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New Line's production prexy flexes movie muscle

Sitting in his small office holding a huge mug of coffee and surrounded by soft toys and merchandising gimmicks, Michael De Luca looks more like a kid in a playroom than the most sought-after production exec in Hollywood.

Yet this unassuming 34-year-old could get a job anywhere right now. The New Line production chief, who started out as a "geeky kid from Brooklyn," has come to symbolize the next generation of execs who will run Hollywood. He's hip, smart, well-versed in popular culture -- and willing to take chances.

And unlike the majority of his peers -- suit-sporting Harvard MBAs -- De Luca is a genuine film addict whose wild and colorful private life has made him unique in the corporate entertainment industry of the 1990s.

With his wild days, perhaps, behind him, De Luca is looking to the future. The guy who has Hollywood in the palm of his hand has thought hard for the past six months and he has chosen to stay at New Line -- at least through 2001.

De Luca is one of a handful of executives who commands the respect of talent. His love of storytelling began early. Novels, comic books and movies provided a refuge for this self-described "alienated, angry teenager" who grew up in a drab neighborhood of Brooklyn.

He was an early fan of filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, but movies took on a whole new meaning for De Luca in 1977 with the release of George Lucas' "Star Wars." Lucas, like other emerging talents Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, had been to film school; inspired by their example, De Luca enrolled in NYU with a view to entering the biz.

He first came into contact with New Line Cinema and its founder, Bob Shaye, through an internship in 1984, in time forming a tyro-mentor relationship. In the early to mid 1980s, New Line was principally a distributor of genre and foreign films, and Michael Lynne was outside counsel to the company.

New Line made the first in its "Nightmare on Elm Street" series in '84. The Wes Craven-directed slasher pic not only rejuvenated the horror genre, but it provided the company with a valuable franchise. It also galvanized the young De Luca.

"`Nightmare' was like `The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,' `Halloween' or even `The Blair Witch Project,'" De Luca recalls. "It was a total original."

Dropping out of NYU, De Luca began to work his way up the New Line ladder. His first job was copying, logging and reading scripts. In 1988, he moved to Los Angeles, becoming a director of development, and subsequently VP. In 1993, at the age of 29, he was made prexy of New Line Prods.

"What separated Mike from other executives is what separated New Line from other companies," recalls Lynne, who became president of the minimajor in 1990. "He had a very independent approach to our business. He tended to look for originality. He is a very creative executive and that's not an oxymoron at this company; it's something real."

In 1993, Ted Turner purchased New Line for $550 million. It wasn't until the huge success of "The Mask" in 1994, which De Luca championed along with exec Kevin Benson, that the young prexy began to find his groove. A marriage of comic books, special effects and romantic comedy, "Mask" would become a blueprint for De Luca's style: an offbeat or even dark concept turned into popular entertainment.

It's quaint to think that when "Mask" was greenlit at $14.7 million, New Line still chafed under a budget cap of $15 million a picture. The production went $3 million over budget, but that hardly mattered: "The Mask" grossed $320 million worldwide and established New Line as a serious competitor with the major studios.

The company followed it up with another Jim Carrey vehicle, "Dumb & Dumber," which took in $246 million. By 1995, New Line couldn't seem to do anything wrong, fueled by hits from "Seven" to "Mortal Kombat."

It was then that De Luca's hot streak hit a roadblock. In 1996 and 1997, New Line's fortunes were reversed and it suffered a long B.O. drought with high-priced flops "Last Man Standing," "The Island of Dr. Moreau," "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "In Love and War." De Luca looks back on the experience as an unfortunate but crucial lesson.

"The temptation to get fat and lazy is the thing to watch out for," he says. "Anyone can fall prey to it."

Meanwhile, De Luca's off-camera antics -- including a fistfight in a restaurant and a public sexual encounter at an industry party -- were generating a lot of attention in the media and gaining him a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy.

It's a moniker that many in Hollywood have felt comfortable with and even lusted after, but De Luca says that chapter of his life is behind him.

"It's bothered me when I've done certain things," he says. "I would read articles (about my exploits) and I had to ask myself, `Is this me?' I think that I must have undergone a latent adolescence or something."

Latent or not, the adolescent gene had no lingering effects on De Luca's golden production touch. From 1998 onward, as his motion picture strategy developed, De Luca began to score with both critics and audiences. His hall of fame includes "Boogie Nights," "Wag the Dog," "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," "The Wedding Singer," "Spawn," "Blade" and "Rush Hour."

