THIS IS THE TIME of year when the Weinstein brothers usually find themselves basking in media praise. With Oscar nominations imminent, everyone will again be calling Miramax the Mighty Mouse of independents. Last year, Miramax ran off with 22 nominations, five more than the nearest competitor and, given this precedent, the brothers should understandably be aglow with expectations. They aren’t. When I encountered Harvey the other day, he was in a rather feisty frame of mind. Ever the steely realist, Harvey knows full well that last year’s hat trick cannot be repeated, and that the media can easily turn from worshipful to wicked. Indeed, already he’s reading stories proclaiming 1995 as a “disappointing year” for Miramax; how can it be “disappointing,” Harvey responds , if the company turned an operating profit of $50 million? One film critic even went so far as to suggest that the Weinsteins have lost their edge as a result of their $80 million sale to Disney — a comment that elicited moans of disbelief from those who know Harvey and Bob. It’s undeniable that, while Miramax produced some excellent films during 1995, several high-profile projects didn’t jell, such as Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” and “Two Bits” starring Al Pacino. But anyone who thinks the brothers Weinstein have drifted into torpor should pay a visit to the ever-chaotic Miramax offices in the Tribeca section of downtown Manhattan.
HARRIED-LOOKING AIDES STREAM in and out of Harvey’s shoe-box office, looking like medical orderlies in “ER,” delivering scripts, faxes, contracts and other random data. All this they heap onto Harvey’s desk, which already is strewn with crumpled memos, abandoned coffee cups, an oversized ash tray filled with cigarette butts and a collection of over-the-counter remedies ranging from Nyquil to Mylanta to simple aspirin. While many top film executives arrive at their offices looking like they were prepping for a GQ photo shoot, Harvey dresses for combat duty — indeed, he occasionally looks like a refugee from a food fight. Harvey is often described as pugnacious, but those who’ve made movies at Miramax testify to his passion for films and filmmakers — most of all , his passion for hits. And Harvey is the first to admit that 1995 lacked that ultimate surprise that characterized previous Miramax years — there was no “Crying Game,” no “Piano” and certainly no “Pulp Fiction,” the first indie film ever to gross more than $100 million in the U.S. and another $100 million abroad. True, Miramax released some 42 pictures in 1995, versus 28 a year earlier. True, the company started greenlighting some pricier films, such as “Restoration” ($19 million) and “The English Patient” ($27 million). The company also launched an ambitious development slate, started a book division and dove into numerous other new ventures. But Harvey and Bob are not exactly wet behind the ears. Commitments to the more expensive projects were cushioned by shrewd pre-sales and output deals. For every production commitment, there was also a canny acquisition — Miramax’s purchase of world rights to “The Postman” for $1.5 million could yield $20 million to $35 million in theatrical receipts from around the world. While Miramax was gambling $19 million on “From Dusk Till Dawn,” starring George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino and Juliette Lewis, and which opened to big business Friday, it was also launching Bob’s new Dimension label, which focuses on low-budget genre product such as “Highlander III.” Three Dimension releases in 1995 altogether grossed about $45 million at an average acquisition cost of $ 1.5 million.
HAS MIRAMAX GONE SOFT? Talk to agents and others who are in business with them and they laugh at that suggestion. While the Weinsteins love success, no one in the business copes with disappointments with greater cool. As one studio distribution chief puts it, “When Miramax hit the wall with ‘The Crossing Guard,’ they didn’t toss away another $ 20 million in ads — they probably spent $ 1.5 million to open it, then cut and ran.” While the Weinsteins know how to cut their losses, they’re also capable of such macho moves as opening “The Postman” wide in 250 theaters — perhaps the first wide break ever for a foreign-language film. They also plan to go wide with “Restoration” once “Sense and Sensibility” moves aside. Indeed, Miramax opened “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood” in more than a thousand theaters — again, a gutsy move for a project that essentially is a parody of other black pictures.
MIRAMAX IS ACCUSTOMED TO DANCING on the edge, but its deal with Disney has given the Weinsteins a healthy insurance policy. A case in point: Last May Miramax released a family film called “Gordy,” which sustained an instant box office death. Released as a Disney video, “Gordy” sold more than 2 million units and will end up in the win column. According to Harvey Weinstein, there were enough “Gordys” and “Postmans” to ring up a healthy profit for Miramax last year –$50 million, to be precise, none of which includes revenues from “Pulp Fiction.” And meanwhile, Miramax keeps building its library and expanding its links with interesting young filmmakers. All of which has helped Harvey Weinstein find a degree of equanimity — a curmudgeonly sort of equanimity, to be sure. Harvey loves what he does, and can hardly believe he’s become a wealthy man pursuing his passion for film. At the same time, the sheer mention of one of his pet bugaboos starts him baying at the moon. He begrudges the people who book celebrity TV shows and who tend to scorn interviews with his more offbeat filmmakers. He rages over newspaper reporters who fail to understand that Michael Radford (director of “The Postman”) provides more interesting copy than Robert Redford.
HE FUMES WHEN DIRECTORS of Miramax films not only turn in three-hour cuts but then want to take their overlong version to Sundance to “try it out”– a move that always proves to be self-defeating. Miramax isn’t just a company to Harvey — it’s a cause, and he cannot condone anyone who fails to get with his program. Did Harvey have a bad year? No way. If you don’t believe it, ask Harvey — then, duck.