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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Miriam & Max's Namesake Is No More (For Now)

As the final employees exit Miramax today, we find ourselves at the end of a remarkable story.
Really, it is a story about Miramax and New Line. Unlike the other studio-owned indies, The Dependents, these companies were the ones that really started the larger scale independent movement, rising from pick-ups to major production houses. (Orion, Hemdale, UA and others asserted themselves from a rather different trajectory.) New Line’s Bob Shaye started with distributing early John Waters and then built of genre product before the company was mainstreamed a bit under Time-Warner, eventually peaking with Lord of The Rings.
Harvey & Bob Weinstein’s Miramax launched about a decade later, though they took a rather different tack. Their genre was foreign language and non-US English-language films. The way Shaye saw an opportunity in controversy, The Weinsteins saw a world full of films that were not getting any distribution in the United States and with their marketing genius, created a market. (Ironically, may of the great foreign language films released before Miramax came via genre distributors, like AIP and Roger Corman.)
From The Secret Policeman’s Ball to Crossover Dreams to I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing to Aria, the presence was there. But it was in 1988 with both the Oscar-winning foreign language film, Cinema Paradiso and Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, which controversially was not nominated for Best Doc, that Miramax became a major brand.
A year later, the next major shift… Sundance and Sex, Lies & Videotape. Soderbergh was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay. Meanwhile, the company released high profile arthouse films like Scandal and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. And My Left Foot… Miramax’s first Best Picture nominee.
1990 started the company’s real push into being a production entity as well as a distributor. The effort was a mixed bag. Plenty of acclaim, but the box office returns were just okay. Along the way, the company supported a number of talents of rising profile in the U.S., from Jeunet & Caro to Beeban Kidron to Peter Chelsom to Mike Newell to directors whose previous distributors had fallen apart, like Neil Jordan and Stephen Frears. (Jane Campion, who would bring glory to Miramax with The Piano was being supported for a bit by New Line’s indie art arm, Fine Line.)
In 1993, Disney bought Miramax. This loosened up cash flow, which was notoriously messy when it was a private company. It literally took Disney years to work through the books fully and to organize the internal business workings of the company.
Then, 1994 was the watershed year. The Boys found Kevin Smith at Sundance with Clerks… hip and big return on a tiny investment. They had an old school commercial genre hit with The Crow. Bullets Over Broadway was a bit of a Woody Allen comeback, a hit, and a multiple Oscar nominee. Muriel’s Wedding came form out of nowhere and established Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths overnight. And they had their first $100 million movie with Pulp Fiction, which was also nominated for Best Picture.
IN 1995, they shoved Il Postino into a Best Picture nomination. And the bar they set was now being chased by other studios with Dependents. The next year, there was only one major studio film amongst the 5 Best Picture nominees. Gramercy, Miramax, New Line, October… and Columbia. And Miramax won for the first time, with The English Patient.
Meanwhile, the new Miramax division, Dimension, brought the company it’s second $100 million domestic grosser, Scream. And the gold rush was on. Good Will Hunting was a 9-figure grosser and an Oscar nominee. Shakespeare in Love just got to $100m, but upset Saving Private Ryan in the Oscar race to the shock of almost everyone.
The real trouble started in 1999, when the company delivered only two films that grossed at least $50m domestic… and only just. One of those, The Cider House Rules, got a Best Picture nomination. But the price vs return was looking less attractive and others were pushing out Miramax-esque films, including the Oscar winner, American Beauty, and other nominees like The Sixth Sense and The Insider, both of which were from Miramax’s parent, Disney.
In 2000, the only $100m domestic grosser was Dimension’s Scary Movie. Again, Harvey & Co (see: Lundberg & Swartz) shoved a movie into a Best Picture nomination, Chocolat… but only $67m at the domestic box office.
In 2001, In The Bedroom, a great Sundance pick-up, got nominated… but did little business. Spy Kids was a blockbuster and Bridget Jones’ Diary was a surprise hit, but The Shipping News was the first expensive Miramax Oscar-chaser to crap out, both commercially and with Oscar.
From there, the chase got more expensive. Chicago worked, made big money, and won the Oscar. But Gangs of New York was Scorsese’s first mega-budget film and didn’t make a profit, just barely making the Oscar cut. From there, things only got more intense… and less successful.
The only other $100 million grosser from Miramax would be The Aviator, Scorsese’s first $100 million budget film… and got nominated… lost… and made $213m worldwide… just barely into black ink, if it got there, given the intense expense of the Oscar chase. That was 2004.
In 2005, Disney said goodbye to The Weinsteins after they refused to pull back on the size of their annual budget from the distended $750m a year it had grown into – more than 5x the original deal of 12 years earlier – and back to $400 million or so, concentrating on the more economical, higher-grossing Dimension model.
The Battsek era at Miramax also deserves to be remembered. After getting past a glut of iffy releases, the division rebounded with Tsotsi and then, The Queen, followed by such quality movies as Gone Baby Gone, No Country For Old Men, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, There Will Be Blood, Happy-Go-Lucky, and Doubt.
But the legend of Miramax is The Weinsteins’, first and last. 15 Best Picture nominations in 14 years (or 16 in 17 years) with 3 wins, yes. But much more significant, they brought – along with New Line and Orion and Gramercy/October – the idea of heavy-duty marketing and publicity to smaller films. While many pushed the movement, no one sold their shit better than Harvey & Bob and the team they assembled.
Sure, there is something very Hannibal Lechter about the idea of appreciating just how important Miramax was to the film industry. Charming, brilliant, and as likely as not to eat your liver with a glass of Chianti and some fava beans… and some M&MS for dessert. But they didn’t actually kill anyone. And they did actually change the industry in many great ways, whether it was their intention or not.
Miramax is shuttered, but as releases from Touchstone and Paramount Vantage will remind, corpses can still release movies. (I gather that Julie Fontaine is the crypt keeper, with four more films in the Miramax pipeline.)
But more so, as the industry shifts, the name will not only show up on DVDs and VOD, but eventually on a division that makes “specialty” films. The word from Harvey – about 2 years old – that he’d like the name back is fine. I doubt that he will pay the kind of money he would need to pay to get it. But as I have written before, The Weinsteins With Money is a perfect fit for what Iger & Ross are doing at Disney. If The Weinsteins hooked up with Disney for a decade, got their name back, and Disney funded P&A only, at a set amount, there is no reason why it could not work out just fine. The library gets built. Motives for all are good. And The Weinsteins can’t hurt the company with profligate spending. Moreover, TWC really needs strong output.
So… we’ll see…
But for now, It was MIRAMAX… and it will be missed…

