Los Angeles Times
November 12, 1999

A Day in the Life of New Line Cinema
Patrick Goldstein

Bob Shaye is displeased. The emotion registers instantly, as if he`d just taken a bite of rotten fruit. He`s worried about the marketing strategy for one of next year`s releases. So he grumbles. "If we don`t do it right," he says in the middle of a production meeting at New Line Cinema`s Beverly Hills-adjacent offices, "this movie is going to be a flop."

Robert Friedman, his marketing co-chairman, who`s participating via a video hook-up from the company`s New York offices, explains that he`s cutting a new trailer for the film. Shaye is unimpressed--he wants to see a plan, a concept, a strategy. "We should [have the trailer in the theaters] at Christmas time," he says. "You have a selling hook for it and you shouldn`t piss it away." Seeing Shaye slumped in his chair, a tense scowl on his face, it`s hard to believe that the 60-year-old founder and chief executive of Hollywood`s most freewheeling movie studio ("A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Dumb and Dumber," "Boogie Nights") had been in a perfectly good mood just minutes before, warmly greeting a visitor and joking with a couple of staffers. But when it comes to business, New Line`s prickly pater familias shows up with his game face on. He built his company from the bottom up, and Bob Shaye is notoriously blunt, with a thinly veiled distaste for the ego-stroking niceties of Hollywood.

Shaye still carries himself with the air of a small-business man, his sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, even at 10 a.m. "When I say `Don`t f- - - up my movie,` I say it with a smile on my face, but I want people to know that there`s someone signing the checks, that I care about the business success of a film, not just the aesthetic success. I`m not one of these guys who yells and throws ashtrays. But I don`t want to be jerked off. There`s too much Hollywood-ese spoken in this business, dancing around ideas instead of saying, `Couldn`t this be better?` "

One of the few remaining self-made movie moguls, he launched New Line more than 30 years ago out of a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village, scraping by for years with an unlikely assortment of art and exploitation films. The company graduated to full-scale Hollywood studio status in 1993, when it was acquired by Ted Turner, and became part of the Time Warner entertainment umbrella when Turner sold out three years later.

New Line is a new star in the Hollywood firmanent. Most of today`s studios are smaller cogs in the corporate food chain. New Line has retained its independence--it`s a funky frat house among old-money mansions, where production meetings are held at 11 a.m. because no one ever seems to get into the office earlier.

Shaye made upward of $400 million from the purchases and has allowed himself a few mogul-like luxuries, including an $11-million Matisse and a Gulfstream III jet. He`s also made a million-dollar grant to the University of Michigan for a screenplay program and endowed a chair at Columbia University School of Law. Next month he`s taking friends on a six-week millennium cruise through the Caribbean, with various family members and business pals joining him for legs of the trip.

Despite his newfound affluence, Shaye sees himself as a maverick. His graying hair flows over his ears and past his collar; he still drives a red 1974 Oldsmobile (odometer reading: 94,470 miles). And even if he`s no longer involved in every day-to-day creative decision, he keeps a vigilant eye on the cash box. For Shaye, whose father and grandfather ran a wholesale grocery in Detroit, New Line remains the family business.

Back in the production meeting, Shaye is quick to challenge his staff`s assumptions. Worried about audience awareness of an upcoming New Line picture, Shaye lectures Friedman about the film`s "astoundingly poor tracking" numbers. "It`s the first day of tracking," Friedman says by way of explanation. Shaye is unmoved. "There are three movies opening that weekend and our competition is No. 1 and No. 2 and we`re No. 3." He names a rival film. "What is it doing that we haven`t been doing?"

The debate shifts to a project in development. A New Line executive describes the hefty fees being negotiated for its high-profile actor-producers. Shaye barks: "If this is the way you want to conduct your professional life, fine, but I don`t want to have anything to do with it."

