New York, NY, October 5, 2009 -- There's an old story about Harvey Weinstein that ends with the movie mogul screaming at someone, "I invented this fucking business, OK?"
I recalled Harvey's line on Friday night at the New York Film Festival as the lights in the theater came up during an intense moment in Lars von Trier's "Antichrist." A man in a center row was having a seizure and someone behind me literally yelled, "Is there a doctor in the house?" The movie continued to play for a bit before it was eventually halted and the man left the theater. Fifteen years ago I was also in a back row at the fest, at the opening night NYFF screening of "Pulp Fiction," when someone had a similar attack during that scene when a syringe is plunged into the chest of Uma Thurman. Order was eventually restored and the screening eventually continued.
So, Harvey Weinstein was right.
With the sale of Miramax to Disney and then the overwhelming success of Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" -- it exploded at the box office shortly after that intense NYFF screening -- the booming era of big budget Hollywood studio specialty filmmaking took root. There is little doubt that era is over now. The specific sort of big business that Harvey Weinstein pioneered through Disney doesn't exist anymore. In fact, it probably died last year, on the night that Miramax's "No Country For Old Men" beat out its own "There Will Be Blood" (they co-financed both films with Paramount's late specialty label) for a best picture Oscar.
On Friday, hours before the latest NYFF seizure, Disney announced a debilitating cutback at Miramax. The label that once lead the way is being dramatically downsized. The specialty division will release just three movies a year and go from about 80 to about 20 staffers. In its Weinstein heydey they had 500 employees.
Disney's essential destruction of Miramax is sad, not only for the many people who will lose their jobs, but also because it marks the near demise of what was once an (indie) household name. From "The Thin Blue Line," "Sex, Lies and Videotape" and "Paris Is Burning" in the late '80s and early '90s, through "Pulp Fiction," "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Kids" a few years later, I always associated the Miramax name with quality. I would see as many of their films as possible, often on opening weekend (and again on video months later), because Miramax was a name I could trust that was releasing movies by many of my favorite filmmakers.
In fact, in its pre-Disney days, Harvey Weinstein and Miramax might very well have released "Antichrist." Nowadays, of the bigger companies, the majority of the most engaging, challenging and exciting new films (most of them foreign) come from Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia Pictures and IFC Films (which is shepherding Lars von Trier's latest).
"Should Studio Specialty Units Change Focus?" was the question posed by my colleague Anne Thompson last week. "If SPC is running a solid business, releasing more small movies and taking advantage of the product surplus, scooping up the best of international and indie cinema, why can't Searchlight, Focus and Miramax do the same?" Thompson asked, "What if the future is about more narrow-niche movies, while the market for mid-budget movies for adults is falling apart and difficult to sustain? Why can't Searchlight, Miramax and Focus join the fray?"
Well, the studios didn't really create the specialized film boom of the '90s, they bought into it, built it up and then abandoned it. So, in a time of dramatic change for the entertainment business, we certainly can't expect them to figure out how to marry the best indie and foreign movies with a model that works. Can we?
The business of marketing bigger specialty films from Hollywood, often with an awards season hook, got out of control. Paramount, Warner Bros., MGM, and now Disney all abandoned niche fare in favor of intended mainstream success and then they couldn't go back so they got out of the game altogether. Fox and Universal are still in the mix, but they're not acquiring interesting international cinema for U.S. audiences.
Of those still in play today, Sony's Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, veterans of a few different classics divisions, actually deserve much of the credit for carrying the flag for interesting film for decades. And surviving financially. Earlier in this decade, some people at the bigger studio divisions would quietly criticize SPC for their cautious, frugral approach to distribution. But, looks who's left standing.
This past week, there's been a palpable energy for distinctive international cinema at the New York Film Festival. While the toughest NYFF films have faced smaller crowds, the controversial movies from name brand filmmakers are filling the theaters. Folks in their 20s and 30s were a dominant at Harmony Korine's "Trash Humpers" and Lars von Trier's "Antichrist." That's a demographic you don't typically see at Lincoln Center in such large numbers. Will there be a Miramax, like the one from the early 90s, for a new generation of adventurous moviegoers? I think the jury's still out.
In Saturday's speech accepting the Trailblazer award at the Woodstock Film Festival, producer Ted Hope again advocated that filmmakers and movie lovers do more to bolster a community. "There is constant chatter by these lucky ones who have 'jobs' in the film industry about crisis, but I don’t see a crisis in the same way they do," Hope said, "I see a golden age blooming with more great artists than ever before pushing and pulling the work they love to a deeply engaged and participatory audience."
Now that the Hollywood studios have abandoned international and art house cinema (with the exception of Sony, of course), others will continue to pick up the pieces and try to build a new business around these movies. There's a lot of trial and error happening now and, as was passionately discussed at the recent Indie Summit in New York, the economics of these new models need to evolve to better support the people making the movies.
Will it take a new Harvey Weinstein to really (re-)invent this fucking business? The answer is, probably not.
Is there a doctor in the house?