It began with the distribution of the 1936 anti-marijuana film Reefer Madness, and ended with a failed attempt to repeat the billion-dollar franchise success of The Lord of the Rings.  The logo will live on, and maybe a little bit of the genre-friendly spirit, but as a distinctive brand of filmmaking, New Line Cinema is dead.

Deadline Hollywood Daily’s Nikki Finke, who’s been dancing ’round the studio’s cemetery plot for well over a year, was the first to break the news, posting the Warner Brothers press release with a smug “Toldja!” headline.  Always wonderful to be right about lots of people losing their jobs because two guys ran a company straight into the ground!  Rather than summarize the official line, here’s the full press release:

NEW YORK, February 28, 2008 – Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX) announced today the consolidation of its filmed entertainment businesses, Warner Bros. Entertainment and New Line Cinema.  The combination brings together New Line’s 40-year legacy as the world’s most successful and innovative independent film studio with Warner Bros.’ creative leadership and unparalleled scale and reach in global distribution and marketing.

As part of the consolidation, New Line will be operated as a unit of Warner Bros.  New Line will maintain separate development, production, marketing, distribution and business affairs operations, but will closely integrate and coordinate those functions with Warner Bros. to maximize film performance and operating efficiencies, achieve significant cost savings, and improve margins.

In making the announcement, Time Warner’s President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bewkes said:  “We are moving quickly to improve our business performance and financial returns.  New Line has built a strong franchise of cutting-edge entertainment.  We can enhance its value by combining it with Warner Bros.  Given the trend toward fewer movie releases, New Line and Warner Bros. will now have more complementary release slates, with New Line focusing on genres that have been its strength.  With the growing importance of international revenues, it makes sense for New Line to retain its international film rights and to exploit them through Warner Bros.’ global distribution infrastructure.  We can also take better advantage of digital distribution platforms by combining our studios.  These changes will enhance our revenue opportunities and drive dramatic cost efficiencies and higher margins at New Line.”

New Line’s Co-Chairmen and Co-CEOs Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne have elected to leave the studio, but are in discussions about possible future business relationships with the company.

Mr. Bewkes said:  “Bob and Michael have a unique partnership that is noteworthy not only for its stability and longevity, but for its record of innovation and success.  They have guided New Line’s growth from a privately held art film distributor to the world’s leading independent film studio that is home to some of the most popular films in entertainment history, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Mask, Austin Powers, Blade, Rush Hour, Elf, Wedding Crashers and Hairspray.  We thank Bob and Michael for their enduring contributions to Time Warner and look forward to a continuing working relationship with them.”

Mr. Shaye and Mr. Lynne said:  “New Line has been our respective life’s work as well as our second family.  While we’re sad to be leaving, we’re enormously proud to have overseen its extraordinary growth and worked with so many dedicated and talented colleagues.  New Line represents innovation, creativity, and independent success.  We hope that the company can continue to be a leader in creating entertainment that resonates around the world.  We will now focus our efforts on exploring new entrepreneurial opportunities.”

My interpretation:  Warner Brothers will now treat New Line as their version of Rogue Pictures, which means the rejuvenation of franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street will become a priority.  Those of you willing to swallow the line about The Golden Compass‘ international take buying His Dark Materials a second installment can forget it; that series will take its place in the pantheon of Franchise Non-Starters next to The Dark Is Rising and Eragon.  What does this mean for The Hobbit?  No idea, but I’d be shocked if Warner Brothers scraps the film altogether, since that’s a brand well worth expanding.  That said, I could see them lobbying Peter Jackson to scale it back to a standalone film (as much as I could see him retorting, “Go fuck yourself!”).

Next question:  “What about those offices on Robertson Boulevard?”  My guess is that WB would prefer to have New Line closer to the Burbank compound, but I’ve no idea what kind of office space is available – or how much they’d need.  And that brings up the question I’m afraid to ask:  “Who’s out?”  I have friends who work at New Line.  One of them has been hugely supportive of my career as an entertainment journalist, going out of his way to give me excellent access when I didn’t completely deserve it.  I have relationships like this at all of the major studios, but New Line has always been nearest to my heart if only because my first press junket was for The Fellowship of the Ring in New York City.

If only that Lord of the Rings era could’ve gone on forever.  Unfortunately, the studio started playing it safe with a series of awful comedies and risible horror flicks.  And when they did take risks, they got clobbered with the wretched excess of “What Were They Thinking?” disasters like Tony Scott’s Domino.  Finally, after several years of negligible returns, Shaye and Lynne moved all in on The Golden Compass; they egregiously miscalculated the strength of their hand.  

Oh, Bob Shaye… if you would’ve made Meg instead of The Last Mimzy, none of this would’ve ever happened.

Now is not the time for snap condemnations, but there will be a full account of New Line’s collapse, and it will not be kind to Shaye.  My educated guesses aside, the next few months will tell the true tale of New Line as an adjunct of Warner Brothers.  But one thing is for certain:  their maverick days are over.  Truthfully, they’ve been over; New Line hasn’t been dangerous since Michael De Luca left.  Today was the burial.  And you’ve got to really hate movies if you want to dance on this grave.

Update:  10 Greatest New Line Releases (Including the defunct Fine Line)

1.  Hoop Dreams
2.  Naked
3.  The Sweet Hereafter
4.  The Lord of the Rings (collectively)
5.  My Own Private Idaho
6.  A Nightmare on Elm Street
7.  An Angel at My Table
8.  The Player
9.  Short Cuts
10.  State and Main

Honorable, studio-defining mention:  Pink Flamingos