UPDATED with funeral information: Michael Lynne died Sunday night at age 77. Lynne was Bob Shaye’s partner as they turned New Line Cinema from a small indie distributor to the maker of The Lord of the Rings, Austin Powers and Rush Hour franchises. His death will come as a shock to Lynne’s colleagues in film, art and philanthropic circles because of its suddenness. I’m still confirming details of his death, but here is what I have right now.
Lynne went to Columbia Law School with Shaye, and they became part of each other’s lives well before Lynne officially joined Shaye’s then-fledgling studio New Line in 1990 after working as outside counsel for the company. Shaye confirmed that Lynne had passed away and was very emotional about losing his longtime friend and partner so suddenly. Lynne is survived by his wife Ninah and daughter Elizabeth, who were by his side when he came back from the hospital to his home after taking a turn for the worse. This all happened just two weeks after Lynne’s oldest son, Jonathan, died suddenly.
“Michael was a terrific guy, and we were an excellent combination,” Shaye told Deadline. “I played in a little bit of less controlled fashion and he was more controlled, but he had his zaniness also. We developed this secret operating system that worked well, and he was an incredible asset, partner and soulmate.”
Lynne was a Brooklyn-born tough attorney who met Shaye when he did contract work for Shaye and his fledgling film label on a retainer basis. He officially became COO of New Line in 1990, and shortly thereafter New Line went from a company best known for genre fare such as Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street to a hitmaking rock-‘n’-roll studio that hatched some of the highest-tenured executives in town right now. The rise came after Michael De Luca became one of the youngest presidents of production at a studio and created a string of edgy hits that included The Mask, Dumb & Dumber, Se7en and Boogie Nights and franchises such as Austin Powers and Rush Hour.
New Line had a most memorable golden period where executives were given a lot of latitude to make risky projects. Besides De Luca, the roster of executives who grew up in the New Line system and remain powerful Hollywood players includes New Line co-heads Richard Brener and Carolyn Blackwood, Warner Bros Picture Group chairman Toby Emmerich, Legendary Vice Chairman of Worldwide Production Mary Parent and Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley.
“We were in different parts of the law school and knew each other casually and met again when our daughters were in the same school class,” Shaye said. “I knew Michael had been helping to raise money for projects and that he was friends with investment bankers, and I was completely clueless of that area of the entertainment business. I focused on making pictures and releasing them. Michael was at a juncture when we ran into each other on a street one day. I told him, ‘I’ve got a little company,’ and he said, “Come and talk to me.” He introduced me to his close friend Roy Furman, a banker, and while nothing much came out of that, [Lynne] became our outside counsel and we became closer and closer. Michael and his law partner managed our first IPO, and he went with me to all the pitch meetings. We would joke that he was a partner for hire, but he was much more than that. He genuinely cared and was emotionally involved and a brilliant counterpoint to any organization, especially to ours. We continued like that until I realized I needed an operating colleague to help with all the things that were new territory for me like finance.”
In an effort to compete with the major studios, New Line was sold to Ted Turner in 1995 for $500 million. The indie became part of Time Warner when Turner merged into Time Warner in a $7.5 billion deal just two years later. While both Lynne and Shaye became very wealthy, especially after the AOL merger, New Line got downsized in 2008, and Shaye and Lynne exited the studio at that point. That was only four years after NL won 11 Oscars for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final installment of the Peter Jackson-directed trilogy on which Lynne was an exec producer. They had gotten into a bitter dispute with Jackson over that film.
The duo remained together as a team, forming Unique Features.
Lynne also had been on the board of directors of Imax since 2013. A major collector of contemporary art, he also became an owner of the vineyard Bedell Cellars, bought years ago and operated in Cutchogue, Long Island, where he would show some of his work.
Shaye gave his partner room after the death of his son but said they were making plans to get together and had calls where Shaye updated Lynne on developments on their film and TV projects.
“I will consider him my partner forever, and anything I accomplish going forward will be dedicated to him,” Shaye said. “We went through so much together, and he taught me so much.”
Said Imax CEO Richard L. Gelfond: “It is with great sadness that Imax learned of the passing of Michael Lynne. Michael was much more than a great director of Imax. He was a great friend to us all, a source of inspiration and generously shared his wisdom and values. We will miss him greatly.”
A funeral service will be held at 11 AM ET Thursday at Temple Emanu-el in New York City, at One East 65th Street.