HIGH POINTS: If there were any doubts that Miramax Films has evolved from a specialized distrib into a mini-major, they were put to rest in 1997. Not only did Miramax sweep the Oscars with the war romance “The English Patient,” but its genre banner Dimension Films hit paydirt at the box office with “Scream,” released in December 1996, and “Scream 2,” which opened a year later.
Thanks to those hits, Miramax generated a record $419.2 million in theatrical revenues in 1997, a whopping 68% gain over the previous year’s total gross of $250 million. It marked the first time that Walt Disney-owned Miramax surpassed the box office take of longtime rival New Line Cinema, which pioneered the arthouse/haunted house formula that Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein have adopted with success.
What made Miramax’s 1997 performance even more admirable was that it was achieved with 23 new releases and 11 holdovers, compared with the previous year, when the Gotham-based indie powerhouse had 37 new releases and eight holdovers.
Although “Scream” did not displace “Pulp Fiction” as Miramax’s highest-grossing film, the Wes Craven-helmed pic was still the company’s box office champion in 1997. After scaring up $24.3 million in the last 11 days of 1996, “Scream” went on to rake in another $78.6 million in 1997. The only other film that came close to that lofty figure was “Scream 2,” which rang up $75.5 million in the last three weeks of the year, and which Harvey Weinstein expects to break “Pulp Fiction’s” $107 million Miramax record.
Dimension pics accounted for about 45% of Miramax’s theatrical revenues in 1997, about the same percentage as in the previous year. Noting that the Di-mension label is his brother’s brainchild, Harvey Weinstein quipped that one of the highlights of 1997 “was having Bob Weinstein as my brother. I’m planning to renew my relationship with him for another year.”
The other top-grossing pics on the Miramax/Dimension slate include the crime drama “Cop Land,” which collared $44.9 million, but cost $28 million to make; Billy Bob Thornton’s Oscar-winning Southern gothic “Sling Blade,” a $10 million acquisition that rang up $24.3 million; and the insect-laden thriller “Mimic,” which brought in $25.5 million, just $1 million more than its budget.
In terms of profitability, Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” was at the top of Miramax’s 1997 slate. The third installment in Smith’s New Jersey trilogy was made for a paltry $250,000 and grossed $12 million.
While the profitability of such Miramax productions as “Cop Land” and “Mimic” was diminished by the relatively high budgets of the films — not to men-tion P&A costs — the critical and commercial success of “Patient,” a co-production with Saul Zaentz, and the two “Screams” demonstrated the company’s growing prowess as a producer.
Despite the increasing emphasis on production, the Weinsteins haven’t lost their knack for acquisitions. In 1997, “Shall We Dance?” became the highest-grossing Japanese-language film in U.S. history, waltzing away with $9.5 million at the box office. Not bad for a film that was bought for $300,000.
The Weinsteins’ deal of the year didn’t involve a film, however; it was snaring a trio of British film executives that had been negotiating with at least one Hollywood studio. In October, Miramax formed a new London-based company with former Channel 4 execs David Aukin and Colin Leventhal and former Miramax acquisitions exec Trea Hoving, who is married to Leventhal.LOW POINTS: During their climb to the top of the specialized film heap, the Weinsteins sometimes have been accused of using strong-arm tactics. But in 1997, Miramax got a black eye of its own. In December, the company gave its detractors plenty of ammunition by publicly admitting that it had overstated the opening weekend grosses for “Scream 2.” The company initially said that the horror pic had taken in $39.2 million on 3,112 screens. But after prodding from corporate parent Disney, Miramax reckoned that “Scream 2” really brought home $33 million in 2,663 theaters.
According to Harvey Weinstein, it was his decision to issue a correction, not Walt Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner’s. “Michael Eisner can’t make me do anything,” said Weinstein. “Besides, he likes having a black sheep in the family.”
During 1997 nearly a dozen execs decided to leave the Miramax family, citing such reasons as the desire for more credit and higher compensation and the need for a satisfying personal life. The Weinsteins were gracious about the departures until the July resignation of Scott Greenstein, the senior vice president whose relationship with his bosses was once so close that he was known as “the third Weinstein brother.” Shortly after Universal bought 51% of October Films, Greenstein left to join the Gotham arthouse distrib, becoming co-president alongside John Schmidt and Bingham Ray.
Even more galling to the Weinstein brothers was the untimely exit of Neil Sacker, who late in the year joined Nomura Securities not long after signing a long-term contract as exec VP of business and legal affairs at Miramax. Since the Weinsteins have recently negotiated new deals with such key personnel as Dimension president Cary Granat, Miramax L.A. president Mark Gill and chairman of worldwide distribution Richard Sands, they are not expected to let Sacker out of his contract without a legal battle.”If Harvey lets Neil off the hook, everybody else will think they can walk out the door anytime they want,” says one former Miramax exec.
OUTLOOK FOR 1998: A handful of films that opened late in 1997 could be significant contributors to Miramax’s 1998 revenues, depending on the outcome of the Academy Awards. Iain Softley’s screen adaptation of the Henry James novel “The Wings of the Dove,” which grossed $8.2 million in 1997, and Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting,” which bagged $4.4 million on 150 screens, are both considered strong Oscar contenders. “Dove” is expected to triple its gross, while Miramax is projecting that “Hunting” will hit $100 million.
Among Miramax’s most promising releases for 1998 are the romantic comedy “Sliding Doors” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, “The Mighty” starring Sharon Stone, Mark Christopher’s disco-era “54,” “My Life So Far” from the “Chariots of Fire” team, and “Phantoms,” a Dimension release based on the bestselling Dean Koontz novel. Also in the pipeline at Dimension are “Scream 3” and a 20th anniversary installment of the “Halloween” franchise starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
The company is expected to release about the same number of pics this year as it did in 1997. “We will have the same mix of tiny American independent films, foreign films and medium-sized films,” said Weinstein.
BUILDING THE BRAND: Miramax is testing the exhibition waters through a venture that gives it control of the Gotham Cinema on Manhattan’s East Side. The 500-seat venue, which is owned by Crown Theatres and managed by City Cinemas, will be renovated and renamed the Miramax Paradiso in honor of the company’s arthouse hit “Cinema Paradiso.”
The Weinsteins are diversifying their 3-year-old Miramax Books imprint, which is distributed by Disney’s Hyperion, into non-film titles and rolling out a new line tied to Dimension. The brothers are also scribbling away on their no-holds-barred autobiography “The Art of Miramax: The Inside Story,” which is sched-uled for publication this year by Miramax Books.
— Monica Roman