Nurturing the niche: Miramax Films

Since the Sept. 30 divorce of Disney and the Weinsteins, all the media attention seemed to focus on the brothers’ startup company and the new Bob Iger regime at Disney. The reborn Miramax appeared to be flying under the radar, and new topper Daniel Battsek — the polar opposite of his predecessors — discouraged any attention to him or his company.

But in four months, the company has defied the naysayers by redefining itself, quietly building an impressive slate, including pics by Stephen Frears, Roger Michell, Lasse Hallstrom, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers.

“I felt like the only reason we should be banging our drums was when we had something specific to talk about,” Battsek says. “That we just needed to concentrate hard, and do our homework and be diligent. Even this (conversation) may be a little premature — we haven’t even released a movie yet.”

The exec — who had worked at Palace Pictures and Hoyts before spending 15 years at Disney’s international arm — oversaw Disney and Miramax releases in the U.K. for a decade. Ever since Disney brought him from Blighty to Gotham last summer, Battsek has been tight-lipped about his plans.

He’s certainly had his hands full, adjusting to life in New York and the rhythms of the U.S. film biz — and fending off questions about the future of the famous film label he now oversees:

Would sellers do business with the suddenly unproven indie arm? Would the controlling Mouse House meddle too much? And could Miramax, the mini-major that came to be known for such star-driven pics as “Chicago,” “Gangs of New York” and “Cold Mountain,” re-create itself as the little indie that could as outlined by studio head Dick Cook?

Amid the confusion, Battsek quietly focused on building his slate, through months of criticism that the company wasn’t making a bold enough move to more publicly redefine itself.

The first Miramax pic under Battsek, and his No. 2 Kristin Jones, is the South African “Tsotsi,” which is readying for release Feb. 24. The pic has given the new Miramax its first Oscar nom (in the foreign-language category). Also on its eclectic slate are two sports docus and a movie starring Robin Williams.

Miramax’s cautious approach has been altogether different from other studio subsid startups that may have left the blocks too quickly.

Picturehouse, the venture launched by New Line and HBO Films that replaced sleepy Fine Line, introduced itself ceremoniously at a powerhouse press breakfast in Cannes — and announced the pick up of three films, but hasn’t had much else to show for itself thus far. (It’s first high-profile pic, Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” will be a litmus test.)

Most striking is the contrast in press strategy between the Weinsteins, who actively wooed the media, and Batsek and Cook, who don’t believe there’s much to be gained from courting the press — at least not at this juncture.

“I am what I am,” Battsek says of his soft-spoken and reserved approach. “It is my style, it’s not some sort of act. I have a passion and dedication and enthusiasm, that’s what I have always done.”

“His reputation preceded him,” says one rep. “He had a strong reputation as a good marketer, and I think he did what a smart person would do: He came here and ‘went to school.’ He also needed the confidence of Disney and had to work on that internally.”

There were rumors in September that Battsek might have trouble picking up pics at the Toronto film fest. But the mini-major ended up as one of the fest’s more active buyers, snapping up two features, including “Tsotsi,” which the Weinsteins had once been interested in themselves when it screened in Edinburgh.

The other pickup was the sports doc “The Heart of the Game,” which Battsek says will be cross-promoted with Disney sister ESPN. Later, ESPN acquired another sports doc, “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos,” with Miramax in a move of Mouse House solidarity that would have been hard to imagine in the days when the Weinsteins ruled the roost and butted heads with the studio regularly.

There’s a trick that new distribution companies use at film fests, which goes something like this: Say that a hot title like “Little Miss Sunshine” sells to Fox Searchlight — as it did for a whopping $10 million at Sundance. Knowing there’s going to be ink spilled over the sale the next day, a new distrib might just leak to reporters that it was in the running to buy the pic, whether it was a serious contender or not, in order to say to the world that it’s on the map, it’s bidding and belongs in a league with such-and-such competition.

In Toronto, Miramax, under the former Buena Vista Intl. vet Battsek, refused to confirm it was even circling any pics.

The company’s slate now includes:

  •   Williams vehicle “The Night Listener,” which was picked up at Sundance.

  •   Michell’s “Venus,” starring Peter O’Toole, Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Griffiths.

  •   Frears’ “The Queen,” starring Helen Mirren, James Cromwell and Michael Sheen.

  •  “There Will Be Blood,” a period drama loosely based on the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel “Oil!” being produced with Par Classics and exec produced by Scott Rudin.

  •  Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” also being co-produced with Par.

  •  “Kinky Boots,” the gender-bender comedy that Battsek brought to Buena Vista Intl., starring Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a feisty female impersonator.

  •  “Keeping up With the Steins,” directed by Scott Marshall and starring Jeremy Piven, Garry Marshall, Daryl Hannah, Jami Gertz and Doris Roberts.

  •  “The Hoax,” directed by Hallstrom and starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina and Marcia Gay Harden.

    Battsek says he sees the through line of his slate so far as comprising pics that have the potential to crossover.

“That’s what I have always done,” says the exec, who was previously credited with delivering “Calendar Girls,” “High Heels and Low Lives” and “Kinky Boots.”

“Hopefully there’s more than a consistency of quality, where movies say more than what’s on the page. ‘Tsotsi’ may take place in a South African township, but nevertheless speaks to communities and to people wherever they are. Even though it’s a foreign film, it has many aspects that are universal.”

A contempo-feeling trailer for “Tsotsi,” which follows a South African thug who accidentally kidnaps an infant, doesn’t disclose that pic is subtitled, and Miramax sees auds as overlooking the language barrier (the main language in the film is an Afrikaans-based street dialect).

“We don’t start out by saying, we need an apple, and a pear and there you have a fruit salad,” adds Battsek, of the unit’s current lineup.

He adds that many of his pics’ international feel make the Miramax lineup different from others in the specialty space. Looking at the success of Focus Features’ “The Constant Gardener,” the concept may be on target.

Perhaps by keeping their heads down, Cook and Battsek’s Miramax has even let the Weinsteins do a lot of their work for them.

The Weinstein Co. has made so much noise since it launched with grand plans of becoming a fully integrated media behemoth, that you’d have to be living under a rock not to know the brothers have moved on.

And unlike Paramount, which expressed bold intentions in reshaping its Classics division and then let vet co-toppers Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein twist in the wind amidst rumors they’d be out, Cook chose inhouse fave Battsek months before the Weinsteins were skedded to leave, not allowing the Miramax job sweepstakes to get out of hand.

As a novice on the festival circuit, Battsek has been carving a rep amongst U.S. sellers as a genial guy to do business with: A departure from the label’s former hard-driving identity that became the stuff of movie biz lore.

“It’s so easy compared to what it used to be,” says one producer who recently crafted a deal with Miramax, and who previously sold pics to the Weinsteins. “It was so civilized. We did a deal over coffee in 45 minutes. There was bargaining, but it was very straightforward and very thoughtful.”

Battsek carefully points out the Weinsteins and Miramax are still in business on a number of pics and have created a cordial relationship.

“I feel that Bob and Harvey and myself have managed not to tread on each other’s toes,” Battsek says. “We are in business on a number of movies, and the path that we plotted out, we seem to have taken well.”

Of course, the big question is whether Miramax can release movies with the same success.

“It’s a little early for us to be compared to some of the (other specialty companies) who have been plying their trade for rather longer than we have,” Battsek says. “But we want Miramax to retain its independence in all the places it needs to be. We have a hands-on approach in every aspect. When it comes to a crunch, we’re very sure of ourselves, what we want to go for and what we want to pay for it.”

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