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Battsek Exits Miramax

Battsek Exits Miramax

Just weeks after Disney announced that Miramax was scaling back to three releases a year (what’s the point?), the specialty unit’s president, Daniel Battsek, 50, is exiting the company. This is not a surprise, except that like former Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook, Battsek was a company man (18 years). He had been rewarded by Cook for years of service with the Miramax gig in the first place, replacing the Weinsteins in 2005. He had run Disney’s distribution arm in the U.K. But with his protector gone, he was soon out the door.

New Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross said in a statement:

“With the change in direction at Miramax, we have reached a mutual agreement with Daniel Battsek that he will leave his post as president, effective January 2010. During his 18 years of service, he has brought some very prestigious and award-winning films to the studio from ‘Calendar Girls’ to ‘The Queen’ to ‘No Country for Old Men.’ We wish Daniel the very best on his future endeavors.”

Updates, analysis and Battsek’s letter to his staff are on the jump.

Disney confirms it will shut down the L.A. office and relocate the New York-based division to the studio lot in Burbank. It’s unclear who will run the company and which employees will accompany the move. Battsek lieutenant, production head Keri Putnam, is out. The division is downsizing from about 75 employees to 20 and folded its distribution and marketing into the parent company. (Here’s Variety and IndieWIRE.)

It’s fascinating to look at how Battsek went off the rails at Miramax after a strong start with such back-to-back award-winners as Tsotsi, which won the foreign film Oscar in 2006, Stephen Frears’ The Queen, for which Helen Mirren won the best actress Oscar in 2007, and the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, which won four Oscars including best picture in 2008.

The main problem with the studio sub-divisions that are being slashed if not eliminated is that they simply don’t return enough on investment. They inevitably drift away from small-scale divisions that push low-budget films into more ambitious upscale operations with more employees and more overhead. With growth comes bigger budgets, more P & A, wider releases, more grandiose Oscar campaigns and often, smaller profits.

Often the people who understand and believe in specialty divisions are either no longer in charge or are changing their focus to protect their own jobs and bonuses. And unfortunately, some of the specialty divisions lost track of their mandate. Battsek did well with Disney producer Scott Rudin on No Country for Old Men, which was a co-production with Paramount Vantage, but lost money on another Vantage/Rudin partnership, There Will Be Blood, which won an Oscar for Daniel Day Lewis. With Rudin at the tiller, Miramax also spent heavily on John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt which was nominated for five Oscars but won none. But the film did gross $50 million worldwide.

Miramax saw no profits from holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or Blindness or two literary success d’estimes, Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and the French-language The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,, which also required an expensive awards campaign.

Under pressure to succeed with wider-appeal commercial films, Battsek turned risk-averse and stopped acquiring fest titles, instead putting through such bland middle-of-the-road duds as the family film The Boys Are Back, starring Clive Owen as a widower with two sons and Frears’ Colette adaptation Cheri, starring Americans Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates and a largely British cast. They and Mike Judge’s ribald factory comedy Extract failed at the 2009 box office, while the summer coming-of-age comedy Adventureland was a modest success.

Some of this is a question of scale. Sony Pictures Classics has managed to keep up an amazing output of some 22 small pictures a year with a staff of 25. Meanwhile, perennial indie leader Fox Searchlight (which always caps its investment in pics at $15 million) has stumbled of late, as Peter Rice has moved on to run Fox TV, with Adam, Whip It and Amelia. (500 Days of Summer did gross $50 million worldwide.) And Focus Features’ chief James Schamus insists that despite modest returns on Milk and the failure of The Limits of Control ($426,000) and Taking Woodstock ($7.4 million), his division continues to be profitable. But that’s largely due to its foreign sales company and overseas production. The Coen brothers have delivered for Working Title and Focus with Burn After Reading and current award-season contender A Serious Man.

Meanwhile, the struggling Weinstein Co. and ex-Miramax exec Mark Gill (who successfully launched Warner Independent Pictures but left when he couldn’t get along with his bosses) have forged a two year pact for TWC to acquire international rights to films from Gill’s new company, The Film Department, for two years, beginning with Law Abiding Citizen.

Here’s Battsek’s letter to his employees:

Dear All-

After further reflection and discussion about the change in direction for Miramax, Rich Ross and I have agreed that I will step down as President of Miramax, effective the end of January, 2010.

With this decision, we have also agreed that the best chance of success for Miramax is for the company to be located in Los Angeles, and I will work with the group on a transition plan.

I’m very proud of all the great work we have accomplished here at Miramax and equally proud of my overall career at Disney.

-Daniel B.

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