DECADE: Miramax Ten Years Later - How Do You Spell Indie, Part 1
by Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE
[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]
During a pre-indieWIRE webcast, we published a picture on our "iLINE" website that captured a typical 90's moment outside the Egyptian Theater -- a large crowd mingling as one movie ended and another began. Creating a contest for our readers, we dubbed the shot, "Spot the Mogul," encouraging site visitors to email us the name of the company chief (Harvey Weinstein) visible in the crowd. Later, we told Harvey about shot and he retored, "I don't like being called a mogul...I wanna be called friend to the filmmaker."
A few years later, Harvey Weinstein may still consider himself a friend to filmmakers, but he is also clearly a mogul, running, with his brother Bob, the Miramax empire that encompasses movies, television and publishing. Their right hand man, former Hollywood studio exec and Miramax president Mark Gill who is based on the West Coast, agreed to talk with us for this series
Calling Miramax a mid-range company, Gill will not cede that Miramax is a studio -- certainly not by Hollywood standards it isn't. But to the indie companies, and in comparison to the specialty divisions of the other studios, the term would certainly seem to fit. In fairness, he asked indieWIRE to coin a more appropriate term. We offer a word we have been using for nearly two years now: "IndieWood."
No company, it would seem, better typifies the term IndieWood than Miramax, a division of the Walt Disney Company whose annual film slate of about 30 releases includes high-profile Oscar contenders, genre films for the teen audience, and low-budget indie films and international releases. Miramax leads a pack of companies -- Fox Searchlight, Fine Line Features, Paramount Classics, and Sony Pictures Classics among them -- that to varying degrees mix Hollywood studio money with an indie sensibility in the films they acquire and increasingly produce.
Why such a focus on terminology? Because for the latter part of this decade as Miramax has seen tremendous success and growth -- while putting less of its muscle behind "little movies" -- we are now in an environment where expectations are impossibly higher. Yet, for lack of a better word, they call themselves indie and so does the media. Maybe it is good for the broader specialized sector of the film business to be considered so successful, but how does that broadened "indie" label affect that kinds of movies that get made and acquired?
The seemingly never-ending debate about "What is indie" continues. In a sense Gill is right, the term has broadened, and so has our coverage of the independent scene. While some have suggested we stop covering Miramax in indieWIRE, we recognize their importance as a guiding force and there is no way we could have left them out of this examination of the past ten years. [Eugene Hernandez]
"Let's face it, a lot of these specialty distributors like Miramax and Fox
Searchlight and others are owned by major studios. So their financing is
certainly not independent anymore. And some of the movies they're making
are movies that used to be made by the studios, but studios don't make
anymore. So the old definition of indie doesn't quite seem to fit."
indieWIRE: I'm curious to hear from your perspective how the business has
changed or the marketplace has changed for independent films over the last
Mark Gill: I guess the first and foremost thing to say is the category broadened
itself as a function of the studios mostly abandoning the traditional
prestige pictures they used to make. The "Amadeus"s or the "Driving Miss
Daisy"s. And that of course seems not to be true this year. They've done
a better job of making quality movies. But for a long time there they
largely abandoned the category, and that meant that there was room for a
Miramax to do "The English Patient" or Gramercy to do a variety of films,
like "Dead Man Walking." So it wasn't just that your film was under a $5
million budget that defined it as independent, you could actually find
yourself working on a movie that would actually be budgeted at $15 or $20
What I think is most compelling about that though is that of course that
grabs a lot of headlines and then everybody assumes that you make one of
those, that must be all you do, when in fact you look at all these companies
and still they're releasing tiny little foreign language films and small
independent films and medium size and a few large ones. It's just that the
biggest films at any company always get the most press. But in any event, I
think the rather dramatic broadening of how you define an independent film
is the principle change. And part of that too is not just the budget that's
required to make it, but also the audience that you can now get to go to it
because of theater availability and hopefully audience education and so on.
With "Pulp Fiction" breaking the $100 million barrier and others following
that becomes a much, much higher upside for the right movie.
iW: I spoke with Geoff Gilmore about how Miramax, like Sundance is criticized for and credited with, this broadening of independent film, as you call it, because Miramax is the big guy. And in the same breath that someone will praise Miramax for
their ability to develop audiences and broaden the reach of "independent"
films, there's also been some mention, in our conversations, about how Miramax is much more like
a "studio", not so much to call it a Hollywood studio, but in the sense of
it being a much larger entity than the people from the older school, or
traditional independent world are used to.
