Battsek puts imprint on Miramax

Executive remains relatively low-key

In two years at the helm of Miramax, Daniel Battsek has displayed at least two qualities that come in handy: polish and pugnacity.

The former is useful when enticing filmmakers, handling talent and reporting to Disney HQ. The latter helps in negotiations and in the free-for-all of specialty pics jockeying at festivals and multiplexes.

When Battsek took over from the Weinsteins, many people asked “Daniel who?” Unlike the high-profile Weinsteins, who had a long and often contentious relationship with parent company Disney and Michael Eisner in particular, Battsek entered almost below the radar and remains relatively low-key.

But his mandate and tastes reflect the Miramax legacy. His first acquisition, “Tsotsi,” won the foreign-language Oscar. Last year’s “The Queen” and “Venus” racked up plenty of nominations. And at Cannes he debuted one of the fest’s most acclaimed pics, the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” (which it shares with Paramount Vantage) and acquired another: the Julian Schnabel-helmed “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

A proper Brit, Battsek won’t brag, at least not straight away. “For all of us in the specialty end of the business, you just count your blessings for the ones that work,” he says. “We just want to be a place that filmmakers say, ‘Now that place really believes in films.’ And we will do anything to maximize that core audience.”

As to taste, he cites “The Queen” as the ne plus ultra. It’s a film by an esteemed director (Stephen Frears), superbly acted, about something substantial, and at the same time accessible and commercial.

Most of the films similarly reflect those qualities, including “Becoming Jane,” which is approaching $18 million domestically. Even the misses among the 15 releases under his watch, like this year’s “The Hoax” or “The Lookout,” have helped establish his taste and sensibility.

While the parent company is aggressively family-friendly, Miramax has become its outlet for artier and more thoughtful fare. But it shares with Disney a focus on the bottom line.

“We’re trying to develop an eclectic lineup of films,” he says. “But there is a commercial endgame, and that is to end up with exploitable assets.”

During the recent Toronto Film Festival, Battsek sat in a cafe in the back of the Varsity multiplex, where pics either die or head toward Oscar heaven, neatly attired in a navy sweater and crisp, striped dress shirt. Hands folded, skin tanned, the compactly built exec had an eye on the clock so as not to miss an 11 a.m. screening of “Atonement.”

It was a rare chance to look in on the competition (Focus produced the film and will release it in December), in between screening available pics and taking meetings. As he sat, a couple of people came by or waved, but Battsek doesn’t draw crowds in cafes. Unlike competitors like Bob Berney, James Schamus or Michael Barker, he hasn’t spent decades toiling in the indie trenches — and that quality was what made him an appealing choice for Disney chief Bob Iger.

At 49, the heir to the Miramax throne could hardly be less Weinstein-esque. For starters, he has half of Harvey’s $600 million annual budget to use on Miramax’s 10-12 pics. Personality-wise, he might be the least likely tabloid subject in Gotham — cool, analytical and low-key where Harvey is larger than life, sometimes volatile and always a favorite target of the media. Battsek deploys disarming British-isms such as “I’m not one to throw my toys out of the pram.”

Spinning a Blackberry around with his finger (and occasionally glancing at the caller ID), he recalls in measured tones his unlikely rise to his rarefied perch in the Gotham film world.

“I really just appreciated the art of film,” he says, recalling his upbringing in North London. “I started reading about it and would go a lot. That time I spent watching films just opened up a world to me.”

Beguiled by the greats of postwar cinema (Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” is still a personal pick), Battsek decided to pursue his passion in a faraway place. In 1978, the Oxford Polytechnic grad who had run the campus film society decided he’d leave the U.K. but he wasn’t ready for America. “I was adventurous, but not that adventurous,” he recalls.

He wound up in Australia, drawn to the country’s 1970s film scene that had brought directors like Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong and George Miller to international attention.

Before long, he caught on at Hoyts, the major Sydney-based exhib, first in the mailroom and then in a broader go-fer role. He personally delivered prints to the Outback and handled all the mundane tasks associated with releasing films. He also got a gig as a go-fer on Armstrong’s musical “Starstruck,” essentially making tea and running errands.

“Cutting my teeth there grounded me and has stood me in good stead,” Battsek says. “It has always been with me.”

After four years Down Under, Battsek and his wife, Luce, decided to return home to London, where Battsek climbed the cinema ladder. He worked for Palace Pictures and then forged a relationship with Disney in 1991, helping the company start a U.K. arm of its international distrib operation.

He cemented his rep at the Mouse House by starting a comedy label in 1999. One of its hits was “Calendar Girls,” which racked up a startling $93 million around the world.

That marketing knack and grounding in top-shelf filmmaking has already positioned him well in the sharp-elbowed specialty film world. Take “Diving Bell,” which could be a tough sell: a French-language film about a man who’s completely paralyzed.

Battsek got behind the film and has used his businesslike style to keep Schnabel on message. At a Toronto film fest dinner, Battsek and Schnabel were upbeat after a successful screening prior to the pic’s December release.

Across town, younger brother John, who followed Daniel into the film business, was promoting a doc he produced, “My Kid Could Paint That.” At a reception for that film, John Battsek recalled taking his cues from his brother growing up. “He was always first with everything, and film was no exception,” he said.

In the rapidly maturing specialty business, which sees up to eight releases collide in arthouses and multiplexes every weekend, Battsek is hardly the first. But by coming into the U.S. game well after its creation, he may have as clear an angle as anyone in the business.

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