By Daniel Herbert, author of Maverick Movies: New Line Cinema and the Transformation of American Film

Most members of the public probably don’t know anything about New Line Cinema, the movie studio and subject of my recent book Maverick Movies: New Line Cinema and the Transformation of American Film. Even as someone who studies and teaches about the American movie industry, I hadn’t given the company much thought before I started teaching a class about it in 2011. With a few exceptions—like Disney—audiences generally don’t pay attention to media companies. Instead, they connect to movies in particular genres, with certain stars, or with certain characters and story-worlds.

So, what are some highlights from New Line’s distinctive and highly varied catalog?  In 1972, New Line released John Waters’s shock-comedy Pink Flamingos, which immediately gained a notorious reputation and has since become a cult cinema classic.  In 1984, the company made A Nightmare on Elm Street, a violent slasher film that launched the Freddy Krueger character into mainstream pop culture and kicked off a multi-film, multi-media franchise that proliferated for decades.  In 1990, New Line made a mint with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feature film, which capitalized on and expanded the success of a kid-oriented franchise of comic books, television cartoons, and action figures. The company released Friday in 1995, a stoner comedy set in “South Central” Los Angeles that featured rapper Ice Cube and comedian Chris Tucker. New Line reached its high-water mark with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, releasing each film in December 2001, 2002, and 2003, respectively, in a cascade of financial success and critical acclaim.

This is just a small sample of New Line Cinema’s output from its founding in 1967 to its corporate dismantling in 2008. But these particular films are representative of the company’s approach, and the larger historical narrative chronicled in Maverick Movies. All these movies were significant successes within their relative generic, cultural, and industrial domains. And indeed, while New Line suffered a number of setbacks and even major failures over the years, it was an unusually successful company during a time when other comparable companies floundered and collapsed. 

Yet interestingly, all these films were also quite dissimilar in terms of genre and expected audience. I don’t think anyone would intuit any connection among them unless they knew the same company released them all. New Line Cinema was uncommonly eclectic and always a little left-of-center in the films it chose or managed to make and distribute. It was exactly this eclecticism and unconventionality that was key to the company’s success, and also what made its success so unpredictable, remarkable, and dramatic. It might be difficult to believe now, but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Lord of the Rings films were all seen as “risky” within the industry before they were released. 

As I write in the book’s conclusion, “a maverick company that made and distributed maverick movies, often with great imagination, New Line’s trajectory through time and the film industry was untypical and yet also illustrative.” As readers will see,  the company’s zigzag through history shines a light on how unusual the film industry really was from the late 1960s through the early 2000s. And it’s worth considering how a single company could make such a variety of different, but memorable and impactful, movies.