Film Fund-amentals: Act 3-and-a-Half

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there was no second act in American life. He was wrong (just look at the political career of Richard Nixon). Likewise, Thomas Wolfe poetically warned us that we can’t go home again. He was half right, but he never imagined the crazy drive of Harvey Weinstein. In his effort to re-take Miramax, Harvey is somewhere between Acts 3 and 4 of his crazy attempt to go home again.

But when he does succeed in buying Miramax back from Disney, what exactly is he buying? Memories? That may pretty much be it, because Miramax was taking a nose dive long before the Weinstein brothers first left it, and even their new company (ironically called the Weinstein Company) is currently doing the same. You would think that putting these two together would be a debt-ridden toxic mix from hell. But Harvey Weinstein seems convinced that this is a smart move that will put him back into the game as a major player in the world of specialty productions.

The reason he thinks this is, at best, extremely murky. Aside from family ego (Miramax is named after his parents), the actual worth of the company is thin. The best guess has been that Harvey Weinstein wants to take control of the long list of prestigious titles from Miramax’s past and get some decent turnaround on them through the DVD market (hence his half-screwy deal with Blockbuster). But this theory has several major flaws.

At its height (back in the 1990s), Miramax had some surprisingly successful movies. Heck, with the release of Pulp Fiction, they virtually re-wrote the book for independent film-making. But for every major success, Miramax had several dozen flops (for example, remember Albino Alligator?) and the company’s real track record was extremely erratic and increasingly dismal. Let’s be honest — he didn’t sell the company to Disney in the first place because he was rolling in more dough than he could handle.

Besides, all of the major successful films belong to the 1990s. Specialty movies (both foreign and domestic) tend to have a short shelf life; a hot title in 1995 is largely forgotten by 2010. So the vast majority of the titles in the Miramax library will be pretty useless in any significant financial sense. Ironically, some of the low-brow genre films produced in conjunction with Dimension Films (owned by Harvey’s brother Bob) are the most valuable titles for this purpose. Most likely, their greatest value will be as a basis for remakes and sequels.

Which kind of makes you wonder why anybody in their right mind would want Miramax. Presumably, Harvey Weinstein has some notion that he’s getting back at Disney. Seemingly, he wants to get back at Disney because he sold out to them in order to cover large financial problems at Miramax. In other words, he’s mad because Disney gave him money (and an unusual amount of autonomy)

Disney only wanted Miramax because it had access to the film rights to the Madeleine L’Engle novel A Wrinkle in Time, something that Disney had long wanted and that L’Engle refused to give them (in fact, the book found its way to Miramax as part of L’Engle’s attempt to keep the Mouse at bay). The property has yet to pan out exactly as Disney might have hoped (though a new film version is in the works), but failure has never stopped Disney from buying something. So they were willing to give Weinstein the money and the autonomy just as long as they could complain about it, resent everybody connected to the company, and slowly start stripping away the autonomy.

Pretty standard Hollywood story.

Which gets us to the other odd part of the story. Since Weinstein is always strapped for cash, he has had to find a backer in order to bid on Miramax. Inexplicably, the grocery store billionaire Ron Burkle wants to make movies and has hopped aboard the battered-but-still-sort-of-rolling Weinstein bandwagon. Though Burkle has had some modest experience with the business through Alliance Entertainment (shareholder) and Paris Hilton (don’t even ask), he is basically a billionaire gadfly who hasn’t a clue about the industry. It would appear that he’s there to hand out the money while Harvey does all of the spending. Obviously this partnership will have a shorter shelf life than the Miramax library.

It also means that as soon as Weinstein retakes Miramax he will be ready to steer it straight into the ground (again). The only reason anyone takes Miramax seriously is because of its early success with small-budget independent movies. But what Weinstein really wanted was to make big-budget movies, and as Miramax became more successful, the movies became more expensive. Despite his reputation for indie films, Harvey doesn’t seem to give a damn about small-budget productions. He has not fared well in his pursuit of the artistic tent pole flick, but failure has never stopped him from continuing the chase.

So the real question is: About when will Weinstein try to re-sell Miramax to Disney? I suspect that will happen by 2012. Good grief, what a year that is going to be!