The Lord of the Screens: U-M professor Daniel Herbert chronicles the history of New Line Cinema in "Maverick Movies"

Daniel Herbert and his book Maverick Movies.

Late August at Hotel OzoneStuntsGet Out Your HandkerchiefsA Nightmare on Elm StreetCrittersHouse PartyTeenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesTwin Peaks: Fire Walk with MeDumb and DumberAustin Powers: International Man of MysteryHedwig and the Angry InchThe Lord of the RingsThe Notebook.

These films all have one thing in common: New Line Cinema.

University of Michigan film and media professor Daniel Herbert chronicles and analyzes the history of the production studio and its films in his new book, Maverick Movies: New Line Cinema and the Transformation of American Film.

Herbert initially launched his interest in New Line by teaching a course on the company. Back in 2010, the idea came from U-M librarian Philip Hallman, who also speculated about a possible book. The class evolved, and Herbert conducted extensive research that culminated in his book. He studied the Robert Shaye-New Line Cinema Papers and the Ira Deutchman Papers, which are in the Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers collection at the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Michigan Library. The closing lines of the book describe the origins of its title:

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 yet also illustrative. New Line Cinema was and is a legend in every sense of the word.

The journey of New Line, however, was not a straight path, as the wide range of its movies indicate.

Herbert shares his approach to the book in his introduction: "Treating New Line Cinema as something like the book’s protagonist, Maverick Movies narrates an institutional history.” Herbert emphasizes two characteristics of New Line, which are that the distribution-company-turned-studio is both eclectic and heterogeneous. Often, the New Line features that garnered high box office earnings, critical acclaim, awards, and/or popularity are distinct from each other. Herbert writes, “Although it is common for film distributors to round out their slate with films from a variety of genres, few companies have been quite so eclectic in their offerings as New Line.” Herbert further reflects on this characteristic, too, stating that "one of the greatest lessons of New Line is that American cinema has been even stranger than we might originally think.” The book explores these assertions chronologically.

The history of New Line Cinema is indeed rich. Robert Shaye gets the credit for founding New Line as an independent film distribution company in 1967. Early distributions included Reefer Madness.

The company initially leveraged “the desires and ideals of college film culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” and the picture called Branches is an example of this.

Not only was New Line eclectic, but the company tried out various approaches and benefitted from the changing movie industry. For example, A Nightmare on Elm Street proved lucrative:

With NOES, New Line catered to the existing market for slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s and built on this success by releasing multiple sequels, as was the case with other slasher film series. Unlike many horror series, however, New Line extended NOES into multiple media platforms and consumer products, including a television series, computer video games, Halloween costumes, and other merchandise. Thus, …New Line brought the Freddy Krueger character out of the slasher genre and into a wider popular culture through franchising practices.

With the far reach of the movie, New Line earned its nickname of “The House That Freddy Built.”

Furthermore, the expansion of viewing movies at home in the 19080s brought income from selling the home video rights: “Movies were no longer bound to the theatrical market, and television no longer served as the only secondary market for feature films.” Studios had more sources of revenue and, as Herbert writes, “commercial exploitation.”

New Line kept up its varied repertoire over time. Series such as Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesAustin Powers, and The Lord of the Rings could not have been less alike. Herbert writes, “In a manner, Austin Powers disavowed New Line’s very history and created a big, popular hit by ridiculing the revolutionary, exploratory, and liberated values the company had promoted previously.” New Line was not afraid to be irreverent, and this tactic earned them great success. Herbert designates LOTR as “the high point, certainly, in the story of New Line Cinema.”

Later years brought changes that diminished New Line’s independence. New Line Cinema went public in 1986, though the IPO did not draw what the studio had hoped. Turner Broadcasting later acquired the studio in 1994 and then merged with Time Warner two years later. In 2008, Time Warner collapsed New Line into Warner Bros., and while it still produces films under the New Line name, there are not as many now.

Herbert will discuss his book with A.S. Hamrah in a virtual event with Literati Bookstore on Friday, November 17, at 7 pm.

I interviewed Herbert about Maverick Movies for Pulp:

Q: Your graduate work was at the University of Southern California. How long have you lived in Ann Arbor, and what do you think of it?
A: I’m from Michigan originally and grew up in Wyandotte and then Farmington. When I was a kid my family would come to Ann Arbor for cultural events, and as a teenager, I’d come here to have teenage fun.

After going to college in New Mexico and then getting my Ph.D. at USC, I moved back to Michigan in 2007. My wife Anna and I moved to Ann Arbor in 2008. We love it. My parents live in the area, and it is good to be near them as they get older. We have a close group of friends, a good number of whom all had kids around the same time that we did, so we’re all in a similar place. I feel great comfort here because of the political and cultural landscape in Ann Arbor, and it is beautiful, too. Our kids are happy and have made good friends, and I am grateful that we live in a place with such excellent public schools. And, of course, the Ann Arbor District Library system is the best.

