"Meet the New Boss, Not as Nuts as the Old Boss," quipped a headline in the cheeky movie industry blog, Defamer, atop a recent posting about new Miramax Films president Daniel Battsek. Indeed, among the first comments voiced by those who talk about Battsek is the fact that he is no Harvey Weinstein. Later this week, Battsek will mark six months in his role as the head of Disney's Indiewood company, which was formed by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. He took over on October 1st of last year when the brothers left to launch their new company, moving to New York from the UK where he ran Buena Vista International for Disney. A former managing director at Palace Pictures, Battsek joined Disney fifteen years ago, working on the international releases of "Muriel's Wedding," "Shine," "Central Station," "Kolya," and "The Ice Storm," including some 35 films per year from Disney, Touchstone and Miramax. Soft-spoken and easy to talk with, Battsek chatted with indieWIRE recently.
Halfway into his first year heading Miramax, Battsek has been savoring the company's first Oscar. The division won the Academy Award for best foreign language film for Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi." Chatting with indieWIRE recently, he called the night earlier this month a "crowning moment" for the new Miramax. Hood's "Tsotsi," a crowd-pleaser at a number of film festivals last year, was scouted by Miramax acquisitions exec Kristin Jones at the Edinburgh International Film Festival where it won both the audience prize and the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film. Battsek closed a deal for the movie a few weeks later in Toronto, where it also won an audience prize. In release for about a month now, the movie has made about $1.25 million on 81 screens.
Clearly, film festivals have already proven important to the company and the acquisitions team led by Peter Lawson and Kristin Jones. The company also made a deal for Ward Serrill's basketball doc "The Heart of the Game" at the Toronto International Film Festival, and at Sundance in January they acquired Patrick Stettner's "The Night Listener" starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette in a film based on the novel by Armistead Maupin.
"It wasn't written in stone that we had to come out of these festivals with movies," explained Battsek, "But, we saw movies that really fit with our strategy and made an impact on us and we felt were commercially viable." Despite being a company with new leadership, in a competitive acquisitions environment Battsek won a few early battles. "We've got to keep on your toes and try to be as smart and persuasive as we can," he added.
When making the Toronto deal for the popular sports doc "The Heart of the Game," Battsek was able to make a strong enough case to quickly close a pact for the movie. And now, Miramax is positioning the film for a summer release, including a grassroots marketing campaign that will target a basketball coaches association, WNBA fans, and partner with corporate sibling ESPN (the company is also releasing another sports doc, "Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of The New York Cosmos"). For "Game," Ludacris was enlisted to create a new voiceover narration for the story of seven years inside a women's basketball program at a Seattle High School.
"We loved the movie," explained Battsek, "It is a documentary and has all the qualities of a documentary (but it) plays like drama." After the Toronto debut, Battsek explained that he sat down with director Ward Serrill and producer Liz Manne, explaining that the film was slightly re-edited and money was spent on music, in addition to adding the new narration. "We felt like we had a really good movie that we could make even better if we did a few things that made it a little more cinematic in a general sense of the word."
Bolstered by positive reactions to the new cut, including a standing ovation on the opening night of the True/False Film Festival in Missouri last month, Miramax will release the movie in mid-June. The hope is that the company can tap into a crossover audience for the movie. "We have (an) exceptional marketing and PR team who will position our various title at the festivals that we feel are most supportive," continued Battsek, reiterating the importance of festivals. "We wont just throw films into festivals just to have them shown. It has to reflect where we believe the potential audience is." Also currently on the festival circuit is Julian Jarrold's British film "Kinky Boots," which opened the Florida Film Festival in Orlando this weekend.
"As time goes by, I hope that we will build up a track record for acquiring good quality, interesting, thought-provoking movies," Battsek said, "We want to demonstrate to filmmakers that we can get every last cent out of (the movies) at the box office. We will try to secure our primary audience and always look at trying to expand on that."
Battsek is planning for a slate of 6 - 8 movies per year, mixing acquisitions with original productions. The exec recently named Keri Putnam from HBO Films to serve as president of production at the new Miramax. Among the other movies on tap include Lasse Hallstrom's "The Hoax," starring Richard Gere, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis, Roger Michell's "Venus," starring Vanessa Redgrave, Peter O'Toole, and Leslie Philips, along with Julian Jarrold's next movie, "Becoming Jane," starring Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen.
"The movies themselves should demonstrate what sort of company we are going to be," Battsek concluded, during the conversation with indieWIRE. "And if you look at them hopefully there are thought-provoking, quality filmmakers attached and hopefully potential award winning movies (that) have breakout potential either through the people in front of or behind the camera -- they have the ability to crossover beyond what might be considered the limits of their marketability."