New Line`s business affairs chief jumps in-- no one at New Line has caved in to any demands yet. Shaye wags his head unhappily. "I just think that kind of money is ridiculous." Most studio chiefs dismiss Hollywood greed and excess as the cost of doing business--Shaye still takes it personally.

Michael De Luca, the 34-year-old New Line president of production who is viewed by many company staffers as Shaye`s surrogate son, diplomatically turns to a new topic, a hot script that New Line wants to acquire. "Of course we may not actually get it," De Luca says dryly. "Bob`s already had a fight with the producer, and we don`t even have a deal yet."

* * *

One of Shaye`s many favorite mottoes, memorialized on his office wall in the form of an Ed Ruscha painting commissioned several years ago, is "Prudent Aggression." For years, New Line staffers would get paperweights at Christmas with similar exhortations, often puzzling among themselves as to the precise meaning behind the slogan. Shaye is similarly hard to read. Some staffers see him as a soulful, sensitive guy. Others view him as a socially uncomfortable loner. One former executive says he will always recall Shaye sitting in his darkened office after the sun went down, never turning on the lights.

His moods wax and wane like the moon. Over lunch at Chaya Brasserie, the Alden Drive eatery that serves as New Line`s informal executive commissary, Shaye is charming and funny, recounting a recent Time Warner top brass sojourn to China. At a memorial service for Al Shapiro, a longtime company executive who died in September, the speakers are humorous and nostalgic, except for Shaye, who is grief-stricken, his eyes tearing and his voice breaking during his remarks.

At the office, he can be remote or chillingly blunt. In a staff meeting one day, he makes it clear that a new marketing executive is in the doghouse; on vacation, he hasn`t bothered to return a Shaye phone call. Asked about it later, Shaye explains: "I respect people`s private time, but if Ted Turner or Gerald Levin calls me on vacation, I call them back. What`s a vacation in the movie business, anyway?"

At New Line, everyone works hard--and then plays hard, starting at the top. In China, for example, the indefatigable Shaye went out clubbing one night until 3 a.m. Most mornings he was up at 6 a.m. for a walk around the city. A young New Line exec who was out on the town with Shaye in New York says that he went home at midnight to get some sleep, knowing he had a meeting with the boss at 9 a.m. the next morning. "Bob stayed out till 2 or 3 a.m.," says the exec. "But he was raring to go the next morning. I was the one who was dragging."

It`s no wonder that people in today`s mineral-water-swigging Hollywood view New Line, somewhat enviously, as the industry`s most free-spirited studio.

It is also one of the most frugal. Mark Ordesky, a longtime staffer who now heads the company`s Fine Line Features art-house wing, still writes notes on torn-in-half scripts. The company`s spartan Robertson Boulevard offices look more like a hip ad agency (think bare pipes and open space) than a Hollywood studio. The walls are decorated with vintage Weegee photos of 1940s-era New York street urchins watching movies at a neighborhood theater.

Shaye always loved movies, even as a child. After graduating from Michigan in 1960, he went to Columbia`s law school, where he met Michael Lynne, now New Line`s president. One of Shaye`s classmates, entertainment executive Freddie Gershon, recalls Shaye as a "funky beatnik" adrift in a sea of straight-arrow future barristers. "Bob wore black turtlenecks, with his hair long and shaggy, and had a wicked Cheshire cat smile," Gershon recalls. "He didn`t belong there. You knew this was someone who`d never practice law."

Instead, Shaye went to Sweden as a Fulbright scholar, where he learned Swedish and met Eva, his future wife. They`ve been married 29 years and have two grown daughters. In 1967, after a stint in the Museum of Modern Art`s film archives, Shaye started New Line, which began as a distribution company specializing in college campus fare. It released Jean-Luc Godard`s "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Reefer Madness," a campy anti-drug screed. In the 1970s, New Line distributed a string of John Waters films, including the outrageous "Pink Flamingos," which had an equally outrageous trailer, directed by Shaye himself.

