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New Line, old story: A small studio falls

February 29, 2008|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Roll the credits on New Line Cinema, the 40-year-old studio behind such iconic movie franchises as "The Lord of the Rings," "Austin Powers" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

The company will lay off hundreds of employees between its Los Angeles and New York facilities and be merged into its corporate sibling, Warner Bros.

The consolidation marks the end of the line for the once scrappy producer that prided itself on taking creative risks that other studios wouldn't. But in recent years New Line strayed from its street-smart roots with a slew of costly flops that ended its role as a big-time player in the volatile movie business.

In a sign of retrenchment that is increasingly prevalent in Hollywood, the company will now focus on making fewer movies limited to the kind of smaller, low-cost "genre" horror and comedy pictures upon which it built its name.

New Line becomes the latest free-standing Hollywood studio to abandon its ambitions as a full-fledged company in a market in which bloated overhead and soaring production and marketing costs have squeezed profits amid flat movie attendance and sagging DVD sales.

It comes just as the studio is to release today what could be one of its most promising comedies in a long time, the basketball spoof "Semi-Pro" starring Will Ferrell.

Over the last three years, DreamWorks SKG, the once highflying live-action studio founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, was sold to Viacom Inc. and scaled back as part of the media company's Paramount Pictures. At the same time, Harvey and Bob Weinstein's Miramax Films became a much smaller unit of owner Walt Disney Co. after the brothers were forced out. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was gobbled up by a consortium of investors including Sony Pictures, Comcast Corp. and two major private equity firms.

"People start out with high hopes for these indie studios," media analyst Harold Vogel said. "But ultimately they encounter rising costs and difficulties in managing the businesses. At some point, the cash flow and balance sheets fall short of their ambitions."

The consolidation of New Line is the first corporate maneuver by Time Warner Inc.'s recently named Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes to rein in costs at the New York media giant, whose stock price has stagnated since its merger with America Online eight years ago. Bewkes is under pressure from shareholders to boost profitability at Time Warner, which owns cable channels such as CNN and HBO; cable systems that are the largest in Southern California; and publishing operations that include Time, Sports Illustrated and People magazines.

In a conference call with media analysts this month, Bewkes announced plans to immediately eliminate 100 jobs at Time Warner's corporate headquarters, split AOL into two parts, possibly reduce its 84% ownership of Time Warner Cable and target New Line for "near-term cost cuts."

That was an understatement. As a part of Warner Bros., New Line's staff of 600 will be vastly scaled back and the company will no longer greenlight, market or distribute its own movies. Although New Line executives will continue to oversee the development and production of its own films, final say on all matters rests with Warner Bros. President Alan Horn. New Line will make only half the 12 to 14 pictures a year it did previously, which will now be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros.

Bewkes will meet today with New Line's New York employees and address its Los Angeles staff via satellite at the Pacific Design Center.

"Between the cost savings and the revenue enhancements, we believe we can at least double the earnings of New Line," Bewkes said in an interview. He added that those gains would more than offset "substantial restructuring charges" that Time Warner would incur as a result of New Line's consolidation and would benefit earnings as soon as next year.

"This is a no-brainer move," said Richard Greenfield, an analyst with Pali Research. "There's no reason to have two separate infrastructures."

New Line's diminished star is a huge blow for New Line founder, Bob Shaye, 68, and his longtime top lieutenant, co-Chairman and co-Chief Executive Michael Lynne, 66, both of whom learned Thursday that they would leave the company.

No successor was named. In recent weeks, the pair, whose contracts expire at the end of the year, made a last-ditch attempt to stay, presenting Time Warner management with a plan that would have ensured their continued employment.

In an e-mail to employees, Shaye said their departure was a "painful decision, because we love New Line and the people who work here have been like our second families."

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