Weinsteins' rebirth post-Disney could cause waves in film world

Just a few hours after announcing the deal that would separate the Weinstein brothers from Miramax — the company they co-founded a quarter century ago — the sibs headed over to Ago, the West Hollywood power spot in which they hold a minority stake with Robert De Niro.

Sitting across from Harvey and Bob Weinstein and their negotiating team were Disney CFO Alan Bergman and a cadre of Mouse House legal eagles.

This is what we do after we negotiate a deal!” exclaimed Harvey Weinstein to a Variety reporter. “It’s a new era for us. It’s all positive.”

Wearing an open-necked shirt, the movie mogul looked relaxed; he and brother Bob seem energized by their rebirth. Just months ago, when talks with Disney were most intense, associates said the Weinsteins were coming unglued at the prospect of losing their Miramax label.

On March 29, Harvey Weinstein got on a conference call to describe their exit after 13 years from Disney, enthusing, “This is the entrepreneurial freedom that Bob and I will have in a new world.”

But it’s not clear what Harvey and Bob’s new world will actually look like once their plans are shored up and they’ve been financially backed.

That future is of interest to many in the media world. As the Weinsteins built up Miramax, they transformed the indie world, with a ripple effect upon the major studios in their choice of film projects and distribution.

The brothers were not always beloved, but they were always interesting — and influential.

So those in the media world are keeping an eye on the sibs and their stated plans for cable, book and magazine publishing, theater and online ventures.

Their instant-empire plans seem incredibly ambitious (wouldn’t it make more sense to start small?), but logically seem to tap into progress they’ve made in those worlds (Miramax Books, the legit “The Producers,” etc.).

But the Weinsteins face major obstacles, including the lack of library: How, for example will they fill the hours on a cable channel? Another factor is their reputations. They are known as stubborn and relentless in their dealmaking. And the brothers’ mercurial side can lead to deals that alter at a moment’s notice or slog on indefinitely, as evidenced by the Disney talks.

On the other hand, they have proven their strong biz instincts, good taste (both commercial and artistic) and their showmanship, in an age of by-the-numbers PR but few examples of genuine razzle-dazzle promotion.

“They can make movies faster and quicker than anybody,” said one source close to the brothers. “But they’ll have to piggyback off a studio in the short term. They would have to start with a DreamWorks or Revolution model and build over three to five years into a standalone company.”

“The Weinsteins are still going to end up with strategic alliances (like the one once crafted by Revolution Studios) because you cannot build and create those output deals from scratch,” said a veteran studio distribution pro. “Even if they do their own video label, they will have to end up with a major.”

One hurdle will be coming up with the $1 billion they are said to be seeking. To achieve those big numbers, the sibs must convince the Street they can stick to a reasonable business plan, though at least one person described their plan as being incredibly complex.

“They are going to have a difficult time raising money unless they bring someone on board who has a business plan and the governance provisions to follow it,” says one finance whiz. “The plan is more important than the people.”

The Weinsteins have announced an advisory board of financial bigwigs, including Steve Rattner, James Dolan and Tarak Ben Ammar, and have Goldman Sachs lining up investors.

The brothers are said to be in talks with outgoing MGM vice chairman-chief operating officer Chris McGurk.

“McGurk can make the banks comfortable,” says one person close to Miramax. “He’s a finance guy and he’s got a good reputation on Wall Street.” When Disney bought Miramax in 1992, McGurk was the studio-designated minder of the brothers, a fact that could woo investors to the fold.

Disney and the Weinsteins are behaving like a divorced couple who are still dating, but their relationship goes beyond dinner at Ago and could run deeper than the details already unveiled.

“It has ended on such a good note,” says one person who had a hand in brokering the deal. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a further relationship with Disney. Even more could happen. They’ll have deals with a studio, and Disney could be one.”

Disney and the so-far-unnamed Weinstein Co. are already partners on pics including “Derailed,” Stephen Frears’ “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering,” “The Matador,” a project called “Come Closer” and a new chapter in the “Scary Movie” franchise. Disney also has the right to team with the Weinsteins on a new chapter in the “Spy Kids” series.

Disney and the Weinsteins have plans to work on 25 features they’ll co-finance, to be rolled out through the Weinsteins’ new company. The relationship extends to new media through a deal with online animation studio Wild Brain, publishing through a stake in Niche Media, and Broadway theater through split rights to a number of potential shows.

Meanwhile, Disney is hunting for an exec to run Miramax starting in July. Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook has identified Buena Vista Intl. exec Daniel Battsek as his first choice. People close to the Mouse House say Battsek is making plans to relocate to Gotham, where the Miramax label will ultimately be downsized to 50 staffers working on up to five pics per year.

While Harvey is known for home-run hits like “Chicago” and “Shakespeare in Love,” he also had bigscale pics which were less successful, such as “Gangs of New York” and “Cold Mountain.” Meanwhile, under Bob, Dimension had a string of franchise hits like “Scary Movie” and “Spy Kids” as well as other performers that consistently showed a good return on investment.

One looming question is how much exec talent the Weinsteins will bring to any new venture.

Some media reports said last week the brothers had offered jobs to 100 Miramax and Dimension staffers.

However, that number comes from a list the brothers gave to Disney months ago of employees they wanted to take; many of those 100 have since exited Miramax and Dimension during the drawn-out Disney talks.

Bringing in a raft of MGM staffers with McGurk could be a boost to the brothers, who are said to be losing much of their inner circle. Loyalists Meryl Poster, Jon Gordon, Ross Landsbaum, Charles Layton, Andrew Gumpert, Amanda Lundberg and Cynthia Swartz are all said to be question marks.

But even execs mulling a move to the new company are unsure what this new venture is, since specific deals haven’t been worked out.

At Dimension, which has a track record of creating blockbusters, both its production co-heads are seemingly already heading for the door.

Brad Weston is ready to ink a deal that would make him a co-prexy of production at Paramount, while Gotham-based Andrew Rona is in talks with a number of suitors including Universal-based Focus Feature’s genre banner Rogue. Rick Sands, Miramax’s longtime sales guru, is now prexy at DreamWorks.

Further execs have fled to DreamWorks, TriStar and other rivals.The Weinsteins are allowed to begin working to acquire new product for their company, which Miramax staffers have technically been doing for them all along on pics such as “Wolf Creek.”

On the broadcasting front, the Weinsteins’ most intriguing option is their longstanding relationship with Cablevision CEO James Dolan. But it’s hazy as to what that play might be without a library. Dolan is also starring in his own real-life soap opera at Cablevision where a boardroom battle royal has broken out.

“Dolan will help them any way he can,” says one exec in the Weinstein inner circle. “He’s powerful and he knows people.”

Disney had thwarted the Weinsteins’ plan to have a cable presence for their Miramax brand. And when the sibs proposed a buyout of Cablevision’s Bravo and IFC brands, Disney balked.

One option, should the brothers raise big bucks, might be to leverage their talent relationships to create content for Dolan’s nets. Miramax TV’s shows include a pair on Bravo, “Project Runway” and “Project Greenlight.”

Even if the brothers wanted to license their own titles from Disney, many of the most successful of them are locked up already in multiyear deals.

With an intriguing future ahead of him, an upbeat Harvey Weinstein last week was pointing to other high-powered execs who have climbed to new heights after splitting from the Mouse House as his inspiration — from Jeffrey Katzenberg to Joe Roth.

“It’s part of a legacy of almost going to school at Disney,” Weinstein said. “And getting your oats, and creating your own company and learning to be able to build a giant media company of your own.”

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