"Bob never tried to make a John Waters film into something else," recalls Waters. "We had huge fights, but his notes were always right on the mark. There was a scene in `Hairspray` where we had real live roaches climbing out of Ricki Lake`s hair, and Bob was right--it was too much for people. He said, `What is this, a Bunuel movie?` "

For years, New Line`s New York offices were located in such a bad neighborhood that Shaye`s investment banker would joke that he should arrive with an armed guard, and with his briefcase handcuffed to his wrists to foil any robbery attempts. But in 1984, New Line finally hit it big with "A Nightmare on Elm Street," a low-low-budget horror film that spawned a seven-film series that eventually grossed more than $500 million in box-office, video and television revenues. In 1990, it had another success with "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Acquired for $3 million, the film went on to gross $130 million. Matters were so well in hand that Shaye went off to direct a movie himself, a coming-of-age comedy called "Book of Love," a modestly budgeted movie that brought in a modest return.

* * *

Before the Turner purchase, New Line had a $15-million ceiling on its budgets. Afterward, the company began swinging for the fences. In 1994, De Luca persuaded Shaye to pay Jim Carrey, just beginning to make a name for himself with "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," an eye-popping $7 million to star in a new comedy called "Dumb and Dumber." Studio rivals were incensed, but the movie was a huge hit. Carrey now gets $20 million-plus for his films.

Shaye never liked the movie, but as "Dumb and Dumber" co-director Bobby Farrelly puts it: "I give him credit. When he saw it with a big crowd, he started loving it. He said, `You guys were right--it`s funny as hell.` "

The movie ushered in a new era at New Line, where De Luca, who started at New Line as a 19-year-old intern, began calling the creative shots. Hollywood insiders credit Shaye with nurturing De Luca, an outspoken rebel who would`ve been stymied at a more corporate-style studio. Then still in his late 20s, De Luca had two things Shaye lacked: a canny awareness of youthful audience tastes and a good rapport with agents and actors.

"Bob has an inherent and justifiable suspicion of the sleazier aspects of Hollywood," says De Luca. "But you have to let those things roll off your back. Bob has trouble getting past the bull- - - - to the 25% of the people who aren`t hustling you all the time." One of Shaye`s favorite maxims is: "Don`t smoke the Hollywood crack pipe," a reference to the industry`s addiction to money and power.

In the past few years, New Line has rolled out a string of hits, including "Seven," "The Wedding Singer," "Rush Hour" and two phenomenally successful "Austin Powers" films. Shaye still savors pushing the creative envelope. He doesn`t subscribe to the cautious, risk-avoidance filmmaking in vogue at most of today`s studios. When De Luca touted a 21/2-hour picture by a novice director about a group of hapless porn stars, Shaye grumbled, but said yes. The result was Paul Thomas Anderson`s acclaimed "Boogie Nights." New Line also made Anderson`s new three-hour epic, "Magnolia," which is scheduled to be released at Christmas and is already getting a big Oscar buzz. The company has just launched its most ambitious film of all, a $200-million "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, due as early as Christmas 2001. Miramax originally had the project, but was only willing to make one film. The director, Peter Jackson, came to Shaye, hoping to make two. If you really believe in this, Shaye said, let`s make all three.

The gambles haven`t always paid off. New Line stumbled badly in 1996, known as the "dark year" among company veterans, making several double-digit million-dollar flops, including "Last Man Standing" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Shaye acknowledges that New Line`s first brush with the big time "undermined the analytical process. [We stopped asking:] are we making these movies for the right reasons?"

To ensure that his young executives got the message, Shaye installed a big sign in the New Line conference room with another favorite maxim: "Those Who Cannot Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It." The sign has since come down, but the sentiment hasn`t changed. When asked about "Town & Country," an upcoming film starring Warren Beatty that has spiraled far beyond its original budget, Shaye delivers an off-the-record rant, largely directed at the film`s star, who he feels seduced De Luca into green-lighting the film before it had a finished script.