Being in Los Angeles for grad school when I was in my 20s and early 30s was fantastic, but Ann Arbor has been a wonderful home for my family and me for more than 15 years. Honestly, I cannot imagine being in this phase of my life anywhere else. Michigan is a great university and a good place to work. My Department of Film, Television, and Media is tops, and I have incredible colleagues there.

Q: You have written several books on film and media topics. What drew you to this field in the first place?
A: Maverick Movies is the third book that I have written myself as sole author. Additionally, I co-wrote a book with two colleagues, and I also co-edited two collections.

I always loved movies; my mom inspired that in me, especially, and would take my brother and me to the movies, often to be in the air conditioning on hot summer days. We got a VCR when I was young, and I watched all the James Bond movies, everything by Alfred Hitchcock, and would secretly watch violent Schwarzenegger movies with abetting babysitters.

I discovered film as a serious art form when I was a teenager, at the same time that the “indie boom” of the late 1980s and early 1990s exploded. Drugstore Cowboy by Gus Van Sant was especially impactful and everything by David Lynch.

In terms of my career, I took an “Intro to Film” class on a whim at the University of New Mexico. The instructor was a very unconventional and brilliant person named Gus Blaisdell, who captivated me.

Even as a kid I had imagined that I wanted to be some kind of artist—a musician, a painter, or maybe a writer. I just knew I didn’t want a regular job. So, taking this film class, I thought maybe I could be a filmmaker. And I made short movies with my friends and worked on a few commercial things, but I never liked the particular flavor of stress that filmmaking can induce. Another of my wonderful instructors, Susan Dever, said I was good at analyzing film and that I should apply to graduate school. I surprised myself by getting into USC and have worked diligently at the job since my first semester there in 2002. When I was writing my second book, about film remakes and franchises, it occurred to me that I’d become a writer after all.

Q: Your new monograph, Maverick Movies, has interesting origins. Your acknowledgments share that Phil Hallman, a librarian at the University of Michigan, gave you the idea to offer a course on New Line Cinema. How did a course turn into a book?
A: I first taught the New Line class in 2011 because the Department had film prints—actual celluloid—of many New Line Cinema movies. Phil and I wanted to make use of those materials and give students a good, big-screen viewing experience in a moment when streaming was clearly taking over everything.

The class was organized chronologically. But as it moved forward in time, from Pink Flamingos to A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Friday, and so on, it was hard for me to make sense of a company that had distributed all these extremely different movies. Each week had a different theme and topic, and it changed genres all the time.

But it was a fun class and I taught it several more times. I had guests visit occasionally, including New Line founder (and University of Michigan alum) Robert Shaye, as well as Ira Deutchman, who ran the company’s specialty film division, Fine Line Features, in the 1990s.

The company didn’t make sense to me until the third time I taught the class. At that point I had been thinking more about the bigger historical changes in modern movie culture while working on my first book, which was about the rise and fall of video rental stores. It struck me that this period, from the 1960s through to the 2010s, was defined by the increased fragmentation of American culture. During this period I saw the media business aimed increasingly for distinct, defined audience groups rather than the “mass” audiences sought after by the classic Hollywood studios or by the major television networks.

Once I understood how the whole business was organized around fragmented audiences with distinct demographic characteristics and heterogeneous tastes, New Line Cinema’s business model, and its entire history, made a lot of sense. The company was, in fact, a perfect embodiment of this industrial and cultural shift over a 40-year period.

Q: The book also mentions the extensive research that you did at multiple libraries and archives. How did you track down all of this information about New Line Cinema? How did you organize your research into this book?
A: The University of Michigan Library’s Special Collections already had the Robert Shaye papers, which he donated some years back. These materials gave me a good start. Especially after New Line had some major successes in the 1980s, the company got a lot of coverage in the film industry trade press, in things like Variety, as well as national newspapers and magazines. So I could look to this material to build up the company’s history.

But I also had to track down material evidence for the company’s earlier period, in the 1960s and 1970s, when it primarily operated as a “non-theatrical” distributor, meaning its films didn’t play in commercial theaters. At that time, New Line specialized in the college film market, and film societies at universities around the country would rent New Line’s films. Most of the primary documents related to this period were ephemeral and dispersed, so I traveled to a bunch of other universities and looked in closets and back rooms of their film societies, some of which had kept marketing materials sent to them by different distributors, including New Line. Cornell Cinema had a treasure trove of material in an enormous number of filing cabinets, and the people there let me rummage through it all for a few days.

Another major site was the John Waters archive at Wesleyan University. New Line distributed many of Waters’ films, and his archive had lots of material related to his films but also held other important New Line documents, like shareholder reports and the like.

Crucially, Ira Deutchman donated his entire archive of papers and other professional materials after visiting my New Line class a few times and consulting with Philip Hallman and other people at U-M’s Special Collections. This material was instrumental in the crafting of chapter four of the book, which is entirely about Fine Line Features, New Line’s specialty film division.

In terms of organizing it all, I think I followed a three-part process. First, I looked over all the research materials I’d gathered and made a kind of master history of New Line, with all the details and facts, names and dates and events, in chronological order.

