‘Bob Weinstein on the line. He says he’s from Buffalo.’ A First-Person Perspective on the Early Years of Miramax Films

Our box office editor remembers the early years of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, when they were way over their heads.
Bob Weinstein and Harvey WeinsteinMIRAMAX INTERNATIONAL AFM PARTY, SANTA MONICA, AMERICA - 05 NOV 2004November 5, 2004. Santa Monica, CA. * EXCLUSIVE ! *Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein.Miramax International AFM Party at Akwa.Photo by: Eric Charbonneau®Berliner Studio/BEImages* EXCLUSIVE ! *
Bob and Harvey Weinstein

The Weinstein Company assets will be purchased by the Ron Burkle-backed Maria Contreras-Sweet, and all things Weinstein will be removed from whatever remains. After a nearly four-decade run, the legacy of the most successful specialized distributor in history comes down to the last five tumultuous months that mark an inglorious (if not inglourious) end.

The Weinsteins made its first big Oscar splash in 1990 with “My Left Foot,” but they’d already been around for some time. Long before I covered box office for IndieWire, I spent 30 years as a film buyer, booking for theaters — and was a first-hand witness to Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s rise. Here’s my perspective on how they grew from a small outlier to an indie powerhouse.

“Bob Weinstein on the line. He says he’s from Buffalo.”

Back in 1981, phone calls were announced by a receptionist. As a young film buyer for M&R Theaters, the largest Chicago-based exhibitor, I had to decide if I’d take it. Bob made a cold sales call, uncommon in the closed-knit distributor/exhibitor world. And none of them came from Buffalo, but I knew even distributors with weird addresses could have something playable — often at favorable terms.

It turned out Bob Weinstein was a rock promoter, and he wanted to book “Rockshow,” a Paul McCartney concert film. He sounded distinctive, assertive — and in way over his head. He referred to a brother.

I checked the bookings among my largely suburban mainstream theaters, and had a spare week on a spare screen and decided to take a chance, without a lot of risk. I gave him the mercy booking.

A year or so later, Miramax called with another concert film, “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball.” I asked for a print to screen, and booked it. I dealt with Harvey on marketing.

By then, M&R was a leading player in the ’80s rebirth of specialized film. Film festivals like Toronto and Telluride were young but established; Sundance, still known as the USA Film Festival, was in its earliest stages. Miramax Films certainly didn’t create that renaissance; it was barely part of it.

Over the next few years, Miramax released the Gabriel Garcia Marquez-written Brazilian-Mexican film “Erendira” in 1983; the marketing foregrounded its erotic aspects. It found a little traction, as did its 1985 Ruben Blades’ musical immigrant release “Crossover Dreams,” which debuted at New Directors New Films and was the first Miramax title to be part of the film-festival circuit.

Its major score, however, wasn’t even a Miramax release. With Jeremy Leven (“The Notebook”), the brothers co-wrote and directed “Playing for Keeps,” a PG-13 teen sex comedy that featured an early appearance by a 21-year-old Marisa Tomei. Distributed by Universal, the comedy was a mere box-office blip ($6.6 million, adjusted) — but it served as a proof of concept. Not only could the brothers independently finance a film, they could also sell it to a major studio. (Its executive producer was Patrick Wachsberger, now chairman of Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group.)

After Miramax released Sherman Hemsley comedy flop “Ghost Fever” in 1987 (directed by the pseudonymous Allan Smithee), things shifted dramatically.

For years, much arthouse product came from studios: Paramount released “Atlantic City,” Bertolucci’s “1900,” and two Ingmar Bergman films. United Artists released “La Cage aux Folles;” 20th Century Fox oversaw Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” and Bertolucci’s “Luna.”

That led to specialty divisions including United Artists Classics (overseen by Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, who run Sony Pictures Classics today), Columbia Pictures’ Triumph Films, and Fox Classics (predecessor to Fox Searchlight). Running parallel were independent companies like Cinecom, Island/Alive, Circle Releasing, Goldwyn, and Vestron. Suddenly, little movies were a genuine niche business.

