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MIRAMAX SEARCHES FOR SUMMER NICHE

With a dozen releases scheduled between Memorial and Labor Days, Miramax Films will be distributing twice as many pictures as most major studios during that period. As it tries to break out films “Smoke” and “Kids” to larger audiences, Miramax will also find itself competing with studio films “Desperado,” “Beyond Rangoon” and “A Walk in the Clouds” for those multiplex screens that are available during the off-season but are heavily booked in June and July.

That box office drama will play out against a backdrop of changes in the Miramax executive suites. The Disney-owned company’s genre film label, Dimension, which will release such lucrative franchise pics as “Halloween VI” and “Hellraiser 4,” is beefing up its role as a producer – bidding on spec scripts and underwriting the upcoming Quentin Tarantino-George Clooney vehicle “From Dusk Till Dawn.” In addition, the mini-major will be making a concerted effort to court urban filmmakers who work on low budgets.

Hoping to fill the gap created when New Line Cinema shifted to more big-budget mainstream production, Miramax is placing added emphasis on producing program pictures. Besides new installments in the “Highlander” and “Crow” franchises in the works, Dimension topper Bob Weinstein has been pumping up his executive cadre, hiring Imagine’s Paul Rosenberg as a senior VP last month. And last week, Dimension beat out Morgan Creek and Oliver Stone’s Cinergi-based production company to pay $400,000 against $500,000 for Kevin Williamson’s horror spec script “Scary Movie.”

” ‘Genre’ has a bad connotation, and we want to bring Miramax’s reputation for quality to science-fiction and horror films,” says Bob Weinstein. “Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma are just some of the great ones who made genre films.”

Helen Echegoyen, who was the production executive at New Line Cinema on “Above the Rim” and “Friday,” has just joined Miramax as a senior VP in charge of developing lowbudget, urban fare. Miramax is also having conversations with Working Title’s Paul Webster, who produced Fine Line Feature’s “Little Odessa,” about a senior production exec role in the company’s L.A. office.

Mining territory

Says Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein: “Genre films and black films are two areas of our business in which Miramax can grow. We have never had a base with black filmmakers and we’re hoping Helen can do that for us, just as my brother Bob has built Dimension from scratch.”

But before those new players get down to business, Miramax has to pick its way through a summer crowded with studio blockbusters – some of them adult fare such as “The Bridges of Madison County,” which will compete for screens with the surfeit of Miramax product.

That may call for some Weinstein stunting. On “The Postman,” a film that features the poetry of Chilean Pablo Neruda, Miramax Records/Hollywood Records will simultaneously release a star-studded album that features Julia Roberts, Samuel L. Jackson, Madonna, Sting, Glenn Close, Andy Garcia and other celebs reading his poetry.

“This is the single best metaphor for how we at Miramax take an ostensibly small film and use our relationships with stars to open up the subject matter to a wider audience,” says Weinstein.

Indeed, although the most expensive pics on Miramax’s 1995 slate weigh in at $20 million – modest by major studio standards – the films feature talent like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp.

And exhibitors suggest that the standard Miramax distribution plan – open a picture on a limited basis and expand only when the film demonstrates B.O. potential – could be more useful than ever this summer. “We’re happy to see them do this kind of counter programming,” says Travis Reid, exec VP of the New York-based Sony Theater chain. “They’re not looking to compete with ‘Batman.’ “

Specialized power

Most exhibitors agree that Miramax, more than any other indie or quasi-indie, has the clout to compete with studios in the battle for screens. Says one East Coast exec, “They are the Disney or Warner Bros. of the specialized film. They always have a major flow of titles, and in certain theaters they are the most important distributors in the business.”

In the past, Miramax’s most successful late summer releases have relied on a combination of good reviews, controversy and Cannes. But unlike 1994, when the Miramax films “Pulp Fiction” and “Clerks” were the talk of Cannes, last month’s festival was not so hot for the company.

“Kids” did not win a prize, and it has yet to become the cause celebre that execs at Miramax expected it to. But the MPAA will screen the film later this month in anticipation of its planned July release.

Controversy dies

Even if the explcit portrayal of Gotham teenagers having unprotected sex and doing drugs generates news during the summer doldrums, rivals wonder how many times Miramax can drink from the well of controversy without appearing to be overly thirsty.

“Jack Valenti has told me to drop by anytime, he said he will have milk and cookies waiting,” says Harvey Weinstein about the MPAA screening.

MIRAMAX HAS HAD a near-completed version of Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” since the fall, and execs explained its disappearance from a scheduled release last winter as a tactical move to get the film into Cannes. But the festival rejected the Sean Penn-directed film as a competition selection, and execs at Miramax now suggest that they will release the film in the fall after the Venice Film Festival.

Another film in the Miramax vault is the Al Pacino project formerly called “Two Bits,” now known as “A Day to Remember.” That pic was acquired from Capella nearly a year ago. Since that time it has been re-edited and re-scored; Capella and Miramax went to arbitration over who would pay for the changes. Capella won, and Miramax claims the film will also be released in the fall and that it has been holding it until Pacino is available to promote it. Harvey Weinstein now sees those two films and the pricey fall release “Restoration” as part of a marketing strategy to put Miramax back in the Oscar race next year.

“I’m like Reggie Jackson,” says Harvey. “I’m Mr. October. I’m not wasting Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert Downey Jr. at a time of year when Academy voters might forget them.”

Anita Busch contributed to this report.

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