In recent years, the Academy Awards seem to have become something of a referendum on the influence of one Harvey Weinstein. The Miramax Films co-chairman has, over the past two decades, changed the very nature of the annual ritual by campaigning for small-budget movies with the same gusto — and huge marketing budget — that studios had traditionally trained on voters.
It’s Weinstein who is credited with the Oscar success of smaller, art-house fare like “The Crying Game,” “The Piano,” and “Pulp Fiction.” But as Miramax grew, so have some of its movies — including such Oscar contenders as “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Chocolat” and last year’s big success, “Chicago” — and the expectations that go along with them. Tuesday morning, Miramax’s much-touted adaptation of “Cold Mountain,” starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, was nominated for seven awards, but not for best picture, best director (Anthony Minghella) or best actress (Kidman, who just won last year for “The Hours”), as many expected. Miramax did, however, receive the most nominations (15) of any studio, including coveted — and wildly unexpected — nods for best director and best screenplay for the Portuguese-language film “City of God.” So what does this tell us about Weinstein and the state of his union? What’s the temperature in Tribeca these days?
Salon spoke to Weinstein the afternoon of the Oscar nomination about the day’s highs and lows, his big six-hour Italian project, his bad temper and low-carb diet, and his pick for the day’s other big race — in New Hampshire.
No. Because I spent 54 weeks keeping this movie in theaters, never released it to video, never sent it out, never did anything on it. You have a situation in which first they didn’t choose it for competition at Cannes . They chose Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” instead of this movie, so we’re up for no prizes. [Then] the movie is eligible for foreign-language film [at last year's Academy Awards] even though we haven’t released it — we were always planning on releasing it on Jan. 24, 2003. But if it didn’t get nominated [last year, as foreign-language film] then you’re eligible for all categories this year. They didn’t nominate it. So now we’re eligible in all categories.
My staff said to me 10 different times, “Release it on video already! Get it out! Put it on TV! Do something!” And I and two other people in my company [acquisitions and distribution executives] who loved that movie more than life itself refused to do that. [Releasing a movie on video would make it harder for it to be a success at the box office, even after the attention an Oscar nomination could bring]. Today, we’re rewarded. And we’re gonna open next week in 200 theaters, and the week after that in 500.
I believed in this movie from the beginning. I begged the L.A. Times to write a story about this movie; I begged the New York Times to write a story about this movie. There is always the contention that I don’t support my small movies. I have begged everybody to talk about this movie, [about how] it’s been playing longer at the Angelika Theater than any other movie. Nobody wrote the story. They all write the “Cold Mountain,” they all write the “Gangs of New York,” but this movie was an orphan, except in our minds. We ran an Academy campaign [in which] all the ads said, “this movie is not eligible for best foreign-language film, but it is eligible in all other categories.” We ran an Academy campaign on a movie 54 weeks in release. And today: Whammo! And we [Miramax] led the Oscars with 15 nominations.
We lost a streak maybe on best picture [Miramax has had a best picture nominee every year since 1992's "The Crying Game"] but we led the Oscar nominations for the last four years with the most nominations, so our other streak continues.
You say that the press concentrates on your bigger movies and ignores your smaller ones. But recently you’ve also expressed your interest in making bigger, tent-pole films. Are you now saying that you want to concentrate more on your smaller projects, or are you still interested in doing blockbusters?
I think I’m capable of chewing gum and walking at the same time. And waitressing.
I think the great thing is, why not do a gigantic movie, and then [something like] “City of God?” You know, we didn’t acquire that movie. We read the script, it was in Portuguese, we financed it, that’s a production. That’s a Miramax production, which is even more mind-blowing. We made it. And Fernando Meirelles wanted to take four and a half minutes out of the movie and I said, “No, the movie’s perfect.”
Yeah, I swear to God that’s true. It may be the only time in history, but it is true.
So will you be releasing a lot of smaller movies in this upcoming year? “The Aviator” — a blockbuster biopic of Howard Hughes, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio — has been the one that has received the most attention so far.