Gill: As a recovering employee of a studio, Columbia Pictures, I can tell you
that the difference is still enormously vast. It is true however that we
are no longer a company of 12 or 14 people. So I think the wrong word to
use is "studio" because it doesn't fit at all. We have partnership deals
with Paramount Pictures, for "The Talented Mr. Ripley," so I'm spending a
fair amount of time with our studio brethren, and it is a different universe
entirely. We are a mid-sized company, we are not a tiny shoestring
operation anymore, that's definitely true.
iW: What do you think were some of the key moments for Miramax that made
that apparent to you, or were key elements in terms of the development of
Miramax into this larger mid-sizes company?
Gill: You have to pick three key points in this, maybe four. And let's do it
by movies because that informs the thinking as much as anything. Assuming
we're talking about the last ten years, let's do it chronologically. The
first would be "sex, lies and videotape." And then you'd go to "The Crying
Game "in '93. "Pulp Fiction" in '94 into '95. And then the year of
"Scream" and "The English Patient" in '96-'97. So those are the turning
points. "sex, lies" for obvious reasons, it just showed everybody there was
a huge upside for even a modestly budgeted movie, and clearly established
Sundance as a place where movies could break out of the under $5 million
gross. "The Crying Game" for two reasons. Also for it's ability to break
out, but also more than anything else, it was the movie that closed the deal
with Disney. And that funding obviously allowed us to make movies like
"Pulp Fiction," which then broke the barrier of the $100 million gross. And
then "Scream" obviously showed that Dimension could play in the big grossing
game with spending $12 or $14 million instead of $50 like the studios were
and established Dimension as a thriving entity. And obviously "The English
Patient" at the time at $27 million was our largest investment, and winning
all those Academy Awards was the year that prompted more investors to try to
get into independent film. It wasn't just "The English Patient" of course.
It was "Sling Blade," it was also the year that "Secrets and Lies," and Lars
Von Trier and all the rest of them. That was the year that four of the five
[Best Picture] nominees were independent films. So that was the wakeup call
for investors from Paramount to Carl Icahn to get into the business and I
think that's what's created a lot of the crowding we see right now. That
was the year of "Shine" too, wasn't it?
iW: Yeah. And "Fargo."
Gill: It was a massive, massive year. So those for me feel like the turning
points of the company. When I got there, which was '94, the company had
about 160 employees. And we're now at about 280, so it's grown quite a bit
even since then. Some of that is also opening a television division and
expanding our international presence and so on.
iW: This is something that has been debated - we even argue about it at
indieWIRE - but, I and a number of other people really have trouble classifying a larger film such as "Dead Man Walking," or "The English
Patient" as an independent film. When you look at it, how important do you think that term
"independent film" is, or whether there might be a more appropriate labels
that we can use.
Gill: Well, I would love it if you would come up with that label, because I
do think it's a little inept. Let's face it, a lot of these specialty
distributors like Miramax and Fox Searchlight and others are owned by major
studios. So their financing is certainly not independent anymore. And some
of the movies they're making are movies that used to be made by the studios,
but studios don't make them anymore. So the old definition of indie doesn't
quite seem to fit. But it's the least inept definition, you know [laughs]
it's the closest we have. If you guys can come up with something new,
you'll brand it for the new millennium. I just don't know what it is. It's
certainly not mini-major, that's not even close, for several reasons. One
of them is the mindset of trying to do something that inherently has a lot
more risk in it. And the second one is trying to do something that isn't
pre-sold as a marketing commodity. And the third one is trying to do it for
considerably less money. And it seems odd to say that $27 million is
considerably less money, but then you remember that the average studio film
costs $57 million [laughs] Whoa, okay.
I was in New York for three years with Miramax, as you may know, and the
last two I've been in LA, and it's amazing to me. You wander around in LA
and you hear people talking about "That shitty little $15 million
independent film." I mean, $15 million is a lot of money, but I hear over
and over in Hollywood lines like that. Inflation unfortunately has hit
Hollywood and the movie business harder than it's hit most other businesses.
