Disney-Miramax marriage bearing fruit for indie

It’s been six months since Walt Disney Studios acquired Miramax Films, and the other shoe has yet to drop.

When the deal was announced, independent producers and distributors pointed to the marriage of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Miramax co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein as the ultimate culture clash, pitting the singularly commercial Disney against mercurial Miramax.

But a relationship thought to be one match away from inferno is proving to be a match made in heaven — and worth every penny of the reported $ 60 million acquisition cost of Miramax, which covered debt, liabilities, cash and executive salaries, as well as a purported $ 20 million worth of Disney stock options.

Since folding into the Disney empire, Miramax has arguably dominated the independent movie arena, snatching up rights to such major titles as “Farewell My Concubine,””Little Buddha,” the pre-buy acquisition of the Willem Dafoe-Miranda Richardson starrer “Night and the Moment” and most recently the New Era Prods.-I.R.S. Media movie “Tom and Viv.”

The Weinsteins also have pushed harder into production than ever before. They’ve jump-started production by cutting deals with “Reservoir Dogs” director Quentin Tarantino to produce “Pulp Fiction” and director Sean Penn to produce the Jack Nicholson starrer “Crossing Guard.”

Competish dubious

But some competitors are skeptical. “There has always been a tendency on Miramax’s part to buy everything in the marketplace — to sweep the slate clean, ” says Fine Line Features president Ira Deutchman. “If they ever make an error, it is buying everything.”

Katzenberg, however, is unfazed. “In my wildest imaginations I never believed I would have as much fun as with these guys,” he says. “They are hysterical and uncontrollable, which is good news. They are as determined, as ambitious, as hungry and as competitive as any two people that I have ever met. The work that we have done in a six-month period has done nothing less than take my breath away.”

Says I.R.S. Media consultant Seth Willenson: “Before the Disney acquisition, there was never any doubt about Miramax’s marketing and distribution skills, but there were always questions about their paper. The Disney acquisition has given them paper that is triple-A-plus.”

But Harvey Weinstein says the recent spree is not a matter of Disney dollars at work. Instead, it is the triumph of taste over cash, he said, offering as evidence “Farewell My Concubine,” which he said Sony Pictures Classics, Samuel Goldwyn Co. and Fine Line Features passed on, and director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue”– the first of a trilogy — which he said every one of his competitors saw.

“Our critics are sounding stupider and stupider, and they are just getting more envious and more envious,” Weinstein said. “It all comes down to one thing — taste. It’s what we decide to do and others don’t, and what they decide to do and what we decide not to do.”

Miramax’s harshest critics counter that the indie company has a “spray and pray” approach to its product, gobbling up everything and seeing what sticks in release. They say among Miramax’s 22 releases in 1993, disappointing performances for such pix as “Deception,” the animated “Tom and Jerry: The Film, “”Map of the Human Heart,””Close to Eden” and “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” are buried amid the success stories.

The Disney-era Miramax “has definitely affected the marketplace,” Fine Line’s Deutchman said. “People are buying films earlier and earlier, and paying more and more.”

Paying more and more, indeed.

Over the last month, tiny October Films forked over $ 800,000 for Pedro Almodovar’s “Kika”; Sony Pictures Classics ponied up as much as $ 1.5 million for the French film “Germinal.”

October is a smaller North American distributor not previously known for committing such large sums for a movie, while the ultra-selective Sony Pictures Classics rarely pays top fees for a foreign film.

‘Volume buyer’

“From my point of view, Miramax has always been a volume buyer,” Sony’s Michael Barker said. “They seem to go after almost everything. (Miramax) has certainly stepped up and has caused films to be bought at a much earlier stage more frequently.”

Sony Classics itself reportedly cut a $ 1.1 million deal for the pre-buy acquisition of Giuseppe Tornatore’s “A Simple Formality.” And Fine Line cut a studio term deal with “Enchanted April” producers Simon Relph and Ann Scott — a virtually unheard-of practice in the indie arena.

Many think the current climate has disastrous implications. “If I had to say right now, I’d say it could end in an industry shakeout,” Deutchman said. “What we are going through is another major cycle where the major studios have decided to get in this business. Right now, whether they like it or not, Miramax is a part of it.”

In fact, Miramax seems to like being part of a major studio’s drive into the independent arena. Harvey Weinstein said he’s “proud to be part of Disney, and Miramax is a good corporate citizen.”

To hear such corporate contentment from Weinstein seems shocking to those who have dealt with Miramax over the last 14 years.

“I’d still like to know if the Weinsteins are using the word synergy,” Willenson said.

Yes, they are. Rather than view the current indie competition as potentially disastrous to the market, Harvey Weinstein said Miramax is building new audiences for specialized product.

“Disney has taught us something about our own marketplace,” he said. “They said that when they started in animation, grosses went from $ 30 million to $ 80 million to $ 100 million. What we see with the success of movies like ‘The Piano’ is that we are seeding the audience, which will grow and grow and grow. There is synergy there.”

Where all the synergy ends is a matter of debate in indie circles. Many independents see Miramax’s releases of such exploitation titles as “Children of the Corn,””Hellraiser III” and “Fortress” through the company’s Dimension label as a push to build Miramax into another New Line — capable of handling both mainstream commercial and specialized film.