Studio of the Year

December 12, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Three years ago, New Line Cinema was the toast of Hollywood. They were an unstoppable force, destroying the competition at the box office and rolling to an Oscar blitz. 2003 was, of course, the year when the climax of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings reached theaters. Every studio was congratulating New Line on its foresight and initiative in letting Jackson make the trilogy his way. The results, both financial and artistic, were impossible to argue with.

Fast-forward to 2006. When you're on top, there's nowhere to go but down, and New Line has shown how far a studio can tumble. This year has been marked by a string of box-office disappointments for the studio that Freddy built. Not every movie they released languished in the red, but there are plenty of examples of underperformers. To top off everything else, the studio took a PR hit when Peter Jackson aired some dirty laundry by stating that he had been involuntarily removed from development of The Hobbit because he (Jackson) would not drop a lawsuit filed against the corporation (related to profits from LOTR). Ultimately, it doesn't matter who's right or who's wrong, but how the situation is spun. Because Jackson struck first and most effectively, New Line emerged blackened and bloodied. They are the bad guys. Peter is the slighted and betrayed artist, backed by everyone from Tolkien's grandson to Saul Zaentz.

Are New Line's woes the result of bad management decisions, poor marketing, or misjudging the market? It's probably a combination of all three. I'm not in a position to draw definitive conclusions, but I can make observations. Let's look at a trio of examples.

Snakes on a Plane: New Line thought this was going to be the big late summer blockbuster. They mistook Internet chatter for box office dollars. What happened on Opening Night was symptomatic of the movie's entire run: small, enthusiastic crowds. The key word in that sentence: small. People liked chatting and blogging about Snakes on a Plane but they didn't want to see it. The movie died a quick death that left New Line confused. One of their mistakes was not striking while the iron was hot. The Snakes on a Plane frenzy peaked in the late spring. By August, it was running on fumes. In the end, the stunning failure of the movie represented a misjudgment of the market. There is good news, however. If the film does any business on DVD, it will end up breaking even. Still, that's nowhere close to what New Line was hoping when they declared this to be their tent-pole release of the late summer.

Little Children: This was among the best films I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival yet (to-date) in a limited art-house run, it has not crossed the $2M mark, and it has begun the long, slow fade into obscurity. (It will be out of all but a handful of theaters by Christmas.) The film's inability to break into multiplexes and make some legitimate money is a mystery. It has a recognizable cast: Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, and Patrick Wilson. It has a respected director in Todd Field. Yet it didn't reach an audience. By comparison, Field's previous movie, also a small art house family drama (In the Bedroom) made $36M. Babel, which was released around the same time as Little Children and should have appealed to roughly the same audience, exploded into multiplexes and (to-date) has made nearly ten times what Little Children has grossed. To me, the conclusion is inescapable: New Line botched the marketing. It's not that there isn't an audience out there for Little Children - it's that the audience never found out about the movie. I cannot recall seeing one piece of advertising for Little Children beyond tiny ads in the movie sections of newspapers. Paramount Vantage, on the other hand, spent the money for TV ads for Babel. The result? Babel will be comfortably in the black by the time its theatrical run ends. Little Children will be in the red, hoping to be redeemed on DVD. The movies will sit side-by-side on my Top 10 list for 2006.

The Nativity Story: The target demographic for this dramatically inert motion picture is Fundamentalist Christians, but they surprised New Line by not following the mantra "If you make it, they will come." They stayed home instead, preferring not to sit in a theater to watch a live re-enactment of a nativity display. New Line expected The Nativity Story to open big and stay strong throughout December. It has done neither. The Passion of the Christ took in $84M during its opening weekend. The Nativity Story managed 10% of that. The film will probably be successful on video when it's released late next year. (This is the kind of thing that will work much better on television.) Theatrically, however, it's a bust. This is another case of New Line misjudging the audience.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Beyond the obvious parables about reaping what you sow and big things falling hard, probably not. New Line has had a bad year, but it will no doubt pick itself up, make some key personnel changes, and rebound next year or the year after or the year after that. The movie business is cyclical. Last year, Disney was in the doldrums. This year, it's on top of the world with both Cars and Pirates 2. Next year, who knows? But it would be a surprise if New Line is in the same position in 12 months.