This summer, New Line released the sequel "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." The film has taken in almost $200 million in the U.S., making it New Line's highest-grossing pic to date.

While acknowledging that "Powers 2" was a huge hit (the film cost just $33 million to make), De Luca says he is dissatisfied with his hit-dud ratio.

"It's wrong if one film bails out your entire slate of 12. I want six films that work a year, instead of two."

False modesty or not, De Luca says there is a lot left to achieve, noting, "I still feel as though I'm not doing this job that well -- I take every flop personally."

Shaye endorses the exec's tough evaluation of his own performance.

"I think that everyone should be hard on themselves," he says.

One of the distinctive aspects of the De Luca slate is the number of tough scripts the exec has backed -- stories that wouldn't stand a chance at mainstream studios. "Boogie Nights" tapped into the '70s retro fever of 1997; "Wag the Dog" satirized the White House, coincidentally arriving at the height of President Clinton's problems with Monica Lewinsky.

Along with these prestige titles, De Luca has taken a chance on other eccentric choices, including "One Night Stand," "Dark City" and "American History X."

What's more, De Luca frequently has gone to bat for first-or second-time helmers he believes in, such as Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights"), Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour"), Gary Ross ("Pleasantville"), F. Gary Gray ("Set It Off") and Stephen Norrington ("Blade").

His risk-taking has launched or solidified the careers of many of these filmmakers and of countless actors as well, including Carrey, Adam Sandler, Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker and Edward Norton.

De Luca's empathy for filmmakers doesn't prevent him from butting heads with them from time to time. In the course of making "American History X," for example, De Luca had a widely publicized disagreement with the film's director, Tony Kaye, who felt the studio wanted to change the film against his wishes.

De Luca doesn't regret his stance over the incident, noting, "If you're going to play it a certain way, then you have to keep consistent."

The eclectic nature of New Line's production is due to the collaborative atmosphere that pervades the entire company, Shaye believes.

"Sometimes I liken New Line to a rehabilitation hospital," he jokes. "But at its best it's an incredibly creative nuclear reactor, which often reaches a critical mass."

Healthy environment

Like Lynne, Shaye believes De Luca wouldn't fare as well in a more corporate atmosphere, where his freedom of expression might be restricted.

"He has verve and good taste and a daring and a brave personality," Shaye says. "He is one of US."

The New Line founder and his protege don't always agree on everything -- far from it.

Although they speak every day, "We often get mad at each other," Shaye says. "He'll say, `You don't understand the mentality of today and you're missing the point.' I'll respond: `This film has to be sold and you're missing the point.'"

The conflicts, Shaye grins, are resolved "in note form."

New Line, Shaye, Lynne, De Luca ... it may be a dysfunctional family, but there's no doubting that in the last few years, it has been forced to come of age.

In the old days, New Line was the runt of the litter -- the company did things a little differently, such as excelling at genre films, in order to get ahead. In 1999, New Line is an integral part of the Time Warner empire and, with pics that gross more than hundreds of millions, worthy to sit alongside sister studio Warner Bros.

So will the New Liners lose the charm and informality that to date has been their trademark?

"There is a tendency as one becomes more successful to go for the tried and true," Shaye admits. "But I tell (my executives) not to look down their noses at little films. We now have the budget to be able to do anything. We're only limited by our imagination."

New Line's success also has led to De Luca receiving lucrative offers from many studios, with differing degrees of autonomy and greenlighting power.

But he has decided to remain at his alma mater.

The consensus in Hollywood is that Shaye and Lynne must have made huge concessions in order to persuade De Luca to stick around. Not so, say the two managers.

"New Line is where Mike can do his best work," Lynne says. "He's not just in the game for the most money and the biggest perk. He has the ability to make a choice; he chose New Line, and we chose him."

In terms of production decisions, Shaye and Lynne have final say, but they put great stock in De Luca's opinion.

It's a flexible greenlight system that Shaye describes as "analog, not digital."

"We haven't ceded our option to state our point of view," Shaye explains. "When things fall below our horizon, sometimes we step in and say, `Please, don't do that.' But he pretty much has his way with us."

Showman of the Year

The Variety honor goes to a person who exemplifies showbiz creativity, vision and determination. Previous honorees include Michael Eisner, Michael Crichton, Robert Wright and Jim Carrey.
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Title Annotation:production executive Michael De Luca
Date:Aug 23, 1999
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