Among major successes were two Island releases, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “A Trip to Bountiful,” which both won Oscars for lead acting for 1985. (Island was early in sending video screeners to Academy members.) Cinecom scored with the Merchant-Ivory “A Room With a View.” Both “Kiss” and “Room” grossed the adjusted equivalent of over $40 million, after playing for months and never went wider than just over 200 theaters.

But though business increased, by 1988 it faced crisis. Revenue streams were hard to guarantee, as was marketable product. Many films flopped, taking companies with them. The audience and theaters were there, but the distributors to push them weren’t.

This history provided both a blueprint and an opening for the Weinsteins to exploit.
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Merchant Ivory/Goldcrest/Kob/REX/Shutterstock (5881076i)Daniel Day-LewisA Room With A View - 1986Director: James IvoryMerchant Ivory/GoldcrestBRITAINScene StillE.M.ForsterDramaChambre avec vue

By 1987, Miramax relocated from Buffalo to New York. Its next two films, both directed by women, showed early signs of marketing prowess. “Working Girls” from Lizzie Borden was a 1986 Cannes premiere and 1987 Sundance prizewinner, but received mixed reviews; marketing pushed a sexy feel and it paid off with an adjusted gross around $4 million. “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” was a 1987 lesbian comedy/drama from Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema. Bolstered by reviews, it hit $3 million.

Those hits gave Miramax increased access and respect among exhibitors, but the real breakthrough was Errol Morris’ 1988 police documentary “The Thin Blue Line.” At a time when few docs gained traction, Morris’ film grossed close to $3 million, and won prizes from the New York and National Society of Film Critics.

Miramax aggressively marketed the film as a thriller, and showed its eye for controversy when the documentary failed to secure an Oscar nomination. That same year, however, Miramax won its first Oscar for Bille August’s “Pelle the Conqueror,” which also earned Max von Sydow a Best Actor nomination. These early successes created cash flow and credit, and attracted investors.

Then came 1989 and Steven Soderberg’s “sex lies and videotape,” which grossed an adjusted $55 million — then a record for an American release from an independent distributor. That same year, sex-and-spies true story “Scandal” managed close to $20 million and became the first Miramax MPAA battle. (Ultimately, the film lost three seconds to avoid an X rating.)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use OnlyMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/REX/Shutterstock (733580my)'My Left Foot' - Daniel Day-LewisITV ARCHIVE
‘My Left Foot’ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Finally, Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” won Best Film from the New York Film Critics and five Oscar nominations, including its first Best Picture. Most importantly, it won two Oscars for star Daniel Day-Lewis and supporting actress Brenda Fricker.

From my perspective, the secret weapon in this growth period was Los Angeles-based studio veteran Marty Zeidman as head of distribution. An insider who could stand up to his combative bosses, he navigated them through uncharted territory. He sensed opportunity and worked like he had something to prove. He aggressively pushed for wider runs, far deeper and earlier than his competitors.

Miramax had good films, and as a buyer (by this time, for Loews) I felt confidence in the company. For Miramax, inspiring that faith from exhibitors was gold. We liked the sense that they were breaking rules to rewrite the norm. And as an independent, they had less power than studios, which meant we could make more money. They prospered, we prospered.

Remembering this, it’s tough to realize all of it ran in parallel with Harvey’s abuses. The early signs came with reports of intolerable treatment; the distribution staff talked openly about the verbal assaults they faced. Despite great work, Zeidman became the Moses who never quite got to the promised land, losing his job in 1994. As success continued, the reports got only worse.

By the mid ’90s, it became increasingly difficult to handle the craziness with erratic decisions, unreasonable demands, insisting on holdovers and new dates. When Disney bought Miramax, it only got worse.

In 2001, now living in Los Angeles and between jobs, I was approached by Miramax’s Mark Gill to work in a new division. I told him that I had a career goal: Never work for Harvey Weinstein. Gill told me that I’d be in Los Angeles, and he’d be my buffer. I needed the work. I felt relieved when he called soon after to tell me the project wasn’t going ahead.

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