19 Responses to “Miriam & Max's Namesake Is No More (For Now)”

  1. The Big Perm says:

    I remember being a little shocked at seeing the trailer for Clerks in front of Pulp Fiction…this black and white, grainy, somewhat echoy sound movie trailer playing in a regular multiplex. Who else but the Weinsteins would have thought that was a good idea, and who else but them could have turned a movie like that into a hit?
    The one thing even people who hate them have to admit is, they were tops at creating markets that didn’t really exist until they created them. Would anyone care about Il Postino today?

  2. Deathtongue_Groupie says:

    I love how the Guardian (see link on MCN’s main page) subheaded the story: “The Walt Disney Company, which bought Miramax from the Weinstein brothers in 2005, has closed down the studio after 30 years in business”
    Yes, in the story they note that Disney actually bought the company in 1993, but someone just couldn’t resist the urge to give it blatant Labour spin to make it seem like the big bad corporation couldn’t make the precious art house outfit work after only 5 years.

  3. Geoff says:

    Dave, nice summation of Miramax’ history, but missing something key…..The Crying Game.
    That film’s success and the campaign to sell it gave them TONS of notoriety – think about it, a thriller focusing on a terrorist and his growing love for a gay singer???? And it made money, too – this was not some Kiss of the Spiderman-niche hit and this was 18 years ago!
    EVERYONE remembers the campaign about the “secret” – it has been duplicated many times since, even by Miramax.
    And I was just a teenager reading the trades at the time, but I can remember the word being in Variety that the success of that film was the main driver of the Disney purchase.
    I happen to love the film, probably one of the my ten favorite films of the past 20 years – I was probably about the only person who was rooting for it HARD against Unforgiven, which I still think is overrated. Extremely influential movie.
    But what the hell happened to Jaye Davison???

  4. anghus says:

    like all good things, it must end. i’m glad you mentioned the post Weinstein era at Miramax, which i thought did a fantastic job and greatly enjoyed their efforts.
    It was a wonderful era. You can officially put this as the final chapter of the end of the independent era. You could start it with She’s Gotta Have It. Maybe you could put the start later with the one two punch of Roger and Me & Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
    But it’s over now. The independent spirit rose up, got noticed, was bought, pastuerized, and has been reduced to a studio commodity.
    R.I.P. Indpendent film. You were never quite as profitable as everyone said you’d be, but you provided some good times and created some films that will stand the test of time. Pulp Fiction will be remembered in 100 years. I doubt Harvey Weinstein will. And that is still the great equalizer.

  5. EthanG says:

    Nicely written

  6. EthanG says:

    I find it ironic that Touchstone is releasing a movie today…and a real stinker at that. Only augments the letdown of shuttering Miramax.

