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 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

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>