New Line finds its feminine side

Studio once home to mostly male-skewing fare

When Lynda Obst packaged her romantic-comedy project "What Was I Thinking?" with stars Leslie Mann and Elizabeth Banks attached, the studio at the top of her list was New Line. "I purposely took it there first; they did 'He's Just Not That Into You,' " the producer said, citing the hit ensemble romantic comedy, released by New Line in February, that grossed nearly $94 million domestically.

That same studio is now casting another ensemble romancer, "Valentine's Day," assembling a lineup that includes Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway and Bradley Cooper. It's also about to roll on the Drew Barrymore-Justin Long comedy "Going the Distance."

In short, the house that Freddy Krueger built suddenly finds itself home to a flock of chick flicks.

In the old days, New Line gave off a decidedly masculine vibe, churning out horror movies like the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series and such raucous comedies as "Austin Powers" and "Wedding Crashers." Its execs cultivated a work hard, play harder ethic, almost as if it sported the Greek letters of a frat house above the studio entrance.

But during the past year -- while adjusting to the fact that it's no longer an independent unit of Time Warner but a scaled-down production label within the Warner Bros. fold -- New Line has softened its image so that it now comfortably nurtures female-skewing fare.

New Line president Toby Emmerich doesn't deny that New Line has undergone a makeover but said, "It's not all of a sudden, it's gradual."

To be sure, New Line hasn't abandoned its roots. The company is in production on the relaunch of "A Nightmare of Elm Street," with Jackie Earle Haley playing Freddy, and has a fourth installment of the "Final Destination" franchise, this one in 3D, opening in August.

But its new look began coming into focus with the success of "Sex and the City." Released in May 2008, it grossed $415 million worldwide. The shift continued with November's "Four Christmases," the Reese Witherspoon-Vince Vaughn comedy that unwrapped $120 million domestically. May's romantic comedy "Ghost of Girlfriends Past," while not an immediate success, has grossed $54 million, which should set it on track to recoup its negative costs and post a profit.

On the weepie side, the studio is prepping the adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's love story "The Time Traveler's Wife" for an Aug. 14 opening, coming on the heels of the Nick Cassavetes pic "My Sister's Keeper," now in release.

A lot of the emphasis on X-chromosomes comes from Emmerich, who was made production president in January 2001 by then-studio heads Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne. It was Emmerich who persuaded Shaye to make 2004's "The Notebook," the four-hankie love story starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. He also pushed the studio on "Monster-in-Law," the 2005 Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy that welcomed back Jane Fonda to the screen after a 15-year absence.

"Women make up two quadrants and I think they are underserved in theatrical," Emmerich said. "Maybe not on network or cable, but I've always felt that for theatrical, women are underserved. Movies tend to be made for the guys, and women kind of go along."

One driver behind the new focus is financial.

New Line has always made movies for a budget, its eye closely tracking the bottom line. But when one of its movies hit it big -- the first "Austin Powers," "Elf" or "Wedding Crashers" -- and causes the quotes of stars like Mike Myers, Will Ferrell and Vaughn to soar exponentially, the company has to look elsewhere for talent.

Female actresses have lower asking prices in today's Hollywood. "The marketplace has undervalued women," Emmerich noted.

New Line may be putting more women on screen, but the executive roster, headed by Emmerich and president of production Richard Brener, is primarily male.

Michael Disco, for example, is overseeing "Valentine's Day" with Sam Brown and "Going the Distance" with Dave Neustadter.

The exec lineup does include several women, though. Meredith Finn, based in New York, and Michelle Weiss are overseeing "What Was I Thinking?" And Carolyn Blackwood holds the title of executive vp strategy and operations.

Emmerich insists that New Line was never as male-centric as it might have appeared.

"I think it's a misconception," he said, adding that even when the company was under then-president of production Michael De Luca, it still turned out movies like femme thriller "Set It Off," drama "Living Out Loud" and the period romance "In Love and War."

None of those movies, however, reached the levels of success as the recent crop.

One contributing factor? Warner's marketing and distribution.

Ironically, the parent studio had struggled to release such recent female-oriented action movies as "The Brave One" and "The Invasion" but hit its stride with more romantic pics like "Sex," "Christmases," "Into You" and "17 Again."

Emmerich credits Sue Kroll, who was named president worldwide marketing at Warner Bros. 18 months ago, for much of that success.

Kroll said that hooking women is different than luring guys to the movies. "Most women want to know more info before they go," she said. "Women tend to read a lot and listen to their friends' opinions."

But she also doesn't believe in targeting one group only: Her approach has synched up with New Line's own m.o., which is to make chick flicks as guy-friendly as possible even as the studio courts female moviegoers.

It's all about hedging one's bets. Trailers for "Christmases" showed Vaughn wrestling with Jon Favreau, and comedian Thomas Lennon stole scenes in "17."

"If you're wrong about the guys and they don't come, you'll still be OK if just the girls come," Emmerich said.
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