So I think that more than anything else is the cause of the change in the
iW: You mentioned that the market has, I think "glut" is the word you
Gill: That's the word I used [laughs]...
iW: Obviously the number of films being made each year is increasing, and with
the advent of cheaper production methods like digital, it's going to go even
higher. Miramax is buying fewer films and you're producing more films, and
yet more films are being produced completely independently. Do you see
anyone moving into the purchaser's realm that you guys used to fill?
Gill: Just our ratio has changed....We're now about half and half. But we've
reduced the number of films we release from about 47 a year when I started
down to about 30. So if you want to run the numbers for a second, and let's
say it's 48 for the sake of averaging, that meant that 36 films a year were
getting acquired. You're now down to 30 films, half of those are
acquisitions -- so now it's about 15 films a year being acquired, so it's a
substantial difference, there's a substantial reduction in the number of
acquisitions. Having said that, there are lots of companies that have
walked in to fill that void, from Lions Gate to...there's a million of them.
God knows they're everywhere.
iW: Have you really released 15 acquisitions this year? That seems a little
high to me. Because I know at all companies the numbers are down
significantly in terms of acquisitions, whether it's Miramax or Fox
Searchlight or Fine Line certainly.
Gill: I've got to find a release schedule for you. But I think that's about
iW: One of the big things that comes up in almost every discussion, and
we're in agreement that it's probably the most significant development over
the course of this past decade, is specifically with regard to the marketing
of these films. That is really where we see the greatest impact.
Ever since Harvey and Bob Weinstein started Miramax,
that's clearly one of the areas they've been credited with being very strong
in, in addition to their taste in films. So, considering your background,
what are some of the challenges that Miramax has faced in the way that it's
really focused on its marketing over the past decade?
Gill: You know, one of the things we get blamed for a lot is
increasing the cost of releasing a movie. But I think you can look to what
the studios have gone to in terms of how much more they're spending than
they were four or five years ago, so it's not just indies where that's
happened. It's happened all across the board. And I think partly that's
also a function of competing with the internet and a variety of other forms
of entertainment, like Gameboys, a 500 channel universe and everything else
under the sun. So it's getting harder and harder to get an audience's
attention irrespective of what movie you're trying to sell them on.
Separate and apart from what gets spent, a lot of it is about how you do it.
If it were simply about how much you spent, the studios would win every
time. It would be a really easy game for accountants to win at, but that
clearly isn't what's required.
Two things I think that Miramax has excelled at: One of them is maximizing
publicity value, and that comes from Harvey and Bob [Weinstein] right all the way down
the line. They still make phone calls to newspapers and magazines from time
to time, which is extraordinary for people who are running a company. You'd
never ever see a studio head do that. And obviously there are a good number
of people all through the company who do just that. The other component is,
I think the advertising has to be much more persuasive than what I call the
"empty Hollywood haiku." Some of these TV spots with moviestars where you
have no idea what the movie is about when the spot's over..."A man you never
knew is going to a place he's never been to have a love he's never
imagined." [laughs] What is that about? So I think we've had to have the
discipline of telling a good story about each movie -- again the
reductionist art of advertising. And in many cases also obviously
positioning something not simply faithfully representing what it is. So
it's been a fairly aggressive approach, too.
Take foreign language films, for example, the French Minister of Culture was
visiting us once and said that his sense of what we did successfully, that
he was most impressed by, was that we took culture and art, and sold it as
entertainment. And I think that's true. So that clearly has been the case
all the way through. You know, a studio sets something up and then they
just push the button and it all rolls forward like a supertanker, there's no
way you're going to turn it. We, as most indie companies, have been very
adaptive, very open to completely changing what we're doing to try to tap
into something that works. "Sling Blade," I guess, is the most famous example.
We started out trying to tell this story, nobody cared. We tried about ten
other ideas, nobody cared. Finally we latched onto the "Billy as Carl"
idea, just this whole notion of this new-found talent's transformation from
Billy Bob Thornton, down-home guy, to Carl, and that seemed to be the thing
So to go back to your acquisition and production question, I'm looking at
the schedule for this year, and there are in fact 30 releases, and the thing
you'll be amazed to know is that this year, for reasons that I think are
just unusual, we're looking at 18 acquisitions and 12 productions.
The conversation continues on page 2...