Disney vs. Miramax rift: End in sight?

It was once unthinkable that Disney would not renew its deal with Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Today, it’s clear that Disney intends to cut them loose.

The Miramax party line remains unchanged: “Bob and Harvey hope for an amicable resolution that will allow them to continue to be productive members of the Disney family,” said a Miramax spokesman.

But insiders say those hopes have fallen on deaf Mouse ears. Disney must formally notify the brothers of a decision by March, six months before their current contract expires. Sources say a notification of non-extension has been given, but that it has not been acknowledged by Miramax.

The Weinsteins continue to lobby the Disney board of directors, hoping its financials will persuade the company to change course.

Sources inside Disney said that although talks are still ongoing, the two sides have exchanged oral and written communication stating that the current arrangement with Miramax will not continue after next year. Disney would make no official comment.

Meanwhile, Miramax supporters believe a shareholder lawsuit over the hiring and firing of Michael Ovitz, which starts Oct. 20, could shine an unpleasant spotlight on Eisner.

In the short term, nothing will change. The money for this winter’s Oscar campaigns on films like “The Aviator” and “Finding Neverland” is already in hand.

And the movies wouldn’t stop, at least not right away. Miramax is going into production on “Derailed,” starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston, while Dimension’s slate includes Robert Rodriguez’s 3-D project “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.”

Although the release of those films would continue well past the end of the Weinsteins’ contract — Sept. 30 — there’s little reason for Disney to halt production on films that would only add to the value of the Miramax library.

Similarly, Disney owns the Miramax and Dimension development slates. The banners have several films that are set to go, including “Shanghai” and “Mila 18,” which Harvey plans to direct. Though many of these projects are described as not exactly Disney pics, the studio is contractually obligated to make them, and Miramax intends to hold the studio to that.

After that, then what?

Loved or loathed, the company the Weinsteins named after their parents has long been perceived as the anchor of independent film. Over the years, it’s changed the industry’s DNA — the films that get made, the bidding wars, the Oscar campaigns and the film festivals. If Miramax were to cease to exist, there would be a ripple effect throughout the film world.

Rivals shrug that if Miramax disappeared, they wouldn’t mourn.

Loss would be keen

But actors, filmmakers and agents say they would feel the loss. Would another company have taken a chance on “Chicago”? Picked up “The English Patient” from 20th Century Fox, or “Pulp Fiction” from Columbia Pictures?

Then there’s the issue of consolidation. Even if Disney keeps the Miramax label alive, the studio would trim back its ambitions — bad news in a world that just lost MGM and United Artists to Sony.

And with corporate takeovers come corporate personalities. The Weinsteins have never been accused of having corporate mentalities, even with Disney signing their paychecks.

“You fight, you don’t speak, you go out to dinner, and you make up,” said one producer of her tempestuous decade-long relationship with Miramax and Dimension. “You won’t get a blank stare. If you’re passionate enough, and you fight hard enough, you’ll find a good compromise. It’s immediate, specific and never boring.”

The Weinsteins presumably would take those qualities with them, and no one believes they would have any problem setting up another shop. The question is what kind of company they could create.

One banker familiar with ongoing talks believes the Weinsteins’ new entity would likely be “a simple structure raising debt and equity” of about $1 billion — “as much as you can raise in debt, and as little as possible in equity.”

That could be up to $400 million in equity and $600 million-$800 million in debt.

Numbers like these indicate the Weinsteins intend to carry on as full-fledged moguls, although some wish Harvey would lower his sights. “Harvey would be an idiot not to do something smaller,” said one source familiar with the ongoing talks.

Why Harvey hasn’t done something sooner is puzzling. At this point, the future still doesn’t have the Weinsteins’ full attention; Harvey’s in London, working on the edit of a film. While contractual concerns might inhibit a full-court press, the brothers’ future plans would be further along if they were wholly devoted to setting up a new company.

But a Miramax insider said the logic is simple: “They so want to stay at Disney.”

Why? They’ve got bankers banging on their doors with the promise of creative control and a life that’s Eisner-free. What’s the problem?

Beyond the pain of leaving the company they founded 25 years ago, their next venture couldn’t compare to the behemoth they’ve left behind, a specialty film company with a history of nearly 400 theatrical releases and 350 employees.

Although the Weinsteins would be returning to their roots as real independents, it’s also a world that, thanks to Miramax, is very different from the one they left when they sold the company to Disney.

Every major has at least one specialty label marketing and/or distribution label; Sony has four, if you count the acquisition of MGM and its United Artists.

“If Miramax doesn’t exist, there is a perception that certain movies won’t get made,” said one indie exec. “But that’s why (IEG’s) Graham King gets embraced. Sammy Hadida produces and so does Constantin. They’ll fill a hole. If (Miramax’s) pictures aren’t there, buyers will look elsewhere.”

(Jill Goldsmith in New York contributed to this report.)

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