Biskind Goes Inside Sundance, Miramax, and Independent Film with New Book, “Down and Dirty Pictures”
by Eugene Hernandez
Independent film’s insiders are buzzing about Peter Biskind’s new book, a must-read account of the ’90s independent film scene, entitled “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film.” Yet, few have read the 544-page book, which will go on sale widely today. Publishers Simon & Schuster have successfully kept the anticipated title under wraps and they held the book back from the media until yesterday. Many of the book’s VIP subjects, reached Monday in New York, had yet to receive their copies. Resourceful readers, however, found that a Barnes & Noble on Manhattan’s Upper West Side jumped the gun and began selling copies over the weekend.
Undoubtedly the most anticipated book about off-Hollywood film since John Pierson’s “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes,” Biskind’s insider account is considered by the author to be a sort of sequel to his 1998 book, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” which looked at ’70s filmmaking.
“Life in the indie world can be nasty, brutish, and short,” Biskind writes on page one of “Down and Dirty Pictures.” “It was once said, if Hollywood is like the Mafia, indies are like the Russian mob… With less at stake, fewer spoils, little food and water, the fighting is all the more ferocious, and when times are tough, the rats (let’s be nice — the mice) feed on one another. And because there’s no place to run, there’s neither respite nor recourse. People get away with even worse behavior than they do in Hollywood.”
And so, Biskind sets about detailing that bad behavior, much of it attributed to Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein. Indeed, the book could have just as easily been titled, “The Rise of Miramax and the Death of Independent Film.” Much of the book is a history of Miramax, from the Weinstein brothers’ early days in Buffalo, through their move to New York City and into the beginnings of the company, which was named after their parents Miriam and Max. The rise of the company, intercut with the evolution of the Sundance Film Festival, as well as the movements of a group of stalwarts within New York’s film community, frames Biskind’s account of the 90s and the explosion of independent film.
“As ‘Project Greenlight’ has taught us, when budgets are low and shooting schedules short, the drama behind the camera is as compelling as the drama in front of the camera,” Biskind writes in the book, “That drama is often about deals, getting the picture financed before it is shot and into theaters afterward.”
Biskind interviewed Harvey Weinstein on numerous occasions and also details a meeting in which Weinstein tried to convince the author to drop the book and take up a different passion project, for the Miramax Books imprint. Biskind’s depiction of Weinstein is true to other portrayals of the exec, but this time with even greater detail.
Calling Harvey Weinstein “a preternaturally charming man who is nevertheless a roiling cauldron of insecurities, in which self-love and self-hatred contend like two demons, equal in strength, canniness and resolve,” Biskind also highlights Weinstein’s love of movies and his sense of humor. Yet, it’s Biskind’s accounts of Weinstein’s numerous run-ins with staffers, filmmakers, actors, competing buyers, and the media that will have people buzzing at Sundance Film Festival cocktail parties next week.
“I struggled a lot over the issue of Miramax’s contributions,” Biskind told indieWIRE late Monday. “It didn’t surprise me… I felt that they had in fact made a very important contribution.” Biskind underscores the achievements of the company and throughout notes that, for better or worse, the company changed the way independent films were released.
A one-time doc filmmaker who was active in the indie film community in the 60s, Biskind later edited American Film Magazine and he is a former executive editor of Premiere Magazine. He is also a contributor to Vanity Fair (the magazine will offer excerpts of Biskind’s new book in its February edition, which will be released later this week).
The idea for “Down and Dirty Pictures” came to Biskind while he was on the road promoting “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” “I found myself saying that the independent scene carried the torch of the 70s, in the 90s,” Biskind told indieWIRE. Yet, those familiar with Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” will notice a different approach to this decade. It is not about the films, it is about the business of the movies, that’s the story that, according to Biskind, defined the 90s. “This is a distribution and marketing story,” he said in the conversation with indieWIRE.
The decade began with some low-budget films from unproven filmmakers getting attention at Sundance. Weinstein in particular seized the moment with movies like “sex, lies and videotape” and “Clerks,” marketing the projects aggressively and making a name for his company and the filmmakers. Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David O’Russell and more inspired other filmmakers who created a steady pipeline of movies. Sundance and Miramax ignited a frenzied period in which first-timers sought stardom from their small movies and then Hollywood took notice, setting the stage for a round of corporate involvement in independent film that continues today. Its yielded a faction of the film community that indieWIRE calls “Indiewood.”
Countless tales from interviews with an array of insiders offer first-hand accounts. Biskind’s story picks up at the intersection of Miramax and Sundance (he calls them the “twin towers of the indie world”), when in 1989, Soderbergh debuted his “sex, lies” at the festival and Harvey Weinstein came calling.
Sundance festival founder Robert Redford takes quite a few blows in “Dirty Pictures,” as does the event itself. In fact, Biskind ties the creation of the Sundance Institute to a land development project by the founder, saying that Redford “hoped to turn a white elephant into an arts colony that at best might enhance the value of the for-profit ski resort and at worst could do a whole lot of good, it was a brilliant stroke, allowing Redford to kill a multiplicity of birds with one not-for-profit stone.”
