Warner a way to cut its debt. And its Warner Bros. unit already has plenty of movies to handle.

"The Island of Dr. Moreau," based on the H.G. Wells classic, ushers in a new era of bigger-budget--and riskier--movies for New Line. "Island" is one of New Line's most expensive productions to date at what sources estimated to be in the high $40-million range, although some at the company contend the movie was only in the high 30s. The production was plagued with problems from the outset, which undoubtedly put the movie over its original budget.

Four days into production, the film's director, Richard Stanley, was fired after New Line executives didn't like what they saw in the daily takes. One of the actors, Rob Morrow, walked off, and production was halted until director John Frankenheimer was brought aboard to replace Stanley.

October will mark the debut of New Line's most risky, expensive production ever, "The Long Kiss Goodnight," directed by Renny Harlin and starring his actress-wife, Geena Davis, and Samuel Jackson. Sources said the film went well over its budget of more than $60 million.

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In 1994, New Line broke the record on what companies pay for screenplays written on speculation by doling out an astounding $4 million for the Shane Black action thriller. The story is about a housewife who emerges from amnesia to discover she was once an assassin for the government.

Given the huge sum New Line paid for the script and spent on the production, Hollywood will be closely watching the film, which opens Oct. 11.

Lavishing its efforts on big-budget films is a stark contrast to New Line's history. The company built its name on niche marketing of lower-budget, genre movies and had great success with such movie series as "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

With access to Ted Turner's wallet, New Line decided it wanted to play in the big leagues. In 1994, New Line Chairman Robert Shaye told The Times: "It was the one piece of our product puzzle still missing. And it was what I wanted to do with my life. Ted was OK with that."

Shaye and President Michael Lynne sent a clear message to the Hollywood community that the days of low-budget fare were over when they wrote the check for "Long Kiss."

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