Yeah, they’re all talking about “The Aviator.” I say, “Why don’t you write about my very commercial, big six-hour Italian movie called “The Best of Youth”? And everybody goes, “Six hours? I don’t even want to sit through it if it’s six hours.” But I say, “I love this movie, this movie’s awesome,” and they go, “Six hours? You sure it’s six hours?” I go, “Yeah, it’s six hours and I’m not cutting it.” And they say, “I’m gonna try to get around to it,” is what they’re telling me.
But somehow, I have the feeling that it’s going to be next year’s “City of God.” This movie was not eligible for [an Oscar for best] foreign-language film because Italy said no [didn't nominate it], so it now becomes eligible in its year of release . So I’m releasing this movie and my prediction is it’s next year’s “City of God.”
“The Best of Youth.” All six hours of it.
There were lots of surprising small movies getting big nominations today: “Whale Rider,” “Monster,” “Pieces of April,” “Thirteen.” They’re not Miramax movies, but do you, as someone who changed the way small movies get into theaters and into the hands of Academy voters, do you take some credit for the success of these other movies?
Well, there has been a contention that I killed independent cinema, but not judging from today. I’m sorry, I don’t think I did it. I think it’s as vibrant and as healthy as ever and now with these Academy Award nominations across the board for these movie companies, you’re seeing just how vibrant the market can be. You’re seeing that when independent cinema decides to market and love their movies the same way mainstream studios do, they can even be more successful. And it’s not Miramax; it’s six companies, 10 companies. You know? It’s a bunch of people. And I think we all owe a lot to Ted Hope because I think he fought very hard [against the MPAA's ban of film screeners in late 2003], and Project IFP West. None of these movies would be here if there wasn’t a screener.
Are there any of these nominees that you wish you had released yourself?
First off I wish we would have financed “Lord of the Rings” when [Miramax parent company] Disney had the opportunity. They passed. So I’m the executive producer of the movie — all credit goes to New Line.
But there are so many movies. “Mystic River,” I thought was absolutely brilliant; I saw it in October. The L.A. Times editorial board asked me what movie do you love the most and I said “Mystic River.” So I think that’s an incredible achievement, and I mean, it blew me away. So many of the movies blew me away. “Master and Commander,” I’m biased, I’m one of the partners on it [Fox financed 50 percent of the film, Miramax 25 percent, and Universal 25 percent] And I think Peter [Weir, the director] did an incredible job on that film, and today he got rewarded.
I am going to ask you about “Cold Mountain.”
Go ahead. Fire away.
There has already been some press — and I’m sure there will be more Wednesday — about how the Academy snubbed Miramax by snubbing “Cold Mountain.” What’s your reaction to that?
You can’t call it a snub. What happened was, Miramax led the Academy with the most nominations of any studio. Warner Brothers was second with 11 [Fox and Fox Searchlight combined had 14 nominations]. Miramax had 15 [Cold Mountain received seven, "City of God" four, "Barbarian Invasions" two, and "Dirty Pretty Things" and "Twin Sisters" both received one.]
So there’s no Miramax snub. You know, people feel a certain way about a movie. There were five great movies nominated, let’s not take away their power. If there was a Miramax snub, Miramax would have had no nominations. It certainly wouldn’t have dominated, and we dominated. I mean, we are the most nominated studio. If you count “Master and Commander” with our 15, it’s 25. And we’ve dominated year after year with the most nominations and most best-picture wins.
But this year we got our strategy wrong. Because every year we always try to take that Christmas [release] slot, go last, because in January, February and March, a movie has less competition at the box office. This year with the shortened release schedule [the Academy Awards were moved from late March to February 29; nominating ballots were due two weeks earlier than past years] we said, “You know what? We’ll overcome that.” And I don’t think we were able to do that.
The movies that got nominated were, No. 1, “Seabiscuit,” which was released in August; No. 2, “Lost in Translation,” released in September; No. 3, “Mystic River,” released in October; No. 4, “Master and Commander” [which was released in November]; and the last movie, with the last date, was “Lord of the Rings” [which opened Dec. 17] and I believe there have been two other “Lord of the Rings.” You know? So no movie after that date and let’s face it “Lord of the Rings” in three days out-grossed every other movie combined, you know, it was that big. So you have the situation where the early, early campaign this year really, really hurt us.
