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Harvey Weinstein Opens Up at Producers Guild Sundance Breakfast, Mistakes and All: ‘I Was Worst CEO’

Harvey Weinstein Opens Up at Producers Guild Sundance Breakfast, Mistakes and All: 'I Was Worst CEO'

Before Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob accepted their Milestone Award at the January 26 Producers Guild Awards, Harvey sat down at Sundance with PGA chief Mark Gordon for a remarkably candid chat. This year–in the midst of Oscar campaigns for “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Django Unchained,” following back-to-back best-picture wins for “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech”– Weinstein came to Sundance with ten staffers to scout movies, and acquire them they did. Conceding the burgeoning market for VOD, his new RADiUS-TWC arm bought several films, including Robert Reich doc “Inequality for All” and “Concussion,” while Harvey brokered an all-night deal for Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale,” which went on to win the Sundance grand jury and audience prize.

Some highlights from his Q & A– including queries from folks like me in the audience–are below.

Harvey Weinstein on Sundance: It’s become a greater forum for independent movies. When you write the history of independent movies, anyone who doesn’t put Bob Redford at the top of the list is making a huge mistake. It’s an enormous contribution. It inspires filmmakers to make movies, it has a perpetual effect. These films often guide us to new territory, show us that new territory is possible. It’s probably the most interesting and innovative film festival in the world, certainly for indie cinema. It’s a boon for what we do, it transformed my company and other companies and is a great forum for filmmakers.

On his early mistakes at Weinstein Co.: The first four years had nothing to do with movies. I was so dissatisfied, I was the worst CEO for the 12 companies we bought, I was so blatantly incompetent and stupid, about almost every decision. It wasn’t my passion to do this. OK, I had a fight with Michael Eisner at Disney, I was angry at them that they didn’t do “Lord of the Rings” when I brought it in, I was angry about “Fahrenheit 911,” we were going to buy Bravo and AMC, monster gigantic improvements to my company to bring in, worth billions to Disney. It would have made Miramax one of the great labels and taken forward that vision of independent film. I said, ‘I think I can do what Eisner did.’ I didn’t know how do that.

I was frustrated, I thought I could do what Michael Eisner can do. You taste bottom in this business, when you fail you pick yourself up and get yourself back, whether with one movie or two. it’s not over, just keep going.

On why the Oscar Contenders are so good this year: It’s the best collection of movies in 90 years, what an amazing group of films, every picture is amazing. I thought “Skyfall” should have been in there too, the best Bond movie since “From Russia with Love.” “Life of Pi,” Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is great, there are great movies. I was sorry that Jeffrey Katzenberg’s “Rise of the Guardians” didn’t get in, it’s so artistic, out of the comfort zone.

The feeling amongst the studios is to go for it, they had some disappointments in the genre movies. “Life of Pi” will do $500 million worldwide. That was the most unfilmable novel I’d read since we did “The English Patient.” How did Minghella get a script out of it, or David Magee on “Life of Pi”?

You can’t throw a fastball, you go with Ben (Affleck) and George (Clooney) who know what they’re doing. Actors are not working at retail, they’re at a reasonable price. On “Lincoln” Steven worked inexpensively. Even “Pi” wasn’t that expensive.

Mark Gordon: No one is expecting to get paid the numbers they were paid three or four or five years ago. If you work for less, you can do something wonderful.

Weinstein: The movies worked. “Argo.” DreamWorks will get to $200 million on “Lincoln.” “Phenomenal, let’s make the next ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Argo,’ ‘Life of Pi’ and take a chance with studio resources making good movies.” We are in the good movie business, when there’s a group of movies doing good, we’re going to $100 million on ‘Silver Linings.’ “I’m having a good time, walking out of the theaters, ‘OK what is the next one?'”

Quentin Tarantino will do $50 million next weekend internationally, starring Jamie Foxx. We have a black president, things change. Every marketing department has people who work on the internet with trailers, ads, featurettes, and making ofs, the appetite is insatiable on the internet.

Sony Pictures Classics has championed movies like “Amour,” I love “Rust and Bone,” they do offbeat things, take real swings, Fox Searchlight did “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Lionsgate is a smart company, one of the stable independent companies, with Summit. Smart, if you build a healthy infrastructure, it provides employment for all of us. They make smart choices.

Gordon: Great box office and good movies make great movies and box office. In television you’re rooting for TV series to fail because there’s limited shelf space.

Weinstein on piracy: Those guys got to pay for those clips on YouTube, stealing from the newspaper, movies, music, under the guise of new technology, we have to legislate that because it’s so unfair.

On how the industry has changed: There was once a Camelot moment in this industry called home video. For example we bought “Clerks” here, we grossed $4 million with it, it did $35 million on homevideo, so some of the movies got such great second and third chances. Today you have VOD, some limited homevideo. After 2008 America psychologically made the decision that they had better places to spend $29.00 or $19.95 than DVD. That’s a byproduct of the economy, it’s now part of the psyche. That is the biggest change, you don’t have the cushion anymore, you’d better get it right, it better be good.

Today if a movie is no good the audience knows it on Friday, you open a movie, word of mouth catches up with you because of the technology instantly, people say by Friday night, “don’t see it.”

