Farewell, New Line

The dysfunctional studio gets absorbed by Warner Bros.

Adios: We may be sentimental fools, but we feel a pang for the passing of New Line, which is becoming part of Warner Brothers as anticipated.

It’s not that New Line had done that much for us lately. We could have lived without Snakes on a Plane and Monster-in-Law (which we saw when trapped on a plane ourselves and would have preferred the snakes). Co-Chairman Bob Shaye, who started New Line out of his Greenwich Village apartment in 1967, certainly had his failings. He has always run a seriously dysfunctional company in which atrocious behavior was the norm. And lately he’s been distracted and self-indulgent, it’s true.

But he also brought the world an array of work ranging from Pink Flamingos (and most of the John Waters oeuvre) to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The company’s franchises included the movie version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and Austin Powers. There were also Boogie Nights, The Wedding Singer, About Schmidt, and Elf.

It was always highs and lows with New Line, commercially and artistically. New Line had the vision to make the Lord of the Rings films—and then got into litigation with director Peter Jackson over money. Now that Jackson’s suit has been settled. J.R.R. Tolkien’s heirs have gone to court.

Shaye is certainly a controversial figure, but he’s also the only person in decades to have built a successful movie studio from scratch. Clearly, he’s also not just another cog in a corporate machine. But his company is now. (link)

Feb. 14, 2008

Steven Spielberg bails on the Beijing Olympics

Score! As we predicted last year, Steven Spielberg has bailed on his role as artistic adviser to the Olympics, because the Chinese government has not used its influence to quell the violence in Darfur.

It’s been a tough ride for Spielberg, with Mia Farrow pressing him to get out last March in a Wall Street Journal article in which she exhorted him not to be “the Leni Riefenstahl” of the ‘08 games. On Wednesday, Farrow told us that she’s happy Spielberg had what she called “a Lillian Hellman moment.” (Farrow has a knack for allusions to famous ladies of stage and screen, it seems.) In this case, she was referencing Hellman’s refusal in 1952 to name names before the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activites. * At the time, Hellman famously issued a statement that read in part, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” (It’s a good quote, though it seems unlikely that Spielberg will pay the high price Hellman did for her defiance, which caused her to be blacklisted.)

In response to the Spielberg news, a coalition of activist organizations promptly said they will run ads around the world decrying China’s inaction. The next move will be pressuring corporate sponsors, including GE, McDonald’s, and many other giant American corporations. Farrow is already asking the public to call these companies and speak out, and she has conveniently listed contact information on her Web site. Patience, she told us, is an overrated virtue.

No one—not even Farrow—is asking athletes to boycott the games. But gold-medal-winning speed skater Joey Cheeks, co-founder of a coalition of athletes called Team Darfur, hopes some athletes will make their views known, especially when the world’s attention is focused on them while they’re in China.

The hope is to embarrass the Chinese during what was supposed to be a shining showcase for the country. So far, it doesn’t seem to be working. On Tuesday, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy told the New York Times that the Darfur crisis “is neither an internal issue of China nor is it caused by China.” The spokesman added, “It is completely unreasonable, irresponsible and unfair to link the two as one.” (link)

Feb. 7, 2008

Pop Quiz: “The Writers’ Strike—who won?” asks Hollywoodland’s inquiring editor.

The obvious answer after a bitter and expensive strike is no one. But why settle for the obvious?

No, we must go for nuance, which is just as well. Because at this point the outcome in this fight is eminently spinnable. What’s clear is that the deal was pushed through the system so damn fast that many writers weren’t sure what they were applauding at the guild meeting on Saturday night at the Shrine. Many thought they had made gains in new media that really aren’t there—specifically, that the guild had won a percentage of ad money from shows streamed on the Internet.

That’s not exactly true. But maybe it didn’t matter to most of the writers at that meeting. For a great many writers, it was time to end the strike. They wanted to declare victory and go back to work.

To be fair, it appears that the writers made some strides in new media. They pushed up the studios’ number on payments for downloads of their work. They made a deal to get paid for rentals over the Internet, which Apple is serving up soon. They established that they have some jurisdiction over material created specifically for the Internet. But in this and many other cases, there are all sorts of exceptions and caveats that Hollywoodland will never fully digest. So, while the writers certainly made gains, they can hardly claim a resounding victory.

Consider the supposed victory of wresting a percentage of ad revenue from the studios. That was a big deal in this negotiation. In the first two years (it’s a three-year agreement), the deal gives writers a fixed payment—a few hundred bucks—when their work is streamed free over the Internet, such as when you watch an episode of The Office with commercials appended. But many writers felt that a crummy fixed payment was not good enough. So the guild announced that in the third year of the deal—ta-dum—the writer gets 2 percent of revenue from those ads. The Holy Grail!

Except the payment won’t be based on the revenue from those ads. The deal makes an assumption: The revenue will be $40,000. So, the writer doesn’t get a percentage of the actual gross but a percentage of a fixed amount—which turns out to be a crummy fixed payment of a few hundred bucks. And that wasn’t supposed to be good enough.

It seems like sleight of hand to call this a “percentage of gross.” But the Writers Guild leaders say that the notion of a percentage has at least been injected into the process and that $40,000 could actually turn out to be more than the studios get from those ads.

That may be, though it’s also worth noting that in the long lists of exceptions and caveats, the studios get about three weeks to stream those television episodes before they have to pay anything at all—and doesn’t it seem likely that most of the money generated from streaming those shows would come within a few days of the original broadcast?

So, that big win looks a bit chimerical. But the writers had to end the strike now or face the prospect of many more months of being out of work, which many would not have supported. And the guild may have positioned itself well for next time.

The deal supposedly gives the guild a peek at the numbers so it can figure out what the studios really do get from those ads. And the writers have now synced up their contract expiration date with the actors. So should the studios balk at giving the writers a real cut of the gross from streaming video next time (assuming it’s worth having), the two unions could join hands and make some real trouble. (link)

Correction, Feb. 29, 2008: This article originally implied that Sen. Joseph McCarthy chaired the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He did not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)