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Miramax’s love Machine

Mini-major reconnecting with indie roots

Suddenly, Miramax and its smaller New York neighbor Good Machine are acting, well, downright neighborly.

Before announcing a first-look deal earlier this month, Miramax had kept Good Machine at arm’s length, distributing just two of its movies in the last 10 years, compared to the nine GM pics released by cross-town rivals Fine Line and Sony Pictures Classics. And Good Machine has kept its distance, too, looking to Hollywood for its two past first-look deals — a pact with Fox followed by one with Universal.

But now Miramax is paying Good Machine well over $1 million in overhead and discretionary funds per year to develop product that Miramax will get to see before other distribs.

The dollar figure is not as impressive as the symbolic connection between the two companies.

By linking with Good Machine, Miramax is reaffirming its commitment to the type of smart fare that first made it successful.

It’s also a clever way to get into the Ang Lee business — Good Machine partner James Schamus works regularly with the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” director as both a producer and a writer.

It’s too early, however, to celebrate the new alliance.

Good Machine, which developed the Sony Pictures Classics release “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” is competing against Miramax’s “Chocolat” for the best picture Oscar. With the awards ceremony this Sunday, both companies declined comment for this article.

Nonetheless, producers and agents have shed light on why Miramax and Good Machine have jumped into bed together and how this new alliance will affect the shifting landscape of the Gotham film world.

From Good Machine’s perspective, the deal is attractive for several reasons:

  • With a large staff and high overhead, Good Machine needs cash. Over the past months, GM execs have met with several potential partners, including Intermedia and New Line. Miramax offered them a cash premium — money that will enable them more easily to buy and develop product.

  • In the company’s earlier first-look deals with Fox and U, Good Machine’s visibility and success hinged on Lee’s involvement. Now that Lee’s career is well-established, a deal with Miramax provides an opportunity for Good Machine to shine on its own.

  • Good Machine needs a muscular distribution arm to give it more international clout.

    Good Machine Intl., the sales division run by partner David Linde — a Miramax vet — has been a cash cow for the company.

Int’l consolidation

But the international sales game has recently seen a swift shift toward consolidation by shingles like Intermedia, IEG and Summit. It’s now almost impossible to launch a film internationally without a secure domestic partner, and Miramax is recognized internationally as a distributor that can put a film on the North American map.

As in its arrangements with Fox and Universal, GMI is not part of the Miramax pact and will continue to rep GM’s films internationally. (GMI had served as the exclusive foreign sales agent for October Films, which later became USA Films; that deal endures).

But GMI will inevitably get involved with films made by Good Machine and Miramax; the company can now count on the combined sales savvy of Linde and Miramax prexy of worldwide distribution Rick Sands in the foreign pre-sales game.

For Miramax, a company with numerous, yet lean, first-look deals, the alliance may not be as crucial, but it still offers tangible benefits:

  • It may allow Miramax to reconnect with its indie roots and re-establish itself as the preeminent specialty label — an image rival companies allege has been tarnished in past years as Miramax and genre label Dimension have channeled their energy into glossy productions such as “Gangs of New York” and the “Scream” trilogy.

    Linking with Good Machine is both a good PR move and a real way for the one-time champion of smaller, artier fare to ensure its longevity in that arena.

    In addition, Good Machine is poised to break out with a slate of highly anticipated movies such as “Human Nature” and helmer Todd Solondz’s next pic — both set up at Fine Line.

  • Miramax can put itself in a position close to director Lee, even though the first-look pact with Good Machine does not require or even guarantee any Lee involvement.

Despite such advantages on both sides, however, the relationship between Good Machine and Miramax could prove rocky.

Past imperfect

Miramax’s two past Good Machine pickups — “Walking and Talking” and “Office Killer” (the latter of which was jointly released with Strand) — grossed a mere $1.4 million combined.

And while Miramax emerged from Sundance with the Good Machine-produced Todd Field pic “In the Bedroom,” at a cost of $2 million, it’s unclear how Miramax expects to turn a profit in a vulnerable specialty film market.

The company that introduced American viewers to such celebrated films as “Il Postino,” “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Cinema Paradiso” several years ago watched the acquisitions business implode after smacking down more than $11 million for Sundance favorite “Happy, Texas.” Pic wound up limping to a roughly $2 million domestic cume.

Just as Miramax revitalized the arthouse, its move toward such upmarket adult fare as “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love” turned the company into the preeminent Oscar-winning machine. Company, known for its marketing acumen and good taste, had figured out how to fill the void left by the studios, which had all but abandoned adult dramas.

While Dimension releases, such as the “Scream” series and last year’s hugely profitable “Scary Movie,” enabled Miramax as a whole to continue its profitable ways, Hollywood observers began to wonder if the company might be losing its soul.

Oscar gambit

And in a year when others are fielding Oscar contenders that were once nearly the sole provenance of Miramax — pics like “Crouching Tiger,” USA’s “Traffic” or Paramount Classics’ “You Can Count on Me” — the company’s deal with Good Machine would seem an attempt to cast a wider net in its quest for those coveted statuettes.

Good Machine is not, however, always a money machine: It did not have a major breakout hit prior to Sony Pictures Classics’ “Crouching Tiger.” Its second highest-grossing pic, a co-production with Fox Searchlight, was Ed Burns’ “The Brothers McMullen,” which took in $10.4 million at the B.O.

Other pics Good Machine has produced are Lee’s “The Ice Storm,” which netted a disappointing $8 million for Fox Searchlight; Bart Freundlich’s “The Myth of Fingerprints,” a Eureka Pictures co-production that grossed $523,000; and Todd Haynes’ Killer Films co-production “Safe,” which grossed $465,000. The latter two were both released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Like a steel trap

But no one questions the intelligence and know-how of Good Machine’s producing team James Schamus — himself an accomplished screenwriter as well as producer — and Ted Hope, whose sensibilities have helped define New York’s indie scene over the past decade.

And Good Machine is blossoming on its own. “If you didn’t want a first-look deal with Good Machine,” said Jack Lechner, head of production at @radical media and a former Miramax exec, “you might as well get out of the niche movie business.”

And Miramax’s topper Harvey Weinstein has proven himself a master salesman of niche pics that might have scared away other distribs in the past.

“This is a great acknowledgment for Good Machine that they have come of age,” said William Morris Independent’s Cassian Elwes. “I think it’s smart of Miramax. They are the kings of indie cinema and recognize that other people are making great indie films and that they don’t need to focus on production.”

ICM’s Robert Newman adds that the alliance is beneficial to the indie biz as a whole.

Shifting indie scene

But it’s clear that the marriage is a sign of the times for Gotham companies trying to make their mark.

“You start to lose what made the New York indie scene interesting and alive,” lamented one Gotham producer. “Everyone is starting to move into better deals with larger companies.”

He added: “Does it change the landscape of the New York indie film world? You bet it does. But to survive as an indie film producer here, what choice do you have?”

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