It was 1994 and Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, had just watched “Kids” in a New York screening room. The gritty debut of famed photographer Larry Clark, “Kids” took its cues from 19-year-old screenwriter Harmony Korine’s depiction of promiscuous skateboarding teens who fight, screw and talk dirty under conditions both credible and ominous. It closed with a rape scene and the passage of the HIV virus. By traditional standards, it wasn’t an easy sell.
But Miramax wasn’t a traditional distributor. By then, the company was the hottest buyer on the block, having played a key role in establishing Steven Soderbergh by releasing his debut, “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” to a surprising commercial triumph and effectively kickstarting the marketplace at the Sundance Film Festival. Other recent successes included Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Crying Game,” another game-changing look at sexuality in America. In that respect, “Kids” should have been a natural fit.
Now, however, Weinstein faced a new conundrum. A year earlier, in the heat of their popularity, Weinstein and his brother Bob sold Miramax to The Walt Disney Company. As he exited the “Kids” screening, producer Cary Woods asked Weinstein for a reaction. “I don’t think he knew what to make of it,” Woods recalled in a recent conversation. “Well,” he recalled Weinstein saying after a long pause, “what should I do?”
An Unorthodox Deal
There was no easy answer. Woods, a former talent agent who rose through the ranks of the Hollywood system — his first gig as a producer was “So I Married an Ax Murderer” — before turning to independently-financed productions, had a lot riding on “Kids.”
He had supported the project ever since the script came his way from former client Gus Van Sant. Woods convinced Michael Chambers, the son of New Jersey philanthropist Ray Chambers, to finance the project for $1.5 million. Instead of star power, the cast featured amateur performers mostly discovered by Korine and Clark on the street. Clark fired the only established actress in the cast—rising talent Mia Kirshner—without even telling his producer, swapping her for newcomer Chloe Sevigny. At one point, someone suggested Mark Wahlberg for the project, but Woods maintained a different set of expectations.
“I read it and knew it would have to be cheap or nobody would make it,” he said. The story lacked any easily likable characters and ended on a sour note. But Woods managed to get a friend at New York magazine to put the project on its cover and even convinced the Sundance Film Festival to squeeze it into a top-secret midnight screening. “I was grabbing at straws to cover my ass,” he recalled.
Still, the biggest challenges for “Kids” lay ahead, and Woods needed to make sure it found the right home. “Speaking as a friend,” he told Weinstein, “you should run away from this as far as you can, because [Disney CEO] Michael Eisner is a motherfucker and will cut you to the bone.” Weinstein was unmoved. “What are you going to do?” he asked. Woods replied, “I’ll take it to Sundance and sell it to whoever has the balls to become the next Miramax.”
Weinstein took a day to think it over and met with Woods in his office the next morning. When he got there, Weinstein had a better idea: He would buy “Kids” out of his own pocket and create an independent division so that Disney, which would not release unrated or NC-17 movies — the two possible fates for “Kids” — would stay out of the picture. Just like that, the Weinstein brothers bought “Kids” for close to $4 million before the rest of the world caught onto one of the biggest provocations in the history of American movies. Less statement than pure vision, “Kids” captured a reckless, disillusioned youth culture in unflinching detail — and, now, the opportunity to find an audience.
Shining Excalibur to the Rescue
The timing was apt. Weinstein recently hired former Samuel Goldwyn Pictures executive Eamonn Bowles, an emerging leader in the distribution space who moonlighted as a musician, to run Miramax’s acquisitions department. One of Bowles’ first responsibilities was the creation of Shining Excalibur Pictures, the label exclusively launched to handle the release of “Kids.” Bowles set up a staff of six people to run Shining Excalibur’s distribution unit, while quietly relying on marketing assistance from Miramax staffers. In the meantime, “Kids” was a sensation at Sundance and Cannes, dividing audiences while galvanizing critics. Korine stirred up trouble with the press while Clark proclaimed his desire for the project to play at shopping malls around the country. Bowles felt confident he could match those goals.
“I thought it would do well,” recalled the executive, now the president of Magnolia Pictures. “We all did. Controversy was the way to get people to see the film.” At the same time, they worked to combat perceptions that “Kids” was an exploitation movie. “We went on a mission to legitimize the film and play up the artistry,” Bowles said. “If you look at the advertising, it’s pretty tame—nothing explicit or extravagant. This was all by design, so as not to ignite any sort of opposition.” Woods convinced Paul Schrader to sing the praises of “Kids” in a feature for Artforum. “I always wanted to make the teenage movie that America never made,” Clark told Schrader at the time.
America responded in turn. When “Kids” opened in New York on July 21, lines at the Angelika Film Center snaked around the block. Korine, in a mischievous nod to the movie’s grim finale, jokingly suggested that Sevigny should sit at the theater’s exit on a couch. From there, Bowles estimated it played 100 metropolitan areas; in total, “Kids” grossed a respectable $7 million, but its cultural impact was immeasurable.
“People forget just how heavy it was,” Bowles said. “There were all these accusations of child pornography. That really heightened the air around the film.” For the Shining Excalibur team, anticipation of those charges mandated a robust legal team. “We had lawyers vetting us all the time,” he said. “There was a real fear of being prosecuted by some aggressive local city.” He hired an anti-pornography expert to advise on which cities were most likely to cause a stir and avoided them until the movie’s reputation was secure. As a result, Clark’s native Tulsa was one of the last places where “Kids” played. Nobody sued.
Woods was thrilled. “Nobody else was capturing that voice, that generation, as authentically as I’d read it in that screenplay,” he said. Added Bowles, “You really got this feeling in the pit of your stomach watching it — it had this incredible verisimilitude with what it was like to interact with teenagers on the street at the time.” For Clark, “I had a very clear vision of what I wanted,” he explained in an interview with Baller Status earlier this year. “I wanted the audience to feel they were eavesdropping on a world they had no chance to enter at all.” In the recently published “Harmony Korine: Interviews,” Korine put it in simpler terms: “It was just a stream of consciousness…I wanted it to be authentic.”
Two decades later, Bowles found it hard to envision a movie like “Kids” generating so much heat in theaters. “It’s funny to see how the climate has changed so dramatically,” he said. “There’s less of an appetite for audiences to watch something controversial. It’s more about comfort food. People go to theaters now for a respite from modern society.” In fact, he added, today the movie would likely end up released in theaters and digital platforms simultaneously, a strategy used for many specialized releases, particularly edgier fare. “If ‘Kids’ were day and day, it might’ve been an enormous success,” he said. “People will see things in the comfort of their homes that they won’t see in theaters. But for an evening of entertainment, they want to shut the world out.”
The bottom line? “Kids” remains an audacious cinematic proposition 20 years on. “It upsets and challenges assumptions,” Bowles said. “These days, you’re just hoping good art will always triumph—or at least survive.”
“Kids” screens in Brooklyn at BAMCinemaFest on Thursday, June 25, with original cast and crew in attendance.