Biskind details organizational strife within the Institute, criticizing Redford for his management style, and offers a stinging critique of the organization. “Judged by one of its original, loftier goals, an institute to help outsiders, Sundance has failed. Women, Native Americans, African-Americans and the poor still don’t have equal access to the camera.”
Reached yesterday, Biskind clarified, “In terms of what they started out to do they failed… but I think it turned into something else which is still valuable.” Continuing he added, “I think that [Sundance], for the all the problems, is extremely valuable — you’d have to be an idiot not to acknowledge that.” Writing in the book he concludes, “A lot of that good work is undone by the frenzy of the festival.”
The worst thing that you can say about Sundance, Biskind charges, is underscored by a comment offered by Focus Features co-president James Schamus near the end of “Down and Dirty Pictures.” That is, the fact that the festival has bungled the definition of what it means to be an auteur, a term associated with many of the filmmakers at the heart of Biskind’s book about the 70s.
“The psychology of the American independent has supplanted the auteur psychology,” Schamus told Biskind, “There’s no question to me that Sundance, as a culture, has dangerously infantilized auteurism, because the reigning assumption is that by the time you’re seventeen or eighteen years old, you’re pretty much an auteur if you’re going to be an auteur, and if you’re not, you’re not. If you’d put that on someone like Coppola, I don’t think he’d ever have been Coppola. What could that guy have said at the age of twenty? Your first independent film has gotta be your film, your voice. So now the pressure is really on from the time you’re out of diapers to be an artist. It’s become a grim kind of joke.”
Biskind’s five-plus page “Cast of Characters” lists the names and credits of the people who make frequent appearances in the book. On the executive side, a recurring list of those included were shuffling among companies in the 80s and 90s, including Michael Barker, Tom Bernard, Eamonn Bowles, Ira Deutchman, David Dinerstein, Scott Greenstein, David Linde, Jeff Lipsky, Amir Malin, Liz Manne, Chris McGurk, and Bingham Ray. Filmmakers interviewed include Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and writer/actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Sundance’s Redford is quoted from an interview in 1990, but did not participate in the book.
In a decade marked by intense competition, many of the altercations and intrigue are already the stuff of independent film legend: Weinstein’s nickname of “Harvey Scissorhands,” his infamous fight at Mercato restaurant in Park City over the rights to “Shine,” Bigham Ray’s battles with Amir Malin and Scott Greenstein, Weinstein physically attacking a journalist at a Manhattan party or verbally assaulting “Frida” director Julie Taymor in the lobby of a movie theater, and the Hollywood studio chiefs cracking down on specialty division heads over last year’s screener ban meetings. Yet, with this insightful history of the decade, Biskind offers these stories for the record and in greater detail.
Battles for movies are a familiar backdrop for the numerous skirmishes that erupt throughout the book, either at Cannes, Sundance, or Toronto (but mostly at Sundance). Among the hilarious episodes is the USA Films trio of Bingham Ray, John Schmidt and Scott Greenstein competing, or so they think, with Harvey Weinstein for the rights to Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle.” The book takes readers on a chase down hotel hallways en route to the deal.
Notably, the book also goes inside the $100 million marriage of convenience between Disney and Miramax. Noting that with the deal Disney in fact sought to alter the landscape of the independent film business.
“We said… ‘we can increase their revenues by 30, 40 percent, dramatically improve their bottom line,” Chris McGurk, then a Disney exec, told Biskind, “This gives them a huge advantage in the marketplace, maybe there’s something to this.'” Continuing he added, “We laid out on a piece of paper how we would help Miramax take over the independent world and kill everybody. The big issue was whether these two guys could work with us, work within the system.”
Indeed Miramax would eventually dominate the specialty film business, with the security of corporate parent Disney backing it up all the way. Later, the studio ties would be tested and what Biskind calls the “illusion of independence” would be underscored, most clearly by the recent MPAA screener ban. “When push came to shove,” Biskind writes, “They were unable to act independently of their studio parents.”
Biskind’s story wraps in November, just before a group of independent film producers won a court order to halt the screener ban, with Weinstein’s testimony in the case cited as a key part of their victory.
“Sundance and Miramax are the yin and yang of the indie universe, the high road and the low, the sun and the moon, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader,” writes Biskind in “Down and Dirty Pictures, “But the two had more in common than appeared at first blush. Sundance never would be able to shed its baleful twin, and eventually it would go over to the dark side. That may or may not have been a good thing, but either way, it is the story of this decade.”
[Peter Biskind will visit numerous bookstores over the next two months to discuss his new book, including New York’s Barnes & Noble Astor Place on January 20th, Los Angeles’ Book Soup on February 2nd, San Francisco’s A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books on February 6th, and Boston’s Brattle Theater on February 24th.]