When Harvey Weinstein was trying to lose weight and visited one of his sets, handlers advised the crew to remove certain foods from the craft service table. With a crew of well over 100 people, the solution wasn’t to provide an enticing, healthy alternative for the visiting boss, who had to be followed with cans of diet soda like a nurse with an oxygen tank. The solution was to eliminate any food that could be a possible temptation. The assumption was clear: Weinstein’s appetite was huge, his discipline nonexistent, and the entire company needed to cater to his shortcomings.
This isn’t meant to be a metaphor to explain the avalanche of sexual assault accusations against Weinstein. It is one of thousands of examples that show how an entire business was built around his failings as a human being. The traits that he forced his staff to account for in every piece of business – which caused tremendous inefficiency — were also the reason why Harvey Weinstein was incredibly shitty at his job.
Weinstein believed that stories of his explosive short temper and shoot-from-the-hip decision making connected him to the legendary studio bosses with their own sordid histories. Except, from a moviemaking perspective, comparisons to a David O. Selznick or Louis B. Mayer were the equivalent of pretending that Trump is like Lincoln because they both used the authority of the office of the President. And, make no mistake: The Clinton-supporting, NRA-bashing, and equal-rights warrior Harvey Weinstein was always the film industry’s Donald Trump.
Compare Weinstein to the notoriously hot-tempered, phone-throwing Scott Rudin, his contemporary and occasional colleague. Behind Rudin’s fear–inducing bluster is a producer who tirelessly works to keep his finger on the pulse of every play, book, and screenplay out there, as well as the creative inclinations of his favorite screenwriters and directors. He is known as the master of matching content and creative talent. Martin Scorsese and Aaron Sorkin don’t immediately take his call because they fear him, or assume he’s going to throw money at them; it’s because if he has something for them, it quite possibly could be the perfect fit. Once a project is in motion, Rudin imposes his will with an iron fist.
By comparison, Weinstein didn’t steer. He’d intercede to bend a project to his will, but he didn’t have the discipline to draw a blueprint; his M.O. was to rip apart and rebuild. Where Rudin read everything, many wondered if Weinstein finished the scripts he bought.
In my first job in New York, I worked for an indie production company that just wrapped production on Miramax’s “Down to You,” a huge feather in the cap of the up-and-coming company. The script was an edgy, unorthodox look at a group of friends struggling with post-college life in New York, written and directed by Kris Isacsson, who won the Sundance Film Festival with an inventive short that centered on an alcoholic’s last night at a bar.
The year before, Miramax had tremendous success releasing the Freddie Prinze Jr. teen rom-com “She’s All That” on Super Bowl weekend – most companies avoided the weekend, Weinstein found there was money to be made targeting young women. He attached Prinze to Isaacson’s project and slated it for the following Super Bowl. On the face of it, Prinze wasn’t a natural fit, but the team didn’t object as Weinstein didn’t mandate changes to the essence of the original script. However, it turned out that Weinstein really did intend to convert the film into a teen-friendly romance — something he didn’t get around to addressing until he saw an early cut.
This led to a series of test screenings, re-edits, and expensive last minute reshoots, to say nothing of his demeaning verbal assaults on a promising young filmmaker. Heaven and earth were moved, and souls were crushed, because Weinstein knew how to react, not steer. As the film’s financier, it was Weinstein’s prerogative to Frankenstein “Down to You” as he saw fit. However, the result was a slightly-schizophrenic, over-budget film.
Of course, this is just one example. Weinstein also liked to call trailer editors or screenwriters hired for reshoots into his office, and show them a trailer of movie completely different in tone than the one they were working on. Weinstein would say “You see, funny,” or, “intense,” or “romantic.” In that way, he tasked the person with finding a way to match the tone of the movie Weinstein wanted to make, but failed to make his intentions known earlier in the process.
Studio bosses always deal in rewrites, market testing, and reshoots, but rarely as a substitute for the work skipped in pre-production. Weinstein was reactionary, and so was Miramax, the staff sitting on pins and needles waiting for the moment when Harvey would intercede and mountains needed to be moved at the last minute. Over–preparing to respond to his whims and/or clean up his mess was key to survival. He was an emotionally troubled child with the power to discipline, because god knows he had none of his own.
Sure, Harvey had a sense of where cool and ticket buying intersected — especially coming off the ’80s, where Hollywood left audiences thirsty for adult content — and after “Pulp Fiction” catapulted Miramax to the next level, he knew to let Tarantino just do his thing. For all his failures in developing and producing films, he was skilled at marketing, where his bullying was an asset. Still, the reality is rather than empowering a sizable staff to enact his wishes, he built an army to follow him with towels, an industrial-sized vacuum, and Diet Coke. Reading the accounts of harassment settlements, the threats of lawsuits against reporters, hiring or blackballing those in position to speak up, and slandering victims in the press — gives just a small glimpse at how the company’s resources went toward the enabling of a completely dysfunctional bully and possible criminal.
As the VHS/DVD boom receded – the factor that justified the revenue Weinstein spent on outsized marketing and Oscar campaigns – and investors replaced Disney as the Weinsteins’ boss, the cost-benefit analysis of Harvey’s ways went south. Hence “Lion” had a quiet, bare-bones Oscar campaign last year; in his glory days, Weinstein would have launched a whisper campaign that the untalented Damien Chazelle stole every shot in “La La Land” from some unknown ’60s French musical.
The idea that reprehensible behavior is in a studio-boss job description should have been shredded decades ago, but that legacy doesn’t explain Weinstein. Most moguls built studios around their sensibilities; the Weinsteins built theirs around Harvey’s shortcomings. The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry is the story here — but beneath that lies the ingrained systems of privilege in a business that enables men to think of their movie or production company as their kingdom, best ruled by the whims of God’s chosen one. Who, as it turns out, looks a lot like him.