Over the last decade, on its way to mini-major status with releases such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and My Own Private Idaho, Dumb and Dumber and Boogie Nights, New Line Cinema has become this country’s de facto black film studio. Black, that is, in terms of the features it produces and distributes, the talent it hires. Among its titles are Menace II Society, Deep Cover, Friday, Dangerous Ground, love jones, B.A.P.S., Money Talks, Spawn, Most Wanted, Set It Off, Rush Hour, Blade, Next Friday, Love & Basketball and, most recently, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. (Uncharacteristically for Hollywood, even some of its films that weren’t sold as black, such as The Long Kiss Goodnight, One Night Stand and Seven, feature black actors — Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes and Morgan Freeman, respectively — in starring roles.) New Line’s initial success with black film can be traced to the original House Party, which cost less than $3 million to produce, grossed over $27 million domestically and generated two lucrative sequels. I spoke to Mike DeLuca, the 35-year-old president and chief operating officer of New Line Productions who has been credited with bringing so much black talent to the company.
L.A. Weekly: It seems fitting that Spike Lee would finally be at New Line.
Mike DeLuca: It’s funny . . . I was an intern at New Line when Spike came out with She’s Gotta Have It. I kept writing him letters trying to get his next movie, but then he made his deal at Universal. A year or two after, the Hudlin brothers came in and pitched the first House Party.
Weekly: New Line seems to have, proportionally speaking, a larger number of black releases than most film companies.
DeLuca: Back in 1990, the company’s business plan really was niche marketing, which meant fairly low-budget movies geared to specific core audiences, whether it was a teen R film, or a black film, or a foreign film. Somebody perceived that the black audience was this huge underfed audience, and that’s kind of what the Hudlins pitched us and talked about. Our first experience with that was that movie. I guess, because the film worked and word got around that we were taking risks with first-time directors and fresh voices, we became a door you went through if you had a film like that.
Weekly: Were you surprised by the success of Friday?
DeLuca: Oh, yeah, totally. I thought it was a Cheech and Chong movie. It became a cult thing on video, an industry. The life on home video is just stunning. A really important part of its success was the album and the marketing efforts by the record company. [Ice] Cube was great about timing the album and getting a single out in advance of the movie to build buzz. He was really running his own studio. He found Chris Tucker. He found F. Gary Gray. He coordinated the efforts with the record company for the album. He pulled it all off like a master mogul.
Weekly: Now that Time Warner owns New Line, is there some sort of integrated corporate strategy?
DeLuca: Almost everything we do goes through a Warner label. We have certain pre-negotiated outs if we absolutely have to have an album on another label.
Weekly: Is selling a black audience on a movie different from selling a white audience?
DeLuca: Selling a movie is selling a movie, period.
Weekly: Is new black talent generally cheaper than new white talent?
DeLuca: I’ve found that everyone starts on the same scale and then, depending on whom you bring into the box office, your salary goes up exponentially. Chris Tucker went from Friday to Money Talks, then Rush Hour. Now he’s getting top dollar for the sequel to Rush Hour, and color’s not an issue. It’s cold, but it’s about cash. It’s about how well your film did and what you’re going to gross the next time out.
Weekly: Premiere magazine recently compared actor Omar Epps’ salary to that of Jason Biggs. Epps’ films, cumulatively speaking, have made more money than Biggs’, but Epps rates less money.
DeLuca: American Pie grossed like 230 [million dollars] worldwide. There was a little feeding frenzy to get Biggs’ next movie, thinking he would be this big new comedy star. It didn’t happen. Omar has worked steadily in really good movies, but he hasn’t had that one big global box-office bump.
Weekly: One of the things you hear is that black films don’t sell overseas.
DeLuca: A lot of American films don’t sell overseas because they’re about an American experience. When you’re dealing with Japan and Germany and Spain and Australia, what’s funny in those countries isn’t funny here, and vice versa. If you get even smaller, and you’re doing a film about a particular experience, a minority-based experience, it just figures that it plays worse. It’s a relatability issue.
Weekly: So black films don’t sell as well?
DeLuca: Well, it’s been my experience that a lot of my white films don’t sell overseas either. [Laughs.] It’s not like Boogie Nights lit up international screens. The more particular the experience, the less it travels. Adam Sandler is still trying to get his legs overseas. The first Austin Powers didn’t do anything internationally.
Weekly: Working with so many black filmmakers, do you feel as if you’ve become more sensitized to black issues?
DeLuca: I can’t say that I’ve gotten wiser, or presume to know what that experience is like, but I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations. All of the filmmakers who’ve talked to me have made me think about stuff. Talking to Spike about race gives you a weekend of thoughts. Having Cube at our studio is cool, because you get a window on a world that you wouldn’t normally get.
Weekly: Does that mean you socialize with your filmmakers?
DeLuca : I was never the kind of studio exec that forces himself on people socially. If it happens naturally, great, but I kind of stay in the background.
Weekly: You’ve been credited with bringing young black talent to New Line.
DeLuca: I actively solicit fresh directors, because I think it’s the lifeblood of the industry, and the only way to combat rising costs and star salaries and all that bullshit. And it’s more exciting. It’s more fun to break somebody and watch it happen.
Weekly: Do you pull in white audiences for your black films?
DeLuca: We did a little for Next Friday, because a lot of white people were exposed to it on video, but there’s not a lot of crossover theatrically. I guess there is still an air of separatism. It’s also just issues of relatability. When you make a choice about a movie, unless you’re looking to get informed or looking to go to an art film, you just want to be entertained. And you’re going to be entertained by something that interests you, that you relate to. A lot of the things that interest the two races are exclusive to each race.
Weekly: Are you surprised that bigger studios aren’t trying to reach the black market?
DeLuca: The big studios are looking for home runs every time, because they’re supporting massive machines. They’re probably better focused trying to produce blockbusters, which is great, because it leaves an opening for companies like mine.
Weekly: What kind of advice would you give to a young black filmmaker who was trying to break into the industry?
DeLuca: Call me.