Then, second, I focused on the story. Once I had a general sense of New Line’s development over time, I started making judgments about what moments, events, and details were especially compelling, dramatic, or illustrative. I’d ask, what were the most important moments in New Line’s history? What aspect of such-and-such moment is especially important? What point do I, as an author, want to make about the company, about the film industry, or about American culture?

Finally, third, I’d go back to the research materials I’d gathered and reference a document or source that felt necessary to make the point I wanted to make, whatever provided material evidence of my historical claims.

Q: You had the chance to interview New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye. Tell us more about that experience. What is your favorite takeaway that you learned?
A: I spent three glorious days at Shaye’s house in the Hamptons in August 2017. He and his wife Eva were incredibly generous hosts, and the house itself was an incredibly sophisticated modern design right on the beach, way up Long Island. Our days were relaxed and lovely. We woke late, drank coffee, and separately went for jogs or walks or whatever; just hanging out. Then Shaye and I would get to business. I would turn on the voice recorder and we’d talk for an hour or so before lunch. After lunch, we’d reconvene and talk for three or four more hours. Then happy hour, then dinner, then off to read books or relax in some way. It definitely did not feel like “work.”

The interviews were informative, dramatic, funny, and full of unusual moments and curious details. Shaye is an extremely intelligent person, and he has an incredible memory. A great storyteller. Our conversations progressed more or less chronologically, and it was interesting that the pace of his narration fit the three days of interview time perfectly.

My favorite takeaway wasn’t about New Line, though. One day we all were eating on the back deck, and there was a shark feeding frenzy in the water, right at the shoreline by the house, which made the ocean look like it was boiling for maybe a square half mile. It was a unique moment during a unique visit.

Q: Maverick Movies “offers two, related conceptual frames to describe and theorize the particular industrial-cultural logistics and practices that New Line developed and deployed: opportunistic eclecticism and incorporative heterogeneity.” In what ways do the frames change how you talk about New Line?
A: “Opportunistic eclecticism” is my way of explaining the wide range and diversity of New Line’s films as a business strategy. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the company was incredibly eclectic in the genres of films it released. The company would try anything adjacent to the mainstream. For many years, this was because the company couldn’t afford to make or distribute anything mainstream. But New Line consistently maximized the potential of odd films in non-mainstream genres, from the movies of John Waters to the first Nightmare on Elm Street film, which only had a budget of $2.5 million.

I then use the phrase “incorporative heterogeneity” to describe how New Line adapted this strategy as the company became incorporated within giant media companies, first when it joined Ted Turner’s media empire in 1994 and then when it merged into Time Warner in 1996. New Line’s films got more expensive, and it broached more mainstream genres like comedies and action films. But the company’s catalog remained highly varied and, especially when compared to other film companies, still looked quite odd and left-of-center.

Q: Your book is openly available to read, thanks to TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem), the University of Michigan, the UC Press Luminos program, and other funding. Open access literature, according to Harvard scholar Peter Suber, “is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” How did you decide to pursue open publication for your book? What has the open availability of your book online done for readers?
A: At this point, I am more interested in making sure that people have easy access to my writing than I am in earning royalties, which are typically pretty small even for a good-selling academic book. The University of Michigan encourages open access scholarship, as evidenced by the TOME grant program, and the University of California Press has an excellent platform for publishing works this way. All the same, I also made sure that there would still be a print run of Maverick Movies because, personally, I like to read books more than screens and because UC Press makes handsome books that feel good in your hands.

Q: Just for fun: What is your favorite film from New Line Cinema, and why?
A: My Own Private Idaho, which is kind of a cheat because it was distributed by Fine Line.

Q: What is on your pile to read?
A: I just finished Holly by Stephen King, I’m half-way through a great collection of oral histories about rock songs called Anatomy of 55 More Songs, and I am nearly finished with the pulpy WWII spy thriller Island Reich. Over the summer, I read a great memoir by Jeff Tweedy.

Q: This book was a long time in the making and goes back to 2010 when you first got the suggestion to teach a course on New Line. What are you turning your focus to next?
A: I’m returning to my interest in the retailing of media, which was the subject of my book about video rental stores as well an edited collection I did about media retailing. The current project is about the continued retailing of physical media commodities, like DVDs, CDs, and vinyl LPs, in an area where the vast majority of audiences consume media through digital streaming platforms.

I’m also interested in how many of the shops that sell physical media maintain a sense of “cool,” which is a concept that is now almost a century old. Why is “cool” such a durable value and how does it attach itself to physical media and brick-and-mortar retail operations? My first case study was Jack White’s company, Third Man Records, with locations in Nashville and Detroit, and it was a lot of fun to research. I’m not a cool person myself, but I like cool things and cool people. I’m very lucky that my job allows me to think about cool things and people.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Daniel Herbert will discuss "Maverick Movies: New Line Cinema and the Transformation of American Film" with A.S. Hamrah in a virtual event hosted by Literati Bookstore on Friday, November 17, at 7 pm.