Gordon: The DVD market was replaced with digital opportunities, yet the percentage recovered or captured from DVD is less, 20% at most? Why is it that even though people are still watching films on Netfllix or iTunes, why is it such a difference between what was rented and now is rented digitally?

Weinstein: Pre-2008 we were feeling a robust economy. We’re still feeling the aftereffects of policies that got us in trouble. I asked Bill Clinton, ‘why did we have the recession?’ He said, ‘Republicans took all the oversight, Wall Street had a free hand, you can steal and trade inside info and get away with it.’ America didn’t bankrupt itself, we didn’t do it, there was a road to riches: ‘okay we’re all going to behave on the honor system,’ guys in the private sector, didn’t behave.

Gordon on the smart way to use technology: We’re content makers, storytellers. I believe that if you try and take the way we’ve been telling stories and just transfer it, it’s not going to work. Seven minute episodes on the internet– it’s forcing people like me and Harvey to rethink how they’re telling stories. I made movies 20 years before I worked in TV, they’re different ways of telling stories and delivery systems. You have to figure out how to tell stories for that medium. It’s harder for people who are used to the traditional old fashioned way that has been consistent for 80 years. Screens are getting smaller, the audience is having ADD, they want the opportunity, “I want what I want when I want it.”

The most successful dramatic storytelling channel on YouTube is the women’s channel Rodrigo Garcia and Jon Avnet created, their most successful channel, yet all the “how to make a pizza,” “how to do your makeup,” is more successful. We’re not just trying to figure out how put it in a different box, we’re competing with video games and reality TV and all the crap on the web people find interesting, fighting to keep our shelf space wherever we’re delivering the content.

Until recently 80 % of $500 billion spending on ads was traditional, now they’re moving aggressively into alternative. There are opportunities to promote products in a subtle way on the internet, in films. It’s not cutting to close-ups in the hamfisted way they did years ago, which hurts film. This crazy promotion is almost subliminal, the kinds of ways companies are giving us money to use their products without the audience realizing it. It’s harder to learn it, children are so hooked into new media from when they are little.

We used to be able to live on small development fees. It’s harder to declare yourself a young producer with no money. It’s hard to make a living, it’s changed a lot. People are still finding a way to make great films. The Harvey Weinsteins of world made it possible for younger producers and older producers to tell great stories. You couldn’t sell his movies to Warner Bros. on a pitch, thank god for him. Jason Blum is producing 8 or 9 films a year, making them for $3 million apiece, creating opportunities for young directors and writers.

It takes television to reinvent an actor to be able to become a movie star again. Today with television and cable, the line is blurred, there’s no television actors and movie actors. Everybody’s doing everything.

Weinstein on “The Master”:  My Dad served in World War II on C-47s, I loved “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Master,” it was never about Scientology, my Dad went through that search, my Dad was in a veteran’s hospital, with electric shock therapy. He saw carnage and action. I saw John Huston’s “Let There Be Light.”

The “Silver Linings Playbook” preview process: He made tweaks back and forth, David (O. Russell) is the master, he will change things, work things. He worked brilliantly with Danny Elfman on 16 minutes of score, which the Academy disqualified: too many songs. Judi Dench is in eight minutes of “Shakespeare in Love” and won! David worked with Danny three or four months, changing things, so perfect for the film, you don’t want 30 mins, it’s 16. The things that changed were little things: where the music goes, two Bob Dylan songs or one? “The Girl from the North Country” worked but Danny Elfman composed a piece instead. It always tested great: first, second and third, that never changed.

What’s ahead for TWC: We’ve had success with reality TV (“Project Runway”), they’re commercial.

We made “August Osage County,” you are the beneficiary of the people who work with you, Ben Famiglietti, he walks in with a 190-page play, ‘the best writing ever out of Chicago,”: “It better be good!” It was amazing, we invested in the play, which means getting movie rights. It stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, produced by Clooney and Heslov, John Wells is the director, he adapted Tracy Letts’ Pultizer-Prize-winning screenplay, who liked it.

“One Chance,” directed by David Frankel, is about Paul Potts, a Welsh opera singer who worked in a steel mill. His wife hears him singing in shower. After all his attempts and failures, she says, “screw it” and enters him in Britain’s Got Talent. He won, he’s now a huge star in Europe, sold 35 million records. This is not a bullshit fairy tale, it’s gritty, a great cast, it’s grounded.

A movie we acquired, “The Sapphires,” is a true story about aboriginal girls who played Vietnam in ’68.

Haute Cuisine is about French haute cuisine, the woman who cooked for Francois Mitterand, a 60-year-old woman from Provence, France and the battle between her kitchen and the established French kitchen. He loved the old cooking of her youth. He gets cancer and can’t eat her cooking anymore. Not a studio pitch.

Producer Jason Blum on what he learned from Harvey: The thing I learned from Harvey, is not hedging. There are very few people in Harrvey’s position who get in a room and have an opinion and follow it through from beginning to end, because there’s so much wishy-washiness. It’s endlessly ‘yes, maybe. I kinda don’t.’ It’s great to have someone in a position of power who is decisive. That’s such a joy.

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