The undignified near-death of Miramax

Why Disney turned Harvey Weinstein's legendary indie empire into a zombie slave -- and why it doesn't much matter

Topics: Miramax Films, Disney, Harvey Weinstein, Inglourious Basterds, Beyond the Multiplex, Shakespeare, Movies,

The undignified near-death of MiramaxStills from "The Queen," "No Country for Old Men," "Chicago," and "Pulp Fiction"

It seems to me that if I were the owner of the only independent-film distributor the general public has ever noticed or cared about, the company that brought the world “Pulp Fiction,” “The Crying Game,” “sex, lies, and videotape,” “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Chicago,” “The Queen” and “No Country for Old Men,” I might try to cash in on that brand name in perpetuity by making or selling some really good movies. Fortunately for all concerned, I am not the owner of Miramax Films, and in recent days the once-mighty indie empire founded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein in 1979 has reached the end of the road, or pretty nearly so.

Actually, what’s happening to Miramax isn’t even as dignified as a public execution. Instead, now that its corporate overlords at Disney (owner of Miramax since 1993) have drained the company of its vital essence, it will be kept alive in shrunken, zombie-slave form. Reportedly, Miramax will be reduced to around 20 employees — definitely not including current head Daniel Battsek — and relocated from its longtime home in New York to the Disney lot in Burbank, Calif., where it will release something like three boutique-film titles a year.

I say again: Harvey’s old company, the one that launched, catalyzed and perpetuated the indie revolution of the ’80s and ’90s. Three movies a year. In Burbank. That’s not a studio or a distributor or even a “specialty division.” It’s a hobby, or an off-brand. It’s like that weird brand of Pepsi they sold in the ’80s that was neither regular Pepsi nor Diet Pepsi, the one that came in a sky-blue can and was flavored with lemon, and inexplicably had one calorie instead of none at all. That’s Miramax.

It might seem utterly baffling, at least at first: Sure, the economy stinks, but Miramax’s collapse comes less than two years after the company collected a big pile of Oscars and other awards for “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood.” Not only had Miramax fully recovered from the 2005 split with the Weinstein brothers (it seemed), but post-Weinstein head honcho Battsek was riding high, pushing forward with an aggressive list of productions and acquisitions. “When you think about how glowing it looked for Battsek just two years ago,” says longtime indie guru John Pierson, who partnered with Miramax on various projects in the Weinstein era and now teaches film at the University of Texas, “it’s amazing that it could all fall apart so fast.” (CORRECTION: In the first published version of this post, I described Pierson as a former Miramax executive, which is not accurate.)

As Pierson also notes, Miramax almost certainly didn’t fall apart that fast. While no one inside Disney is talking (at least not to me), veterans of the indie industry almost unanimously suggest that the Miramax collapse was a long time coming. As filmmaker and distribution veteran Jeff Lipsky puts it, there was always “a lack of transparency” in the relationship between Miramax and Disney, meaning that we never knew for sure whether Miramax’s supposed hits were adding anything to the corporate bottom line. “Since the day Disney bought Miramax, who knows whether they were bleeding red ink left and right?” Lipsky asks. “I would speculate that this might be a case of pure financial practicality, and Disney finally needed to stop the bleeding.”

Pierson observes that when we saw Joel and Ethan Coen picking up their statuettes for “No Country for Old Men,” or Daniel Day-Lewis winning the best-actor prize for “There Will Be Blood,” we didn’t see how much money was spent on publicity and advertising before those guys reached the stage of the Kodak Theatre. “You can easily get into a situation where you’re spending money hand over fist in search of that glory,” he says, “and along the way you’re eroding whatever profitable bottom line you might once have had.” Indeed, although those two films grossed more than $110 million between them, well-placed industry sources suggest, amazingly enough, that neither one managed to turn a profit.

Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles, who worked at Miramax in the ’90s, sees the company’s near-total desiccation as just another chapter in a lengthy and necessary restructuring of the film marketplace. Over the course of the last two years, numerous other studio specialty divisions and small indie distributors have disappeared, including Picturehouse, Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage, THINKfilm and New Yorker Films.

“The landscape has changed a lot since last summer, when all those companies closed down,” Bowles says. “The market has gotten back to a more sustainable level. Those companies whose basic M.O. was to chase the Oscar at any cost created an absolutely false marketplace.” He suggests that surviving companies like Magnolia, Sony Pictures Classics, IFC and Zeitgeist, who focus on marketing quality films to niche audiences, are now in a stronger position. “Producers are the ones who may be hurt by this, because there are fewer players with fewer resources, and it’s a buyer’s market. But we’ve done very well since last summer. It’s inherently a more reasonable situation.”

While the Miramax of the ’80s and ’90s was a legendary institution whose movies and mystique will linger for years to come, no one I spoke to this week expressed much nostalgia about the current edition, which has flailed around since its 2007 Oscar run, without finding an identity or any notably successful films. “Whatever the name brand was worth, once upon a time, it doesn’t mean much today,” says Pierson. “I think anybody who was smart enough to know about Miramax knew that the company meant Bob and Harvey, and unless they go out of business, you can’t really say that Miramax is dead.” (The brothers’ struggling new entity, the Weinstein Co., was buoyed somewhat this year by the success of “Inglourious Basterds.”)

During the Weinstein glory days, when the company made money, won awards and produced or distributed important films by everyone from Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith to Pedro Almodóvar and Krzysztof Kieslowski, Pierson adds, “Miramax changed the world, totally and completely. The closest analogy I can draw in film history would be United Artists, from about 1960 to 1972, where you’re talking about winning Oscars, about bringing European films to America, about working with important auteurs and also making films for large audiences. Does that mean people will forget about Miramax in 40 or 50 years, the way they’ve mostly forgotten about U.A.? I don’t know. Probably.”

To a fan (and creator) of challenging art-house fare like Jeff Lipsky, the Miramax story is more about extraordinary marketing than extraordinary movies. “Harvey Weinstein has proven himself to be a marketing genius,” he says, “and that’s what the success of Miramax, and all the dollars it generated, were built on. He could take a movie that was savaged by the critics, like ‘The English Patient,’ attract huge audiences to it and then win best picture. As for ‘Pulp Fiction,’ I’m not sure that any other company could have done what Harvey did with that film. And, listen, it’s an overrated film, in my opinion. But the marketing campaign they built around it — that wasn’t overrated at all.”

Some Internet commentators have pronounced the Miramax collapse to be a symbolic death knell for independent film. On one hand, that’s lazy, short-term meme-think from people who know little about business and even less about art. On the other hand, they might be right, in that a certain era of independent film — the one in which it appeared as a hip, hot but fatally nebulous commodity — is coming to an end.

“If you’re in the arts there’s always going to be independent work, and an audience that wants it,” says Eamonn Bowles. “It’s going to be more complex, it’s not easy to synopsize and it’s not easy to market. We’re always going to have independent film, but is it going to be independent film as played out in the pages of Us Weekly? This isn’t the end of independent film, but it might be the end of the large-scale tarting-up of independent film.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>