How are the mighty fallen. I first met Harvey Weinstein at Cannes in 1986, where he had a tiny room at the Majestic Hotel and ran around the festival looking for movies for Miramax Films to acquire. The former Buffalo concert promoter was an anxious and eager hustler. He eventually picked up Lizzie Borden’s realistic look at New York hookers, “Working Girls,” out of Director’s Fortnight and took it to Sundance, where it won a 1987 jury prize. Even back then, as Peter Biskind reported in “Down and Dirty Pictures,” while the Weinsteins did a good job releasing the movie ($1.7 million domestic), the producers audited Miramax’s books and found some inappropriate expenses that the Weinsteins were forced to reimburse.
That was the template. Stories about dodgy business practices continue to this day, as vendors complain that they have to beg to get paid and exhibitors wish the company would stick to its release plans. It’s understood that working for the Weinsteins may teach a lot about movies and marketing, but you’ll also suffer verbal abuse from the volatile brothers, especially Harvey; every employee feels the clock ticking on how long they’ll be able to take it.
He’s long been loathed by filmmakers who found themselves facing Harvey Scissorhands, or those who saw their releases buried if not shelved outright. Both he and his brother, Bob, inspired “Miranon,” the unofficial group of ex-employees/survivors of their toxic work environment.
You wouldn’t want to run into either Queens native in a dark alley, but Harvey was the one a woman didn’t want to be with alone. Even days before the New York Times piece broke, a group of industry insiders at the New York Film Festival speculated about how long Harvey could skate on the sex abuse reports that dogged him for years. It turned out, not long.
And there were stories about out-of-control hotel room behavior at film festivals — not unusual in free-wheeling Hollywood — but as a reporter, I did not encounter any of this directly. In my early years covering the film industry via LA Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, and other outlets, I got to know Harvey and Bob, who cooperated with me as I tracked the rise of Miramax from their wily manipulation of the MPAA over the rating of “Scandal” in 1989 and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” the following year, and their pickup of Steven Soderbergh’s zeitgeist-changing Sundance and Cannes hit “sex, lies and videotape,” to Oscar-winners “My Left Foot,” “The Crying Game,” and “Pulp Fiction,” through Miramax’s $70-million acquisition by Michael Eisner’s Disney in 1993.
You couldn’t assume that Weinstein or his spokespeople would tell you the truth, ever. When Harvey needed something, he would get on the phone to clarify his position on, say, Bong Joon Ho’s “Snowpiercer” — a classic case of a TWC deal changing midstream, as he wriggled out of spending $25 million on a wide release. The Weinsteins prevaricated, lied about budgets and minimum advances, not to mention box office numbers (they were not alone). When Miramax’s relationship with Disney fractured in 2005, Harvey bragged that at its peak his company made more than the studio. Later, Disney realized the Weinsteins saved all the duds for that last year, wiping out much of the profits they had accrued.
Harvey’s specious relationship to the truth also extended to himself. The Weinsteins had baroque plans for the TWC “conglomerate”: Backed by $1 billion in equity and debt financing, it included buying 12 companies as it pursued not only movie and television production and distribution, but book publishing, video games, home entertainment, and fashion. As one veteran staffer told me as she made the decision not to stay on, Harvey wasn’t about to give up his high-flying lifestyle and taste for corporate jets.
Eventually the TWC board, maneuvering to keep the company solvent, pulled The Weinstein Co. back to the core business. “I was frustrated. I thought I could do what Michael Eisner could do,” Weinstein said at a Producers Guild breakfast with his protege, producer Jason Blum, at Sundance in 2013.
Over the years, my relationship with Harvey deteriorated. It may have been my 2002 column (“The Id Couple”) in New York Magazine about “The Hours,” which pitted him against his nemesis Scott Rudin. I had each of them yelling at me on the phone, trying to get me to tell their version of the story. (This scenario essentially repeated in 2008 with “The Reader” when I was at Variety, when the two men again again fought for control; Rudin eventually withdrew.) Weinstein didn’t want me to write that he argued with Nicole Kidman, who eventually won the Oscar for Best Actress, against her prosthetic nose. He cared deeply about how he was portrayed in the press and wanted to control that process via friendly journalists whom he knew would carry his water.
Like many powerful people, for Harvey it was an issue of control. Weinstein preferred relationships in which he knew he had leverage. I came to enjoy (in a way that did not help our relationship) getting a rise out of him. When I went to Cannes as a Variety columnist and tried to set up a feature interview with Harvey on the Weinsteins’ slate, he insisted that Variety editor Peter Bart and his lieutenant Tim Grey be present to make sure the publication took care of him.
As far as I was concerned, it was in his interest to help me to cover his company and his movies as well as possible. He did not see it this way and stopped making himself accessible; I was to deal strictly with his publicity department.
When publicist Peggy Siegal threw a swanky New York book party for my 2014 book, “The $11 Billion Year: from Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System,” I was surprised when Bob showed up. He flipped through the book, checking the index, and was happy to find nothing incendiary about him or his brother. After that, Harvey was friendly again.
Treating women abusively is about power and control, not sex. Harvey is a man who seeks to fill his void in many insatiable ways. And now that Harvey is fired, all the people who feel they owe a debut of gratitude for their careers, or for his political largesse, are now questioning how to proceed.
The problem is, Harvey and Bob were always Hollywood outsiders. The source of Harvey’s leverage — hiring talent, funding movies, and backing their success — is gone. His transactional lifestyle will now backfire. Many people who despised him, but kept the door open just in case, no longer have to worry. They know he’s done people harm. Many more will ostracize him. (With a third of the TWC board resigned and high-profile feminist lawyer Lisa Bloom abandoning him under fire, Harvey has hired damage-control PR firm Sitrick & Co. to handle the crisis.)
Many in the Hollywood boys club will likely remain silent, but more people are following the lead of resilient whistleblowers Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan and speaking out against Harvey, including Meryl Streep, Romola Garai, Seth Rogen, Kate Winslet, Kevin Smith, Mark Ruffalo, and Jason Blum.
“You taste bottom in this business,” Weinstein said at that Sundance panel in 2013. “When you fail, you pick yourself up and get yourself back, whether with one movie or two. It’s not over, you just keep going.”
That ethos has served Weinstein well through three rocky decades, but it’s not enough this time. He is done.