WB Q&A - Carolyn Blackwood
President, Operations & Content Strategy, New Line Cinema
A graduate of Fordham University before moving out west where she received her law degree at Pepperdine University, Carolyn Blackwood ironically had no intention of entering the entertainment business, instead focusing initially on a possible career in the DA’s office. “I didn’t have any aspirations to be involved in the entertainment business,” Blackwood says now, “which was really different from most of my colleagues in law school who either had connections or a desire to be involved with it.”
Working as a bartender while studying for the Bar after law school, a chance employment opportunity at a small, yet busy independent film company changed her career focus forever. “My friend from law school convinced me to come and work there with her and I almost didn’t take the job. But once I did take the job, I really loved it.”
Having arrived at New Line Cinema as a production attorney almost 17 years ago, Blackwood has risen through the ranks to President, Operations & Content Strategy as one-third of the New Line power trio that includes President & COO Toby Emmerich and President of Production Richard Brener. The candid exec talked with us about New Line’s past, present and future, the state of the movie business, and even shared some advice for those looking to get into the same industry that was once not even on her own radar.
It’s always interesting to follow the career path that people take and you mentioned how you never planned on working in this industry. You did take a job at a small indie film company at one point, so how did that change your career trajectory?
CB: Even though I was hired in a legal capacity, I was also wearing many, many hats. That’s what happens at small companies, you find ways to fill the gaps. I found myself really enamored with various aspects of the business and was doing international distribution deals, sales, complex film financing transactions and traveling around the world going to film festivals and dealing with acquisitions and the film markets. I thought, “This is kind of fun.”
I did that for a number of years and then I got my job at New Line. Because my background is in law, I got hired in the legal department as a production attorney. This was the old version of New Line before we were part of Warner Bros. and I found myself thinking that this wasn’t quite as diverse and exciting as that previous job where I got to do lots of different stuff.
So I started to look around the New Line infrastructure to see what they needed. Where were the holes and how could I fill them? That’s when I started to expand into co-productions and acquisitions because I had gained that experience at the independent company. I also sought out high net worth individuals that had an interest in film investment and worked out equity and co-financing deals. So my role organically evolved into different areas of the company and I was eventually able to create a bit of a hybrid position.
In your current capacity as President of Operations & Content Strategy, I’d like to first congratulate you on having a title that can actually fit on a business card…
CB: [Laughs] Trust me, it wasn’t easy trying to figure out how to describe it.
So how would you describe that role?
CB: It’s a good question because it is a little hard to describe. It probably plays out a lot like a traditional COO [Chief Operating Officer]. Toby [Emmerich] has the President and COO title and he is obviously the head of our company and the buck stops with him, but I support him in overseeing the day-to-day operations of the division. I provide strategic guidance on a daily basis for a lot of what we do here, whether it involves certain production matters, legal and business affairs issues, Human Resources, finance, or working with our marketing and distribution colleagues at Warner Bros. So I am basically a point-person with respect to all these areas. And, along with Toby and Richard, I help manage our production slate, the selection of our movies, all of that fun stuff.
Horrible Bosses was a script we had in development for at least ten years before we made it.We’re the Millers had been in development for eight or nine years. Sometimes it’s just about knowing when the right time is for a certain project.
New Line has been around for nearly 50 years and officially merged into Warner Bros. in 2008. How has the company evolved throughout your time at New Line?
CB: Well, obviously there is a big difference in the way New Line is structured from when I joined 16 years ago. We used to be a company of about 600 people back then and handled our own marketing and distribution. When we merged into Warner Bros. in 2008, we essentially became a lean, but formidable, production label. Today, there are about 40 of us who are dedicated to New Line. We develop and produce our own content like we always have, but our films are now marketed and distributed through the Warner Bros. distribution teams worldwide. The truth is that we have thrived and done incredibly well since being merged with Warner Bros.
Aside from the business model evolution, what about from a creative direction? You’ve had successes recently with smaller budget films, like Annabelle, which harken back to New Line’s early days, but you also had tremendous success this year with the blockbuster San Andreas. So do you see New Line continuing to cover that wide spectrum?
CB: Yes, and here’s what I would say—the pre-2008 New Line and the post-2008 New Line from a creative perspective are very, very similar. Pre-2008, we had the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the Final Destination films and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but we also had The Lord of the Rings.
I may be biased, but something I think we do very well is focus on diverse fare with an emphasis on genre and modestly budgeted product. But we also, strategically, reach for the stars with a tentpole [big budget film] every once in a while. We try to be smart when we pull those triggers, though, because while tentpoles are crowd-pleasers and the global market share they can deliver is important, they’re also incredibly risky from a financial standpoint.
So while films like The Hobbit and San Andreas are a lot of fun and we’ll continue to develop bigger budgeted fare, I do think our real bread-and-butter is more modestly budgeted fare that encompasses a range of genres. Horror is obviously a staple for us, as is comedy, and we also sprinkle in a healthy amount of female-driven product too.
With the growth of theatrical alternatives for smaller budget projects, like HBO, Netflix, Hulu etc, would you say that we’re having a bit of a golden age for indie filmmakers?
