TWC's risky business

At last week’s L.A. premiere of “Grindhouse,” Harvey and Bob Weinstein looked like themselves again, after seeming to have left their brash personae behind at Miramax and Disney two years ago.

The moguls’ career-long investment in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez has yielded the $53 million “Grindhouse,” a daring gamble that puts the showmen where they like to be: on the edge.

“It’s the most adventurous thing Bob and I have done since the early days of our company,” says Harvey. “It’s a huge risk. I love the danger of it. I love these guys for pushing us.”

Indeed, the double feature is far from an easy sell. It pays homage to the schlockhouses of the filmmakers’ youth — a concept likely lost on today’s demos. Including four trailers, the entire package runs three hours and 12 minutes. And it’s rated R — a hard R.

Reflecting the filmmakers’ desire, the pic is going out, the first ever, under the labels of both the Dimension and the Weinstein Co. (“It’s too bad it’s not Miramax,” laments Bob), rather than MGM, which was the first option considered under the Weinsteins’ deal with the reinvented banner.

Back in January 1992, having already fallen for Tarantino’s script “True Romance,” Harvey Weinstein scooped up “Reservoir Dogs” at Sundance. When a studio passed on “Pulp Fiction” for being too violent, Miramax backed that one, too.

After “Pulp Fiction” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and scored $213 million worldwide, Weinstein took care of Tarantino like a benevolent studio dad through many dry years between such films as “Jackie Brown” and the lengthy martial arts fest “Kill Bill,” which Weinstein insisted on breaking into two films.

“Quentin works when he wants to,” says Weinstein. “There’s no pressure from us to work at all. It’s better when he’s excited about something. He blends his life and his art. He’s not a journeyman director. He doesn’t have to make a movie every year.”

Rodriguez and Tarantino have worked on each other’s films ever since they met in 1992 in a movie theater lobby following a Toronto Film Festival panel on violence. Tarantino read scenes from “Pulp Fiction” to Rodriguez while in adjoining offices at Columbia Pictures. Both contributed short films to 1995’s “Four Rooms.”

Since Bob Weinstein backed Rodriguez on “From Dusk til Dawn,” the prolific filmmaker’s movies for Dimension have grossed almost $900 million worldwide, including the finale of the “El Mariachi” trilogy, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” the “Spy Kids” trilogy and the stylized digital gamble “Sin City.” (Now that Zack Snyder’s adaptation of another Frank Miller novel, “300,” is a global smash, stars are lining up to be part of”Sin City 2.”)

Still, “Grindhouse” tested the relationships between the filmmakers and their studio patrons.

Initially, Rodriguez and Tarantino were supposed to deliver two 60-minute movies, on a budget of $40 million. But by last July’s Comic-Con, that bubble had burst. The two filmmakers were each delivering a feature, “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof.” The Weinsteins were still hoping that they’d be 70 minutes long.

First up, Rodriguez shot his zombie splatterfest “Planet Terror” at his Austin-basedTroublemaker Studios. When he fell in love with his femme fatale star Rose McGowan, he broke up his marriage of 16 years to producer Elizabeth Avellan. The production had to shut down for a month while he recovered.

The visual effects on the digital film, especially on McGowan’s peg leg, also boosted the “Grindhouse” tab. They had also planned a December release. By July, it was pushed back to April.

Tarantino helped Rodriguez on his film by playing a supporting role and shooting second-unit work. By the time Tarantino completed the daredevil live-action stunt work on the climactic car chase on “Death Proof” in January, he had only six weeks left to edit the movie. In typical fashion, he tinkered up to the last possible minute, delivering a wet pristine 35mm print (which had to be digitally married to Rodriguez’s intentionally scratched digital picture and turned into film again) just in time for the March 23 media junket.

The two filmmakers had cut as much as they could, but “by accident,” says Rodriguez, each film wound up at 85 minutes, surrounded by four trailers directed by Rodriguez, Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth.

Confronted with a three-hour-plus running time, Bob and Harvey blinked.

“Can’t we go with two movies with two trailers each?” they asked.

“No way,” the filmmakers replied.

This time, instead of one movie for the price of two with “Kill Bill,” says Tarantino, “‘Grindhouse’ is two for the price of one.”

“That’s when they killed me,” says Harvey. “When you see it, you just say, ‘OK, you’ve got to be brain-dead not to get that one, it’s so good and fun.’ It’s the fastest three hours you ever spent in a theater. It’s an event, like a Stones concert, or the Who at Leeds. We’re asking people to go to the movies. It’s not something to watch on DVD or cable.”

Finally, with the opening date bearing down, the Weinsteins went along with a three-hour-plus package with no intermission. “It’s not just a double bill,” says Bob. “It’s an attitude. Not everything is about money. Theaters need something new.”

Self-styled sensation junkies Tarantino and Rodriguez both challenged the norm with this one. Tarantino took live-action stunts to the limit with his climactic car chase starring stuntwoman-daredevil Zoe Bell. And Rodriguez scratched up his zombie gorefest to look like a rickety old print with broken sprocket holes. Both movies have “missing reels,” and that excised footage will be featured, natch, on the DVD.

“It’s so easy with them,” says Rodriguez. “I love it that they’re a hands-on studio. You can talk directly to them and they’ll make a decision at the speed of thought. They said economically two movies was better. But it’s stronger as two movies together. That’s an event. Separate, it’s just another movie. We didn’t have to convince them very much. If you bring out the showmen in them, they’ll embrace you even more.”

The one thing everyone counted on being a problem — bringing the film in with an R-rating — turned out to be not so difficult.

“Just leave it to me,” veteran ratings wrangler Tarantino told the Weinsteins.

Only minor trims were required. “Did you forget about the dripping penis?” the filmmakers asked the MPAA on MTV.com.

While the Weinsteins could have sent the movie out through MGM, which includes a lucrative Showtime pay TV deal, they agreed to the filmmakers’ request to release it themselves through Dimension. Bob pacted with Starz Encore.

This may partially account for the Weinsteins’ renewed energy. The brothers are on the line again, booking theaters, mounting one of the largest junkets ever, putting McGowan through 82 interviews in one day and pulling out the stops on a lavish downtown premiere party.

Instead of wearing suits and hobnobbing with investment bankers on Wall Street, Bob and Harvey are back doing what they do best: being showmen, putting their taste on the line, loving their movies and trying to send that message to the rest of the world.

Next stop: the European launch of “Grindhouse” at Cannes, where a longer version of Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is expected to screen in competition and Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” may land a midnight screening.

Rodriguez and Tarantino want to keep the “Grindhouse” series going. For his part, Tarantino wants to shoot an old-school Kung Fu movie in Mandarin with subtitles in some countries, and release a shorter, dubbed cut in others. If the movie plays to theaters packed with screaming patrons, the Weinsteins may be willing to indulge him.

To see Anne Thompson’s blog, go to www.ThompsonOnHollywood.com

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