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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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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.