Indies question true ‘autonomy’

While the Hollywood community generally looks favorably on Walt Disney Pictures’ acquisition of Miramax, there is skepticism in independent circles whether Disney — notorious for meddling in creative matters — will live up to its promises to Miramax of “complete autonomy.”

The acquisition, announced Friday, marks yet another aggressive gesture by Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to expand Disney’s reach beyond the animated and live-action mainstream product with which it has always been associated.

“What Disney is doing is continuing on a path of diversification at the studio,” said Lehman Brothers analyst Ray Katz.

Former Fox studio chairman Joe Roth, whose indie production company Caravan Pictures moved into the Disney family last year, said of the new arrangement: “It services everybody. For Disney it certainly broadens its range of film and gives them more library. The best thing the majors can do is distribute your video.”

CAA agent John Ptak said that in a time when “everybody’s clamoring for market share, it certainly benefits a supplier and solid producer (like Miramax) to have a strong distribution and marketing company like Disney fighting for you.”

Ptak was responsible for bringing Miramax and Disney together last year when he brokered a $ 13 million package deal giving Disney all domestic rights to Miramax’s “Sarafina!” and video rights to the indie’s “Strictly Ballroom, “”Zentropa,””Mediterraneo,””In the West” and “Ethan Frome.”

However, Creative Artists Agency’s Bob Bookman noted that the success of the deal will hinge on whether Miramax will be able to maintain its independence.

Disney’s purchase of Miramax is another signal of the symbiotic relationship between the industry’s majors and independents.

Last year, Sony Corp. led the way with the formation of Sony Pictures Classics — a company built when the company hired the founding executives of Gotham-based Orion Classics.

Matsushita-owned Universal Pictures followed suit, forging an equal partnership with Dutch Electronics giant Polygram to form Gramercy Pictures, a distributor of moderately budgeted indie pix.

The recent marriages between studios and independents is in some part a return to the days when the majors operated their own classics divisions.

But in the past, classics divisions were under the thumb of studios, which ultimately proved that the majors were ill-equipped to successfully market and distribute smaller movies. The difference today is that Disney is looking to Miramax to continue doing what it knows and does best.

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