Indie film great Miramax shutters

Label closes its New York and Los Angeles offices

The Miramax offices in New York and L.A. will close their doors today.

The once-mighty specialty label will live on as a shell of its former self as a distribution arm within Disney’s film division — with six releases still in the pipeline and a murky future. There’s no decision yet as to which Disney exec is in charge of Miramax, whether any new Miramax films will go into production or what role Miramax will play in the future as a vehicle for picking up genre films.

It would not be a surprise if Disney decided to sell off those half-dozen Miramax titles that remain in the works. Asking price for the Miramax name and 500-title library’s believed to be a bracing $1.5 billion.

Even in times of constant change, the shuttering of the two Miramax offices represents a significant closure, though the move had been expected for a long time.

Since its 1979 founding, Miramax became synonymous with founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who nurtured new talent, helped introduce American indie films to a broader audience and brought European and Asian filmmakers to U.S. viewers.

Thanks to Focus Features, Fox Searchlight and stalwart Sony Pictures Classics, some studios, at least, are still championing specialty films. And the current edition of Sundance shows there’s still a market — albeit a constantly changing market — for indies. So the Miramax office closings are not a death knell for a certain kind of film, but it’s certainly the end of a certain era.

“I’m feeling very nostalgic right now,” Harvey Weinstein said in a statement. “I know the movies made on my and my brother Bob’s watch will live on, as well as the fantastic films made under the direction of Daniel Battsek. Miramax has some brilliant people working within the organization, and I know they will go on to do great things in the industry.”

Miramax’s first major hit was 1989’s “sex, lies, and videotape,” which helped put the Weinsteins and Miramax — not to mention Steven Soderbergh, Sundance and the entire indie scene — on the map.

The brothers, who are looking to buy back the Miramax name but not necessarily the library, were showmen who attracted a lot of press. Rivals loved to tell tales of their hands-on editing of films, their treatment of employees and filmmakers and their outrageous competitive instincts. But even their fiercest rivals acknowledged their success.

A key Miramax strategy was tying in the distribution of certain films with awards attention; it paid off with nominations and big box office. Company had a run of 13 best-film Oscar nominations in 11 years (1992-2002), missed out in 2003 and then had double noms in 2004. That roster: “The Crying Game,” “The Piano,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Il Postino,” “The English Patient,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Shakespeare in Love” (both 1998), “Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat,” “In the Bedroom,” “Gangs of New York” and “Chicago” (both 2002) and the 2004 pair of “Finding Neverland” and “The Aviator.”

Miramax was bought by Disney in 1993 and flourished, eventually receiving an enviable annual production budget of $700 million. But it was not an easy fit, and the Weinsteins often butted heads with Disney topper Michael Eisner. After a run of big-budget pics that included “Cold Mountain,” they had a loud split with Disney, and the brothers exited the company they’d founded (and named after their parents, Miriam and Max).

The rebooted Miramax, under British exec Daniel Battsek, scored success with its first acquisition, “Tsotsi,” the 2005 South Africa movie that earned a foreign-language Oscar. Company also had hits and Oscar noms with such fare as “The Queen,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and (shared with Paramount) “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood.”

But the production budget and output were considerably smaller, and Disney rethought its commitment to the specialty market. In October — amidst a revamp of its entire film business — Disney announced it was reducing the number of Miramax films to three a year; a few weeks later, it announced that Battsek was leaving.

Officially, Miramax remains in the distrib biz, with Disney topper Robert Iger disclosing in the recent annual report that “approximately seven” Miramax titles will be released in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

That would include Robert De Niro comedy-drama “Everybody’s Fine,” which grossed a modest $9 million following its December launch. Upcoming releases include “The Debt,” directed by John Madden and starring Helen Mirren; “The Tempest,” from director Julie Taymor; the thriller “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, written by director Guillermo del Toro; comedy “The Baster,” starring Jennifer Aniston; “Gnomeo and Juliet,” starring James McAvoy and Emily Blunt; and romance-drama “Last Night,” starring Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes and Keira Knightley.

“The Baster” has an Aug. 20 release date and “Gnomeo” is due out on Feb. 11, 2011.

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