  7. Deathtongue_Groupie says:

    “Pulp Fiction will be remembered in 100 years. I doubt Harvey Weinstein will.”
    Very wrong there – in an age when there are almost no “showmen” left in show business, Harvey has an actual, non-corporate persona. Future writers will latch onto him when talking about this era.

  8. CMed1 says:

    Honest question, is New Line still around?

  9. RIP Miramax. You always had my favourite company intros (after New Line).
    Agreed that Harvey will be remembered. He revolutionised cinema, marketing and awards with Miramax.
    Geoff, agreed about The Crying Game. What many people don’t remember is that movie was a flop in the UK and Ireland until the Weinsteins came in and revamped the marketing around the thing that will actually get people talking (whod’ve thunk it?) Even in this day and age the thought of a movie about a tranny making upwards of $60mil (what would that be today, inflation people?) is stunning.

  10. EthanG says:

    CMed…yeah it works inside Warner Bros now, much like Touchstone does inside Disney. All they’ve been working on to my knowledge though is the “Nightmare on Elm Street” reboot and a similar movie, “Sex and the City 2.”

  11. Sam says:

    It was inevitable. Miramax was doomed, due to repeated name-checking, Oscar whoring, and wallowing in the arthouse ghetto.

  12. EOTW says:

    I know this sounds cheesy, but I really did grow up with all of these MIRAMAX films. Can remember skipping work the day PF came out to see it twice in a row. they really made small movies into EVENT movies for some of us moviegoers.
    For me, the nadir of their run was LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. STill smack my head over the awfulness of tha pic. Best Actor?!? BAH HUMBUG!!!

  13. EOTW says:

    Man, I had almost forgotten they showed the CLERKS trailer before PF. They also showed the trailer for BULLETS OVER BROADWAY.

  14. LFF says:

    Frankly, I miss New Line more. They may not have had the same arthouse cache that Miramax had but they did reliably release films widely instead of the weak NY/LA and scattered other cities pattern of the M. –>lets remember that for every Shakespeare or Postino, there were two or three Malenas or Shaolin Soccers which barely saw the light of US projectors, despite the hype made to exhibitors and the public.

  15. hcat says:

    Will miss Miramax, I’m sure a lot of people’s first exposure to independent or foreign films had a Miramax logo in front of it. To think that three years ago there were seven dependent studios and now its down to three.
    LFF-New Line had their own dependent arm fine line which did the same limited release pattern Miramax did. Postino started out on a limited release as well, I’m sure if Malena started doing the same business they would have put it on 500 screens as well.

  16. I still miss Orion the most. Great combo of mainstream (Robocop,
    Silence of the Lambs, Dances With Wolves) and arthouse (everything Woody Allen for a time).

  17. Chucky in Jersey says:

    In an industry long dominated by Cali crass Miramax had a New York state of mind:
    Taking upmarket fare to the mainstream year-round. I saw “The Crying Game” and “Muriel’s Wedding” in a mall theater, both times on a Saturday night, both times in a hall that was full or close to it.
    Having success with other people’s rejects. “The English Patient” got picked up from 20th Century Fox, “Pulp Fiction” from (pre-Sony) TriStar, “Good Will Hunting” from Castle Rock. Plus, “Shakespeare in Love” had long been in limbo at Universal before the Weinstein brothers got involved.
    Opening a division for French films. Zoe handled re-releases (“Belle de Jour” notably) and newer fare (“Amelie”, “With a Friend Like Harry”).
    Disney ownership was a mixed blessing. Even with financial stability coming from Burbank the Mouse House had veto power and wasn’t afraid to use it. Disney refused to let Miramax release “Dogma” and especially “Fahrenheit 9/11″.
    Coincidentally that date was the beginning of the end. After 9/11 Miramax became a reactionary company: movies spiked for political reasons, Zoe shut down, holiday releases promoted with flag-waving. Buying awards may have been important but not as much as toeing the hard-right line. That dispute over finances was a red herring — the Weinstein brothers were sacked because of “Fahrenheit 9/11″.
    Weep for Miramax, yes, but celebrate the fact that it brought a taste of culture to an industry that is getting more and more infantile.

  18. Cadavra says:

    The importance of CRYING GAME cannot be underestimated. Miramax was so buried in debt (they had to renege on a multi-million deal with Golden Harvest for eight Jackie Chan films) that they were about to shut the doors. CRYING GAME wiped out the entire debt and put them on their feet to stay.
    It also falls in that category of other companies’ rejects. I was at Paramount at the time and went to the acquisition screening. About 25 minutes into it, Tartikoff stood up and said, “Okay, I can see where this is going: these two guys are gonna talk to each other for the rest of the movie and then one kills the other.” He then left, and the movie was duly stopped. I didn’t see the rest of it until it opened. If he–or any other studio head–had given the film at least an hour, Miramax would probably have died in 1992.

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