These familial spats are commonplace at New Line. When negotiations to re-sign De Luca dragged on earlier this year, Shaye complained that his protege was being swayed by his "new-found business consultants." De Luca`s tart response: "Bob`s a great boss, but he thinks we`re all prey to the Hollywood crack pipe, which he sometimes confuses with having self-respect."

Shaye had to weather a more high-profile crisis in the spring of 1998 when De Luca, known in Hollywood for his carousing, was kicked out of a William Morris Agency pre-Oscar party after he was seen engaging in oral sex with a woman. At another studio the incident might have cost De Luca his job. Instead, he made apologies, approved several more hit movies and was rewarded with a new contract this summer, after being pursued by virtually every studio in town.

"Bob saw that I took it seriously," says De Luca. "He knew I didn`t deserve a big lecture about behavior and he knew I`m tougher on myself than anyone else could be, so he gave me a respectful distance to beat myself up."

Many in Hollywood thought Shaye was in no position to preach. For years, rumors have buzzed about Shaye`s drinking. In July 1998, Premiere magazine ran an expose of New Line`s fast-and-loose corporate culture, depicting Shaye as a hard drinker who once passed out at a New Line conference dinner. Shaye has never personally responded to the piece, saying that as a lawyer, he`s "sophisticated enough to know where lawsuits get you, especially involving the First Amendment." Asked about his drinking, he says coolly: "It`s none of your or anybody`s business. I don`t have to justify my personal behavior to the professional community, and I`ve never done anything against the best interests of this company."

Even ex-New Liners are sympathetic. "Bob doesn`t have a drinking problem," says a former staffer. "He has a mood problem. And after he`s had a drink, he`s just in a better mood. It`s part of what makes him so complicated. He`s a great person to go to for advice, but most people are too scared of him to go near him."

In Hollywood, the schmooze capital of the world, Shaye is a rarity, a mogul who prefers withering candor to flattery. "He has this gruff, pissed-off persona," says Brett Ratner, who directed "Rush Hour" and is viewed by many as another surrogate Shaye son. "But that`s just on the outside. He`s really a softie on the inside."

When things are going badly, Shaye offers stalwart support. When morale was low during the making of "Lost in Space," Shaye often flew to London to rally the troops, taking some cast and crew members out on the town, eager to keep spirits up. Rob Kobus, a New Line vice president of marketing finance and father of three young children, was devastated when his wife suffered a cerebral hemorrhage two years ago. He says Shaye reacted with genuine paternal concern, calling regularly, giving Kobus a lengthy leave of absence and allowing him to change his hours so that he could be home when his kids returned from school. "Bob said, as long as you need to be away, your job will always be here. Whenever I`ve tried to thank him, he just says: `This is family.` "

Director Renny Harlin, who is from Finland, recounts how Shaye called his mother after Harlin had made his first film, "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4." "He got on the phone with her, going on and on in Swedish [Harlin`s mother`s second tongue] about what a great boy she had and how I was going to be a big success in America, and she was so happy she started crying.

"You want to gain Bob`s respect and love because it`s so hard to get. It`s like you always want to come home with a straight-A report card to impress him because he`s like your father."

Even though he`s ceded most of New Line`s creative decisions to De Luca, Shaye remains the company`s seasoned navigator--he likes the term "gadfly"--who can offer his young staff a wealth of practical knowledge. "I play the bad guy sometimes, but part of it is just to keep up a little pressure, to make sure our people keep their eyes on the ball."

At his desk, Shaye fidgets with a plexiglass paperweight, this one bearing the maxim: "Not a loser in the bunch." It epitomizes his hard-to-achieve goal for New Line, the heady feeling when every roll of the dice comes up a winner. "I still want to express my taste or there isn`t any professional satisfaction in this for me," he says quietly. "So if I say to someone, `This is a really dumb deal,` they can debate me and they can even win the argument. But they better be sure they`re right."