CB: That’s an interesting question. In the past, there were only a few places a filmmaker could go to find financing for their project, so fewer films got made, or if they were made, they couldn’t find distribution. Now, a lot of indie filmmakers have more opportunity to not only realize their creative and artistic vision, but also an increased ability to get their films into the world and potentially find an audience. This also has allowed for studios to take notice of some of these filmmakers, too.
We actually stayed away from the acquisition world for a little while and have just gotten back into it for two reasons. One is because you may find that little gem of a movie at one of these festivals, which can become a nice complement to your film slate. And another reason is that it’s also a great place to scout for new talent. So even if a film itself isn’t necessarily something we would look to distribute, it can showcase someone’s talent and get them on our radar. So I do think it’s a bit of a golden age for some of these filmmakers.
What about the business side, how has this growth in outlets impacted the acquisition side of things?
CB: In terms of distribution opportunities, it’s the most competitive it’s ever been. It’s incredibly difficult, and not just because there’s a lot of movies out there being made on the independent level. There are also a lot of films being made by the studios. When you look at the theatrical release calendar of any given year, there are often six-to-eight new movie releases each week. Finding the right place to put a film and deciding how much money to put behind it is incredibly challenging because it is very, very risky.
So while there are other outlets like Hulu and Netflix and HBO for some of these movies to find their place, there’s still an incredible glut of product in the theatrical marketplace every single week. That makes it a really big challenge because when we’re making theatrical product here in-house, much less when we’re looking at acquisitions, you have to really say to yourself, “Is this the kind of movie where we’re going to feel comfortable putting $30 million in P&A [Prints and Advertising budget] behind it?”
So with respect to acquisitions, you really need to feel that you can break through and find your audience knowing that every single weekend is so competitive. Studios are now dating their movies three years out and that didn’t used to be the case.
What can you say about the process in getting a film from the script to the screen, any changes in that?
CB: I think everything’s sort of cyclical. Certain stories or themes can become more in vogue at certain times than at others, but the process itself has remained largely the same. One thing I will say is that if you look at some of our bigger successes over the years, some of those projects were in development for more than ten years.
For example, Horrible Bosses was a script we had in development for at least ten years before we made it. We’re the Millers had been in development for eight or nine years. Sometimes it’s just about knowing when the right time is for a certain project. Sometimes you have to be patient and say, “Now’s the right time for an R-rated comedy and now’s the time that we have this group of people available, and this director, and now it feels right.”
I like to give our creative people here huge props for having self-control to not just push forward a project because they like it, but rather wait until the timing and all the elements have come together, and things are where they need to be to have the best chance of success.
Earlier you mentioned the amount of movies being released every week nowadays. In looking at New Line’s calendar of releases in the coming year, you have a very large number of releases coming out compared to 2015…
CB: Yes, there are. You can’t always predict when everything is going to come together in just that right way to where you feel good about it and pull the trigger. We’ve had years where we’ve only released four movies, then there are years where we release five or six.  just happens to be a really heavy year for us with about eight movies coming out. We’ve got movies that we’ve done completely on our own, along with the movies that we’re doing with partners like MGM. We actually have other movies in our pipeline that could potentially be ready, but we’ll likely wait until 2017 to release because we already have a really healthy slate in 2016.
The trailer for How to Be Single came out recently and that looks great…
CB: That movie is really fun! Rebel [Wilson] is awesome. We really have an amazing cast in that film. We also released a teaser for Central Intelligence recently. You’ve got to check that one out too!
I know all these movie projects are like your children, and you have things like the sequels to Barbershop and The Conjuring coming out next year, but what are you personally excited about?
CB: It’s true, they are all your children. With that said, The Conjuring 2 is probably the one that I’m most excited about for next year, mainly because I’m a huge horror fan. I love being scared. I’m that person who watches through her fingers but loves every second of it.
I will also say that I’m a little bit of a James Wan groupie [laughs]. He is so super talented. Watching him work is amazing. I mean, when you’re on the set of a horror movie and know you’re on a set, know they’re actors, and yet you’re still scared when you watch them shoot the scene on the monitor? That’s real talent!
Looking back on your career at this point, is there any particular project that you’ve been involved with that made a significant impact on you either from a career or personal standpoint?
CB: The thing that comes to mind for me is probably The Hobbit franchise. Back around 2009, I got involved with The Hobbit and Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, and it was a big, pivotal moment for me. While I had always been involved behind the scenes in how we put our movies together, that was the first time I ended up much more front-and-center than I had been in the past. I became an executive producer on that franchise. That really changed how I viewed my role and my job. I had a much more direct role in the creative than I did in the past. It was particularly satisfying for me and I really enjoyed the experience and working with them.
Last question: As you noted earlier, you never really pursued a career in the entertainment industry, but what advice would you have for people who are wanting to work in the business?
CB: When it comes to young people wanting to get into the business, I honestly think that working for a small, busy company is one of the best things they can do. This is particularly true of those people who don’t know exactly what they want to do, but they just want to be a part of the industry because they love it. So get your foot in the door somewhere, even if it isn’t a big, fancy place, because you’re going to get exposed to a diverse amount of stuff. And if you’re entrepreneurial, ambitious, and you’ve got a great work ethic, you’re going to be able to take advantage of all the things that small companies need and will figure out much faster who you are, what you enjoy, and what you really want to do. But the real bottom line? Work hard no matter what company you’re at. Someone will notice.