By David Poland email@example.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…