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‘Dear John’ Backstory: Relativity Bought it From Failing New Line

Bob Shaye told Toby Emmerich the story wouldn’t work – and then he got fired

‘Dear John’ may well be Ryan Kavanaugh’s first legitimate hit as a producer – a project that he brought to Sony’s Screen Gems fully loaded, and that this weekend will hit it out of the park.

But it’s also another on the list of successful films that New Line had in the pipeline, or nearly did, before being shut down and folded into Warner Brothers.


The story goes like this. It was early 2007. New Line was on a losing streak. “Golden Compass” had just opened to bad reviews and disastrous domestic box office. The studio’s next big movie (which turned out to be its last as a distributor), “Semi-Pro,” was tracking poorly and poised to be a dud.


At the studio, tension was high and Bob Shaye was nervous. And ‘Dear John’ was ready for a greenlight.


New Line’s head of production Toby Emmerich and agent-turned-producer Marty Bowen had flown to North Carolina to convince author Nicholas Sparks to sell them the rights, which the author did for about $1 million. (Sparks’ bestseller ‘The Notebook’ had been one of New Line’s most profitable releases of the recent previous years.)


The script was done and the project was a go with Channing Tatum in the lead, and actress Amanda Seyfried and two others on a shortlist to co-star, according to people close to the project. Miguel Arteta was attached to direct. (Update: Relativity has called to say that Seyfried was not attached when they were handed the project.)


At a development retreat for New Line executives, Shaye and his partner Michael Lynne both told Emmerich that they didnt like the project, according to those involved with the project.


Shaye thought that Emmerich was trying to recreate the success of “The Notebook” with an inferior script. And he instructued Emmerich to pass.


Instead, New Line gave Relativity Ryan Kavanaugh six months to get the project greenlighted at a major studio. In short order, Kavanaugh cut the budget by $15 million, brought in the director Lasse Hallstrom, polished the script and sold the project to Screen Gems as a rent-a-distributor deal. (Sony put up the cash for prints and advertising.)


A month after instructing Emmerich to pass, Shaye was fired by TimeWarner chief Jeff Bewkes.


‘Dear John’ opened huge this weekend, with a likely box office total of $35 million. (Sunday update: $32.4 million.)


It will be the biggest opening in Screen Gems history.


New Line, the once-and-shrunken studio, still owns 7.5 percent of the film. Kavanaugh looks like a genius. 


That’s Hollywood, folks.