Film Fund-amentals: The Trouble with Harvey

There are those who are born to greatness and those who have greatness thrust upon them. Then there’s Harvey Weinstein. He sort of rented greatness. Drove a hard bargain, too.

With the recent news stories about Weinstein’s old company, Miramax Pictures, on its deathbed and the extremely dubious financial condition of his current company (oddly enough, its called The Weinstein Company), Harvey has lately been in many people’s thoughts, especially in regards to the current state of independent filmmaking. After all, there was once a time in the 1990s when Harvey Weinstein and Miramax virtually defined independent filmmaking. It didn’t matter whether you loved him or hated him, you wanted Harvey’s phone number in your Rolodex.

Unfortunately, the rise and fall of both of these companies is a moment for sour reflection. The independent market is never enhanced by losing companies. Besides, Miramax is virtually a landmark in the business (despite its chaotic record of occasional hits and multiple misses). Granted, even in their heyday, Harvey and his brother Bob were infamous for being cheapskates. The single oddest moment I ever encountered on a movie junket was courtesy of Miramax. They had the press lined up in a hotel lobby waiting to go to a screening room in mid-town Manhattan when they suddenly announced that if we pooled our money together and took cabs, they might reimburse us. I always just assumed that the word “might” was Harvey’s personal touch.

But for a brief bit of time in the early 1990s, Miramax strode like a mighty lion through the marketplace. After a modest beginning (the boys began as concert promoters and then moved into distributing rock concert films), Miramax sailed high with such hits as sex, lies, and videotape and The Crying Game. The movies were bold and edgy and packed with the promise of emerging new directors.

Then the double whammy hit the company: Walt Disney and Pulp Fiction. When Miramax was purchased by the Disney Company in 1993 for $70 million, many people viewed it as the beginning of the end; while the deal with Disney gave Miramax a necessary sense of stability, it also carried the not-so-subtle message of possible interference from the Mouse (despite Disney’s original claim that they would not attempt to dictate to Miramax – such promises are always made with crossed fingers).

Even worse, Pulp Fiction became the biggest grossing small-budget film in history. The $8 million movie became a $213 million global phenomenon. Sometimes such success is the worst thing that can happen to a young company. Quentin Tarantino’s odd brand of plasticine machismo resulted in several years of poorly made clones, and Harvey suddenly became convinced that he was a modern-age mogul.

Despite the fact that Pulp Fiction was actually produced by Lawrence Bender, Harvey Weinstein felt comfortable with taking the credit. He was now the man with the golden gut (his own phrase in various interviews), operating in a fearless manner based solely on the intuitive knowledge apparently locked away in his intestines. The magical attributes of one’s anatomy is not a new approach to producing movies; Harry Cohen once explained to people that he could tell if a movie was working by whether or not he could feel his butt twitching in his seat. One could argue that Harry really did have golden buttocks. However, the same was not true of Harvey’s guts.

Naturally, there were numerous problems with Disney, and Miramax found themselves unable to handle such “controversial” films as Fahrenheit 9/11. But there was also a long list of losers as the company cut loose in the direction of such prestigious flops as Cold Mountain, The Hours and Gangs of New York (though this film did score big globally for a total of $190.3 million, its budget of $97 million meant that the Scorsese epic took a long road to making $1.50). The critical reception for many of these films was strong; too bad reviewers don’t pay to see movies.

Vaulting ambition began to predominate — that along with Harvey Weinstein’s increasingly problematic relationship with various filmmakers as he became more demanding about re-cutting people’s movies (though the story about the Japanese filmmaker who sent him a samurai sword with a simple note saying “No cuts” is pretty cute). By the time the Weinsteins left Miramax to form their new company, it wasn’t very clear who was firing whom.

Since its formation in 2005, The Weinstein Company has had its ups and downs. OK, mostly it’s been down. Way down. The closest thing to a hit has been Inglourious Basterds ($70 million budget/$293 million global gross). Once again, the macho world of Quentin Tarantino has paid off, but the movie’s global profit is not enough to pay the bills. The Weinstein Company is still limping, and last June it finally brought in a financial advisor to pursue a restructuring plan.

So the passing of Miramax (technically it is still around, but with a staff reduced to 20 employees, it barely has enough people to answer the phones) is more like that fateful moment when the local diner everybody liked back in the 1950s is finally leveled by the wrecking ball. The memories are sweet, but it’s over. It’s been over for a long time. The Weinstein Company is another issue. It may be salvageable, but it’s a tough call. Privately, I doubt it. One of the company’s few solid hits has been Sin City, which was actually a production of Dimension Films (owned and operated by Bob Weinstein but still functioning as a label connected to Miramax), and they may, or may not, still have the rights to producing Sin City 2 (well, their lawyer says they still have the film rights). The company has banked heavily on the DVD market, and in 2006 cut a deal for exclusive release through Blockbuster Video. At the moment, neither would appear to be a great business move.

Which is too bad. Despite the highs and lows of the Weinstein saga, Harvey was once a contender. And right about now, the independent market could use some major contenders.