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The Fat, the Mean, and the Ugly

From the January 9, 2004 Wall Street Journal: Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures" tells all about Miramax and the American indie scene.

11:00 PM, Jan 15, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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FOR A LONG TIME, it was "the movies" that people went to see. Then it was "films." And then "indie films." For a certain segment of the movie-going audience--and for critics stuck reviewing "Waterworld"--the indies were a godsend: highbrow fare that proved how much could be done with a literary script, unknown actors and a low budget.

Then the indies themselves changed, into something big and not so independent--morphing from "Return of the Secaucus 7" to "The English Patient." Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures" (Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $26.95) is an engaging and authoritative chronicle of this transformation, filled with business derring-do and tales of men behaving badly.

Three films, Biskind notes, changed everything: "sex, lies, and videotape" (1989), the first American independent film to go truly mainstream; "The Crying Game" (1992), the first to top $25 million in gross receipts; and "Pulp Fiction" (1994), the first indie to pass the $100 million mark.

All three movies were distributed in America by Miramax, which is an important part of Biskind's story. To grasp the Miramax phenomenon, though, it helps to know that "independent film" refers not so much to a genre as to a type of financial arrangement.

MOST OF THE MOVIES one sees at the mall are "studio" pictures, meaning that one of the large movie studios bought the script, hired the director and cast, and then released the movie. Indies typically originate with a director, who finances the production himself (either with investors or his own wallet). The finished film is then purchased by a distribution company, which then books it into theaters.

This difference in dollars is often a difference in kind. With budgets around 5 percent--or less--of big-studio budgets, indies are marked by an absence of special effects and a freedom to appeal to narrow audiences by being more artistically daring. That is, they used to be, until two brothers from Buffalo decided to get out of concert promotions and into the movies.

Harvey and Bob Weinstein moved into the acquisition business with their little company, Miramax, and spent the 1980s buying, recutting and distributing independent and foreign films--treading water. In 1988, they discovered the earning power of the Academy Awards and promoted "Pelle" to two Oscar nominations. The next year, the Weinsteins bet the company on Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies," paying $1 million for it and committing another $1 million to marketing the film. It went on to gross $24.7 million.

Leveraging the profits of one success into another, Miramax came to dominate the indie world. The company was so successful that Disney purchased it for $100 million in 1993. As went Miramax, so went the industry. Other big studios bought independent distributors so that eventually each major studio boasted its own in-house indie unit, financed by corporate deep pockets. Today "indies" Miramax and New Line are responsible for "Cold Mountain" (production budget about $80 million) and "Lord of the Rings" (about $250 million).

All of which bedeviled many artistic types. As Focus Features' James Schamus tells Biskind: "The original sin of American independent cinema, when it shifted away from the avant-garde, was the introduction of narrative. Once you do that, you're inserting yourself into a commodity system." Philistines, of course, might argue that narrative infestation merely stripped the avant-garde of its pretension, but that's neither here nor there. The point, as Biskind explains, is that during the 1990s Miramax was responsible for cross-pollinating indie and big-studio filmmaking. Neither has been the same since.

If "Down and Dirty Pictures" is valuable as business history, it's an absolute treasure as a comedy of manners. A gifted reporter, Biskind convinces nearly everyone in the industry to talk--from Bill Mechanic, the chief executive of Twentieth Century Fox, to Bingham Ray, the recently departed head of United Artists. The lone exception is Sundance visionary Robert Redford, whose silence is rewarded with a reduced role and punished when Biskind reports that he "used to cite the J. Peterman catalogue as an example of the kind of sophisticated writing he found clever."

Quentin Tarantino, too, comes in for his share of abuse, albeit all by his own hand. He says of one enemy: "One of these days I'll walk into some place and he'll be there. And that will be the day I take care of it." It sounds menacing, until he repeats the line, word for word, about another antagonist. While railing against the press, he declares: "I got sick of the way journalists, especially in a profile, kill you with their adjectives. He 'lumbered' into the room. 'Gesticulating wildly.' 'Manic.' You're getting your ass kicked by these little adjectives." Verbs and adverbs, too.

By contrast, Biskind finds a hero in director Stephen Soderbergh, who proves thoughtful and honest. Evaluating the success of "sex, lies," Soderbergh says: "When I look at it now, it looks like something made by someone who wants to think he's deep but really isn't." Later, regarding his self-absorbed "Schizopolis," he jokes that he "probably crossed the line from personal into private filmmaking."

BUT ULTIMATELY the show belongs to the villain, Harvey Weinstein, whose business exploits are well-known if not always well-documented. Miramax continually finds itself in situations where its partners allege that they have been cheated out of money. Harvey's response is nearly always the same: "He keeps saying we owe him money. But he hasn't sued us." Unhappy about honoring his obligations, Harvey at one point rants: "I will string him up, I will kill him, I will--he does not want to become my enemy, and he will become my enemy if he holds me to this contract. I will ruin him."

Harvey's charming social style is abundantly on view in Biskind's story. At one unfortunate assistant, Harvey yelled: "You're a dildo! You are a dildo. Say it. 'I'm a dildo.'" (The frightened assistant did.) Another assistant was angrily told to take five steps toward a balcony. When he complied, Harvey then instructed him to jump off. (He didn't.) To the husband of a director he was berating, Harvey said: "I don't like the look on your face. Why don't you defend your wife, so I can beat the [expletive] out of you." As Jack Foley, who once worked for Miramax, says of Harvey and Bob: "They're very, very sick people. They have contempt for humanity."

So this is success? Apparently so. "Bad behavior doesn't get punished in this business . . . ," Bill Mechanic tells Biskind. Faced with the Weinsteins' bullying, "people just ignore it and say, 'They're good at what they do,' which they are." Biskind's book seems to confirm this: The Weinsteins are indeed good at what they do. In the transmogrified world of "indie" filmmaking, that means earning millions of dollars for a multinational corporation. But it's clear that (1) they never bully their betters and (2) it's their success that allows their meanness, not the other way around.

But the Weinsteins' legacy may already be disappearing. As Miramax and other mini-majors grow up, they've left room for a new crop of true independents, at precisely the moment when a technical innovation--digital filmmaking--has arrived. In the coming years, the cost of putting out an independent movie will be a fraction of what it once was. The vibrant indie scene will emerge in a new form--and some other Harvey Weinstein will be there to help the studios absorb it.

Jonathan V. Last in online editor of The Weekly Standard.