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Talented Weinstein survives a bumpy ’99

THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR when Hollywood checks its calendars and realizes, oh no, it’s Harvey Time. Year after year, come mid-December, Harvey Weinstein pulls rabbits out of his hat as rivals gnash their teeth and Oscar statuettes begin their inexorable march toward the Halls of Miramax.

So let’s cut to the quick: It’s mid-December and the Oscars are waiting. It’s the rabbits that are missing.

No, this has not been a banner year for Harvey. To a degree, the numbers tell the story. Miramax’s profits for 1999 figure to be about $80 million, compared with $125 million in 1998 and $71 million in 1997. That’s not exactly chopped liver, but the mantra of the millennium is that every company has to show growth, and Miramax didn’t match the mantra this year.

The numbers may tell the story, but not the full story. Miramax may not have a “Shakespeare in Love” or an “English Patient” this year, but several of its movies should win a slew of nominations in different categories — “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (co-produced with Paramount), “The Cider House Rules,” “Diamonds,” “Mansfield Park,” “Music of the Heart” and “Holy Smoke,” among others.

In short, though Miramax cannot boast a commercial megahit this year, it nonetheless brought forth some distinguished films that further raised the bar for the entire industry.

And consider what it chose not to release: Eager to protect “Ripley” as its year-end thriller, Miramax made an 11th-hour decision to hold back two films that could have filled the revenue gap: “Scream III” and “Reindeer Games,” the latter directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Ben Affleck.

ON THE VIDEO FRONT, Miramax delayed the release of “Life Is Beautiful” until the close of the fiscal year, thus forgoing a potential $15 million in ancillary revenues. The reason for the delay, of course, was the misbegotten theatrical release of a dubbed version of that film.

So is Harvey happy? The answer: He sure as hell isn’t sad. With an ever-expanding empire encompassing film, TV, music and theater, he wears the aura of a man who continues to have more fun than any other executive in the entertainment industry. And though some of the domains he occupies — as a co-impresario of Talk Magazine, or as Bill and Hillary’s showbiz guru — have had troubled years, he retains his resolute swagger.

“People forget that what fuels Harvey is passion, not profit,” said the chief of one of Miramax’s rival companies. “If he gets zapped by something, he just channels that passion to his next project. He’s Mike Todd, not Mike Ovitz.”

“We should have had a better year,” Harvey said recently as he fled a restaurant for one of his habitual cigarette breaks. “Sure I spent too much at Sundance. I thought ‘Music of the Heart’ (starring Meryl Streep) would be a winner and that ‘Happy, Texas’ would find an audience. But what people don’t realize is we’re basically a fiscally conservative company. We know how to hedge our bets.”

For 2000, he says, a more cautious program of acquisitions will be pursued. The number of releases, which fell from 36 in 1998 to 28 in ’99, will be further trimmed.

At the same time, he’s high on a number of future releases. One is “All the Pretty Horses,” starring Matt Damon and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, which is a co-production with Sony. Another is “Cold Mountain,” a co-production with MGM that Anthony Minghella is writing. Another MGM co-production, the remake of “Harvey,” already has attracted the interest of several stars, including Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and Robin Williams. Then there’s “Bounce,” starring two Miramax stalwarts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck.

MEANWHILE, THE UBIQUITOUS Brother Bob at Dimension Films is mobilizing an eclectic slate that ranges from “The Others,” starring Nicole Kidman and produced by Tom Cruise, to a remake of “Total Recall” to a teen Western called “Texas Ranger” to a spoof called “Scary Movie,” to be directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans. Once focused on low-budget genre films, Dimension now ranges freely into the $20 million-to-$30 million zone.

Does the Miramax slate seem more “commercial” than in years past? The answer is “yes,” and understandably so: Miramax’s biggest ’99 release was “She’s All That,” starring Freddie Prinze Jr., which was hardly an art movie. Nonetheless, Harvey insists that he and his brother have no intention of surrendering their claim to arty, edgy fare, despite stiffer competition from the likes of USA Films, Sony Classics and the various studio classics startups.

Miramax’s ’99 slate, for example, embraced the well-received Iranian film “Children of Heaven,” as well as “My Son, the Fanatic,” which had a largely Indian and Pakistani cast. Miramax had also planned to release the provocative Kevin Smith film “Dogma,” but ended up selling off theatrical rights while retaining all the ancillaries.

“Look, I’m glad to see the studios making edgier pictures, but it’s only fair to point out that filmmakers like David O. Russell (“Three Kings”), Alexander Payne (“Election”) and M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) got their early breaks at Miramax,” says Harvey. “If styles of filmmaking are changing radically, I feel like the godfather of that change — that’s the Miramax legacy. And no one should forget that ‘Pulp Fiction’ was out there ahead of the pack.”

Even Harvey’s arch-competitors are quick to acknowledge that Miramax’s offbeat marketing savvy might have achieved greater success with films like “Election” and “Three Kings.”

Though Miramax is intent on retaining its feisty image, it’s nonetheless seriously entertaining a plan to abandon the Big Apple. Harvey and Bob have been trawling for likely sites in New Jersey and Connecticut to build soundstages as well as office space.

They’re still miffed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard fiasco engineered by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, when both Harvey and Robert De Niro were paraded out at a press conference to announce a supposedly great project in Brooklyn, only to find that the deal had vaporized.

A hardcore movie guy, Harvey also relishes his adventures in other media, despite dicey results. “Wasteland,” the Kevin Williamson TV project, capsized after receiving orders for 13 episodes, but Harvey insists it was marginally profitable. An animated show called “Clerks” awaits a timeslot at ABC.

AS FOR TALK MAGAZINE, which Miramax launched in concert with Hearst, Harvey remains bemused that it’s such a fixation of the media community. “We’ve had $19 million in advertising for the first four issues and the fifth is packed as well,” he says. The magazine, edited by Tina Brown, is undergoing a redesign, and the well-respected Bob Wallace has taken over as the new editorial director, but Harvey remains calmly confident about its future.

“Look, I know there are a lot of people who expect me to fall off a cliff,” he laughs. “I like third-act surprises as much as anyone, but I’m here to tell you that I’m not taking the fall. Sorry about that.”

And with a certain triumphant air, he lit another cigarette.

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