With Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy about to hit theaters, it seems a good time to reflect on another part of my New Line experience. Like the last time, it involves Lord of the Rings, but unlike last time this is more of a cautionary tale.
The Proverb says pride comes before the fall. This was true in the case of New Line. To me, a clear symbol of this downfall was a Ring… not the One Ring of Sauron, but a custom made ring on the finger of the company’s founder, Bob Shaye.
After the LOTR Trilogy made Billions in the theater, and Return of the King swept the Oscars with 11 wins, New Line was the talk of the town and riding high. This mini-studio, with rented office space and also-ran status in the Time Warner Universe, had pulled off a coup. And those at all levels of the company were quick to believe the hype that New Line had been the vital component in this rousing success.
Bob Shaye stood in front of the company and held up his hand to show off the large championship style ring on his middle finger. He was practically beaming with pride and vindication as he told the story of taking a gamble on the LOTR production and Peter Jackson’s vision. It was intertwined with the now-legendary moment when Bob had heard Peter’s pitch for the two-movie version of LOTR and asked, “It’s three books, why aren’t you doing three movies?”.
“I call this my Fuck-You Ring,” Bob declared to the company. It was custom made to commemorate the 11 Oscars and to remind him, essentially, that his instincts where right and everyone else can go fuck themselves. Except… he’d had a few drinks so what he actually said was far more rambling and colorful.
That moment seared into my brain. I didn’t even realize it until far later. I remember the event, where I was standing, and the things before and after. New Line’s decline seems as if it turned on that moment, with the blinders of genuine success clouding the truth that had led to that moment and tainting the decisions in the years to come.
If you worked at New Line during those years, you held up the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a jewel in your resume. I never heard anyone at the company describe their involvement in Lord of the Rings as anything but vital. We all puffed out our chests and talked about how important we were to the process.
Sadly, this covers up a lot of dirty little truths. And most of them stream from one major factor:
Peter Jackson is like George Lucas with an island. If any other studio in town had said “let’s make three movies” and handed over the money they would have gotten films nearly identical to what came out of New Line.
Bob Shaye’s bold moment was recognizing that three thick books probably contained enough material to support three movies. It’s a bold thought in terms of potential budgets, but quite obvious when looking at three books of material. In fact, it’s far less bold than seeing one book and deciding it can support more than one film.
And while Peter Jackson seemed like an untried name to helm the trilogy, he came to New Line with the rights to direct the films. He wasn’t picked out of a line-up of candidates, he was part of the pre-established deal made at Miramax. Jackson and his team had been working on the project since the early-mid 90s, building models and putting the pieces together on Miramax’s dime. They came to New Line with a 30 minute animated real with actor portrayals of key scenes and piles of proof of concept and execution.
New Line said… Go. A bold move, no doubt, but not a moment of particular vision or matchmaking to bring the films to life.
Now consider that Peter Jackson had final cut approval as long as he kept the films under certain lengths. Meaning, if he couldn’t keep them under the times New Line set for theatrical limits, then the studio would recut the films. Note the theatrical running times versus the “Extended Editions” available later… the theatrical versions don’t just happen to be the lengths they are, they remain under the cutoff to allow him to have final cut.
Of course New Line executives gave notes, and some of them were taken and absorbed into the films. But with a production team isolated on an island across the world and a director wielding final cut, it reduces the studio closer to the role of banker than creative force.
Every department at the company claimed to have made great strides to the success of the films, but most were completely bypassed by Peter’s obsessive and single-minded control of things that shaped the films. For example, New Line marketing department was removed from the process and all trailers and marketing materials were done by a third party company which dealt directly with Peter. Of course certain key New Liner’s chimed in, but the studio was cut from their normal middle-man role.
In the years to follow, New Line seemed to prove we didn’t bring about the LOTR magic. Dumb and Dumber-er and Son of the Mask were the internal development department’s answers to Time Warner’s mandate for sequels. Film after film tanked. Budgets swelled while the rare 100 million in the theater got heralded as a huge success. Any time someone asked how the studio was actually doing we were all assured that everything was fine. We’d made Lord of the Rings! Billions of dollars were coming in and the future was solid.
Never mind that the LOTR budgets had been leveraged with distributors and partners world-wide, meaning that New Line not only took on less than half the financial burden, but also split the spoils to the four corners of the earth.
Meanwhile, New Line went looking for new books to make in a Lord of the Rings style. I remember us pulling out marketing materials and referencing what Peter and the LOTR team had done at every step of the process- as if copying their approach guaranteed success. But no amount of marketing and positioning can cover for bad films.
As these decisions continued and I watched each marginal film dozens and dozens of times, I got angrier and more vocal. I took it personally. I’m not proud of this.
But sadly, the truth remains. New Line believed their own hype. The actions of the studio showed we didn’t believe it was the filmmaker, or the much loved material, or even one of those magical movie moments where lightening really does get trapped in a bottle. New Line believed it had conjured success, “we made Lord of the Rings”.
And as proof, we only had to look to the One Ring. The Fuck-You Ring.
Return of the King came out in December of 2003. New Line was scuttled by June of 2008. Five years of under-performing films caught up to the little independent step-child of the Time Warner family. Today, a New Line movie is evidence of a hand-full of development people working under the Warner Brother’s umbrella – the full film studio with over 600 employees is gone.
Now here comes Peter Jackson’s new trilogy. I’m sure he has even more power and control than he did for the first three. And I’m sure that all over New Line, MGM, and Warner Bros. there are executives dog-piling to take credit for any forthcoming success. Of course, should the films disappoint, then they’ll all point fingers away from themselves… it’s the Hollywood way.
Meanwhile, I try to remember Bob’s ring. I wonder what I have that holds the same place in my psyche. What do I hold aloft and say “I did this” while ignoring all the luck, or blessing, or assistance that was given to me? We all do this in our own way. I just hope I can recognize those things and refuse to rest on any laurels I’ve stumbled into.
There’s another lesson in this too… The best place to be in a success:
The Weinstein’s spent time and money securing the rights to the Tolkien stories for Peter Jackson. Then they got tired of spending money and let him shop the project elsewhere. But one of the many clauses of the deal was for the Brothers to maintain a producing credit and get percentage points of any possible success.
Their names appear on all three films, and it’s not name only… there’s money there.
So, if self-improvement tires you, then I recommend tying yourself to a percentage of someone else’s work. Then go about your own life, sit back, and let them pay you.
I wonder if the Weinsteins have a Fuck-You ring?