Company's gamble pays off

In the Directors Guild of America award noms announced Tuesday, Miramax accounted for 2½ of the five nominations.

In the litany of thank-yous onstage at the Globes Sunday, one name was mentioned more often than any other: Harvey Weinstein.

And in the flurry of post-Golden Globes celebrations, one party had a long waiting line from kickoff time until the wee hours: the Miramax fete.

Those facts acknowledge the company’s wins that night: It had a hand in eight of the 13 film prizes. But they also point up another fact.

More than any other company, Miramax channeled a hefty amount of product into the December-January kudos corridor. It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about the outcome — and events have clearly been colored by the failure of “Pinocchio” — but early returns suggest the Big Gamble will pay off.

Early skeptics

Just a few months ago, skeptics were dubious of Miramax’s year-end slate. Tales of “Gangs of New York” reshoots, combined with the company’s lackluster B.O. year, fueled Hollywood’s sense of schadenfreude.

Film execs clucked that Miramax might have no serious awards contenders this year. Suddenly “Gangs,” “Chicago,” “Frida” and “The Quiet American” began screening, and the “concern” switched to the fact that Miramax might not be able to handle a glut of contenders.

“Chicago” is in some ways the company’s biggest risk: a musical greenlit at a time when the genre was unproven. Even more, the company completely footed its $45 million budget, its single biggest startup budget ever on a pic (though overseas sales later reduced the risk).

Though the “Gangs of New York” budget was more than $100 million, Miramax’s stake was only a portion of that. When the pic passed $61 million at the domestic B.O., the company projected profitability. With $41 million-plus overseas — IEG handles the pic outside North America — the pic has grossed $100 million in its first month, and Miramax execs bristle at media descriptions of the pic as a “disappointment.”

“This is a great night for movies — and not just ours,” co-topper Harvey Weinstein said Sunday at Miramax’s Trader Vic bash. “The vindication is Marty Scorsese winning his first Golden Globe in 30 years. The vindication is the rebirth of the American musical …” And so on.

The kudos weren’t the only vindication. Weeks short of its wide expansion on Feb. 7, “Chicago” is already nearing $30 million at the box office.

Paramount, which is distribbing “The Hours” domestically, plans to continue platforming the pic but has not picked a date for a wide break. The grosses stand at almost $6 million in limited U.S. release.

Pre-sales minimize risk

But then there’s Roberto Benigni’s “Pinocchio.” Life hasn’t been beautiful for the pic, which was the ultimate tank job except in its native Italy. The company’s risk in the $45 million-budgeted pic was greatly minimized by pre-sales overseas, while a McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-in helped shrink P&A. Domestically, pic may not pass $4 million at the box office.

“Frida” has earned $22.5 million to date domestically.

The jury’s still out on two other pics. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” presumably will eclipse “Pinocchio,” especially thanks to a heavy promo push leading up to its wide release (an estimated 2,000 screens) this weekend. But it has not garnered the kinds of reviews that a successful biopic typically requires. And at upward of $30 million in production costs, getting gonged with this Chuck Barris story would not be painless.

“The Quiet American” has earned $539,241 in its very limited engagements and another $2.8 million overseas. The pic is scheduled to expand Feb. 7, just four days before the announcement of Oscar nominations.

Miramax’s overall B.O. tally in 2002 came to $395 million, with Dimension’s “Spy Kids 2″ topping the list of titles at $85 million. These are critical weeks for “Chicago,” “Gangs” and “Quiet,” however. If all make good on their Oscar promise, then the payoff of the December gamble will be the defining story of Miramax’s year.

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