Michael Lynne, Former Co-Chairman and CEO of New Line Cinema, Dies at 77

Michael Lynne - Getty - H 2018
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He started with Bob Shaye in the early 1980s, saw the company through sales and mergers with Turner and Time Warner and executive produced the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy.

Michael Lynne, who partnered with Bob Shaye to transform New Line Cinema from a struggling independent studio to a powerhouse known for its sensational success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has died. He was 77.

Lynne died Sunday at his home in New York, a spokesman for Unique Features, a company he founded with Shaye, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Lynne was working as an entertainment lawyer in the early 1980s when he bumped into Shaye, an acquaintance from Columbia Law School, on a New York City street. Shaye, who had founded New Line in 1967 by distributing films to colleges, paid Lynne a $10,000 retainer to serve as outside counsel, and he was named president and COO in 1990.

The financially savvy Lynne and Shaye, an occasional filmmaker, profited when New Line was acquired by Ted Turner in 1994 for more than $500 million in cash and stock, then were swept into the fold at Time Warner as part of the $7.5 billion merger with Turner's businesses in 1996. 

Lynne was named New Line co-chairman and co-CEO in 2001, and he and Shaye enjoyed a somewhat autonomous reign at Time Warner.

They took a big chance on the Lord of the Rings films, which cost a tidy $361 million to produce. Released in 2001, 2002 and 2003 — Shaye convinced director Peter Jackson to make three epics out of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel instead of two — the trilogy went on to rake in nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office.

The final installment, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, collected a record-tying 11 Oscars, including best picture.

Lynne and Shaye found other successes with the Rush Hour and Austin Powers franchises as well as with other films like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Robert Altman's The Player (1992) — released through its art house subsidiary, Fine Line Features — the Hughes brothers' Menace II Society (1993), The Mask (1994), Dumb and Dumber (1994), David Fincher's Seven (1995), Elf (2003), Wedding Crashers (2005), Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) and Hairspray (2007), one of several John Waters movies that New Line championed.

In 2008, with New Line struggling — The Golden Compass, made for $200 million, had bombed — Time Warner made the decision to remove redundancies and place the division under the oversight of sister studio Warner Bros. Staffers were pink-slipped, and Lynne and Shaye were effectively replaced by an underling, Toby Emmerich. 

"The thing that's particularly sad is that we've had to literally sit through it," Lynne told Vanity Fair in 2009. "I had to sit and watch as 200 people in the New York office, week by week, by attrition, went away in tears. New Line had a very familial aspect, not only for Bob and I but pretty much for everybody who worked there. And the goodbyes were personal and extremely difficult."

Lynne and Shaye then co-founded Unique with a three-year, first-look deal with Warner Bros., and their new company greenlighted such films as The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013), When the Bough Breaks (2016) and the upcoming Middle Earth.

Lynne was born in Brooklyn on April 23, 1941. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1961 with a bachelor's degree in English, received his J.D. degree from Columbia Law School three years later and did some work for producer Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures.

Before Lynne arrived, New Line's wins were few — Waters' Pink Flamingos (1972); a 1973 rerelease of Reefer Madness, which was in the public domain; and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, the 1979 Oscar winner for best foreign-language film, among them. 

With Lynne on board, Nightmare on Elm Street, New Line's first franchise effort, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — a $3 million acquisition that wound up grossing more than $200 million — helped place the studio on solid financial footing.

The $500 million sale of New Line to Turner came just a year after the Walt Disney Co. had paid just $80 million for another independent company, Harvey and Bob Weinstein's Miramax Films.

Lynne had served on the Imax board of directors since July 2013, and CEO Richard Gelfond in a statement called him "a great friend to us all [and] a source of inspiration [who] generously shared his wisdom and values." 

An avid art collector, Lynne in 2000 purchased the Bedell Cellars Winery on Long Island in a $5 million deal, then thought to be highest price ever paid for a New York wine estate. The previous year, he had acquired the nearby Corey Creek Vineyards for nearly $2 million.

With winemaking, "there's an aspect you can't predict," Lynne said in a 2015 interview with the New York Post. "Go into a movie with the right financing and talent, and stuff can still go wrong, while in wine, it tends to be weather-related. There's always something you can't control. And sometimes the fates are just with you, and it all comes together."

In 2004, Lynne pledged $250,000 to the Brooklyn College Foundation in support of the Tow Center for the Performing Arts.

Survivors include his wife, Ninah.