But each category votes individually, so if you got lucky and enough music people saw your movies, you’d get music nominations like we did. If you get lucky the editors see your movies and you get an editing nomination. But only on best picture must you have everybody see your movie. And I don’t think we had it. I just don’t think we had it.
I just don’t think we were able to get the movie out to as many people as needed to see it before the voting closed. And that’s because the schedule got reduced by two weeks of voting. Last year you had the Golden Globes, and everybody would watch that and then they’d watch their movies. They’d screen them. This year, so many people tell me anecdotally that they hadn’t seen the film, they just didn’t have a chance over Christmas. Therefore, they don’t see it, they don’t vote, and that’s the end of us.
But to play devil’s advocate, your late release didn’t have an impact on “Cold Mountain’s” Golden Globe nominations. It was the most-nominated Golden Globe picture.
Nor did it impact its BAFTA nominations; it got the most British Academy Awards. But the reason for both of those things is simple. There aren’t as many BAFTA voters [as Academy voters] and we were able to send cassettes out earlier than anybody else. The movie opened in England earlier — I mean compared to the other movies that opened. With the Golden Globes, there’s only a hundred members so it’s easier to screen for all of them.
OK, but were you disappointed this morning?
Oh, of course. I wish that “Cold Mountain” definitely had got a best picture nomination, but I was thrilled we got 15 nominations. That blew me away. I mean, had we gotten two nominations and “Cold Mountain” didn’t get it, fine. But Jude [Law, for best actor] got nominated, Renée [Zellweger, best supporting actress] got nominated. You know, I’ve been doing this so long that it’s like being a basketball team. You know, were the Chicago Bulls [disappointed] the year they didn’t get the championships? We’re still at the top of our game, the top of the list. So yeah. You want it all, but you know what? You can’t have it all. [A child's voice interrupts in the background.] My daughter can’t put the car seat up, she’s 6. I think that’s more important than nominations.
Before you go. It has been reported that you have a temper …
Nope. But already this morning there were jokes circulating about your potentially explosive response to not receiving “Cold Mountain” nominations. One blog advised: “Attention Miramax employees, I suggest your ass calls sick this morning because Harv is gonna be PISSED.” So for the record: Were you pissed? Did you have a tantrum?
You know, today it was …
[Here, Weinstein was cut off by Miramax senior vice president of corporate communications and government relations Matthew Hiltzik, who says: I can answer as an eyewitness. Of course I've never seen Harvey have a tantrum before so I might not have known it if I'd seen it, but I can honestly tell you that today there was real satisfaction about "City of God," about Jude and Renée getting nominations, and all the smaller movies. He was still really appreciating the classy act by ("LOTR" director) Peter Jackson the other night (at the Golden Globes) when he gave Harvey thanks for being there at the beginning. That after-party you could just see how humbled Harvey was -- to hear that. That's not usually a word that people associate with Harvey, but honestly what it was, and I think it carried over to today." Weinstein continues ... ]
I will say to you that the last two years, I’m on my own streak. I haven’t had an incident or an outburst. If I can make it next year, I’m going for three …
It’s been two years in a row I have been on a low-carbohydrate diet. I find that sugar excited my system, We discovered two years ago, unfortunately, I admitted this recently, that I was a diabetic who ignored it. I didn’t know how insulin affects the adrenalin glands. Two years of low carbs, 37 pounds, on my way to 40, thinner … Today I walked in happy, in a good mood. Tomorrow I’m gonna be happy, in a good mood, too. But I promise you the first reaction, first outburst I have I’ll tell you.
Will you be watching the primary results tonight?
I think Edwards is going to come in second. I know everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I just think that, you know, John Kerry has been really strong, but Edwards has been doing an interesting job of listening. Not that I’m interested in Democratic politics.
Is he your horse?
No! None of them are right now. I’m just going to support the candidate of the party, but I just want to see a dialogue in this country and I want these primaries to have that dialogue and then choose the candidate who can win.