Freddy Krueger is many things. He’s a cold-blooded killer who loves nothing more than torturing and killing the Elm Street kids, but did you know he’s also a patron of the arts? OK, it’s not like this custodian turned deranged dream demon hangs around the South Bank offering to finance the films from first-time directors, but in his own way, Freddy really did contribute to the history of cinema.
What do I mean? Well, we have Freddy (or his movies at least) to thank for the greatest fantasy movie trilogy of all time, the Lord of the Rings. How did the ‘Bastard Son of a Hundred Maniacs’ give us Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings? Well, for that, we have to talk about the studio that produced both the Nightmare on Elm Street horror movies and the Lord of the Rings movies, New Line Cinema.
First founded in 1967 by Robert Shaye, New Line actually started life distributing foreign language and art movies on college campuses, hardly a way to make a fortune. Shaye was a savvy business person, though, and New Line enjoyed a few successes in the ’60s and ’70s distributing films like Reefer Madness and John Waters’s Pink Flamingos.
Still, Shaye was constantly on the hunt for big projects, and New Line’s finances were never exactly stable. This led Shaye to believe that producing films was where the real money was.
Eventually, he hit upon an idea. New Line had distributed the uber-low budget zombie movie Night of the Living Dead, and he saw the potential horror films had to generate profit against relatively low production costs.
It took a few years, but eventually, the right script came along. It was called A Nightmare on Elm Street and was written by Wes Craven, who’d cut his teeth making gory shockers like Last House on the Left, and The Hills Have Eyes. Shaye loved the script and paid $14,000 for it, also hiring Craven to direct.
Nightmare was given a budget of just $1.1 million, a veritable fortune compared to the budget of The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but a pittance by even the relatively miserly standards of the day. Still, Shaye knew what he was doing and Freddy’s first outing was a box office phenomenon.
A Nightmare on Elm Street made an incredible $57 million worldwide and established New Line as a major production studio in Hollywood. Shaye and his team followed up Nightmare on Elm Street with a sequel that made even more money. Between 1984 and 1991, New Line released five Freddy Krueger movies that made more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
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Shaye was reportedly careful to keep budgets low wherever he could to maximise profit. Eventually, the success of Freddy led to New Line being declared ‘The House That Freddy Built’ and the studio emerged into the ’90s as an established production house.
Using the money Freddy had brought in, New Line continued to churn out hits, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, The Mask with Jim Carrey, and the Austin Powers films.
New Line wasn’t just a commercial success either. The studio produced a number of critical darlings, including David Fincher’s Seven, and Boogie Nights. All of the studio’s success, however, was just building to a fateful meeting in 1998 when Shaye met with Peter Jackson.
Jackson was trying to get his dream project, a two-part epic telling of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, off the ground. Jackson had been courting Miramax to make the film, but they weren’t happy with the budget and reportedly wanted to cut the duology into a single film.
Shaye, however, was impressed by Jackson’s vision for the fantasy movies and proposed something else. Why not make a trilogy? Putting aside the usual strategy of keeping budgets low, New Line gave Jackson nearly $300 million to make his fantasy series and allowed him to film them simultaneously.
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It was a huge gamble, but we know, with the benefit of hindsight, that it paid off. Lord of the Rings is widely considered one of the best and most influential trilogies in cinematic history.
Across the three films, it brought in $2.9 billion and was critically acclaimed, winning 17 out of the 30 Oscar nominations the three films received. Not bad for a studio that made its name, thanks to a guy with knives for fingers.