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Miramax: A journey through Netflix

February 19, 2012

One of the things I most thoroughly regret is not having the concentration and energy to finish the PhD I started on authorship in contemporary Hollywood. But if those years spent researching gave me anything besides quite a big DVD collection, it’s a painfully narrow and useless-in-almost-every-context-imaginable knowledge of Miramax Films.

So imagine my joy when Netflix UK launched with a healthy library of Miramax movies, providing just such a context. Here, for no other reason that it’s possible and the information exists in my brain, is a brief history of Miramax using films available on Netflix as illustration. The films mentioned in bold and in lists of italics are available to stream now. Sign up for a 30 day trial and watch them all if you want. Or don’t, because it’s not like they’re paying me.

The Beginning

Miramax was launched by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the only studio bosses in history to have been played by puppet villains, in 1979. It was a lunatic time for the film business, with the arrival of home video combined with the rise of the blockbuster changing the industry at a crazy pace.

“Perhaps the biggest boom that has ever occurred in the independent sector was the explosion of home video in the early 80s” says Ira Deutchman, who really should know as he was president of New Line spin-off Fine Line Features. “It was a voracious market for anything with sprocket holes, and even the major studios couldn’t provide enough product to satisfy the demand.”

In the bubble that video created several small studios thrived. It was relatively easy to catch a break and make a few deals, but harder as the bubble contracted to maintain success. This is where Miramax excelled – at choosing films that played to traditional non-mainstream audiences (people have broken their minds defining these audiences, but they’re basically referring to arthouse/prestige movies, and exploitation/genre flicks) and then marketing these films aggressively by playing up sex, violence and controversy.

Jon Pierson, an industry middle-man who helped sell the Weinsteins sex drama Working Girls in 1987 (available on US Netflix) said they had “an instinctual grasp of how to walk the tightrope between sensationalistic come-on and classy intellectual tease,” which sums up campaigns run for Scandal, sex, lies and videotape, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! and many others during this time.

Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover is a great example of a film sexed to success. It is full of gore and knobbing, but it’s also dark and difficult to watch, with Greenaway’s deliberately stiff theatrical style intellectualising the nudity and making it all but impossible to have a wank to. It was one of several Miramax movies handed an ‘X’ rating on release – the studio mustered a tabloid-like campaign in the courts challenged the very basis of the ‘X’, calling it “the property” of pornographers, thus sending out a clear message that their film was classy while also advertising the fact it contains lots of tits. (Eventually this pressure helped force the introduction of the MPAA’s NC-17 rating).

The Thin Blue Line is a superb piece of documentary filmmaking by Errol Morris which analyses the roadside murder of a Texan police officer through interview testimony. It’s so finely constructed that it needs no voice-over, yet was powerful enough to overturn a wrongful conviction. Naturally, the Weinsteins made it look like a deadline-driven Hollywood thriller.

Harvey Weinstein famously described Miramax as “the house that Quentin built,” and in that sense Reservoir Dogs is the studio’s most important early film. It finished the job sex, lies started, putting Sundance on the map and giving shape and character to US indie filmmaking for a decade (even if that shape was invariably ‘like Tarantino, but slightly worse.’)

See also: Sirens (1993)

Welcome to the Mouse House

In April 1993 Miramax was bought by Disney, which sounds fucking mental. But it made sense. The industry-wide trend for making mega-budget blockbusters with global appeal and merchandise-friendly elements meant the one market huge media conglomerates like Disney couldn’t reach with their giant evil money-claws was the ‘specialist’ sector. It was like putting a spear at the end of a missile – Miramax knew how to seduce those lucrative but small audiences who hated the crassness and obviousness of mainstream Hollywood and, besides, they really needed the money.

Pulp Fiction was the result of the new financial power the buy-out gave them. Now able to produce their own films, not just purchase them for distribution, the Weinsteins agreed to finance Tarantino’s movie for $8 million just two months after joining Disney. They were now a true mini-major studio, and a crazy successful one – Pulp Fiction is the best film Miramax made, and it earned over $200 million at the box office.

At the same time the Weinsteins realised that with a corporate hand up their arse it was a good idea to look as indie as possible, which is often given as the reason for Miramax buying Clerks at Cannes in 1994. It was even described as “shrewd” by director Kevin Smith: “Buying this scrappy black and white American independent film shot on the ultra-cheap was a great PR move for them,” he said, laudably not saying “dick” even once.

See also: The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain (1995), Sling Blade (1996), Swingers (1996), Emma (1996)

Another Dimension

As I’ve said, non-mainstream movies split very generally into two groups: arthouse and exploitation (the common factor being they both promise the occasional flash of skin). This is reflected in the fact that Miramax’s biggest rival was New Line Cinema, who would become the powerhouse behind The Lord Of The Rings but whose foundations were laid with a Nightmare On Elm Street, Evil Dead and Critters.

To compete with New Line Miramax set up a horror label called Dimension films, primarily run by Bob, which rose to prominence when it released Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996. Scream was a reinvention of the slasher movie that proved just as influential in its sphere as Miramax and Tarantino were in theirs (films as recent and terrible as Final Destination 5 can be blamed on Scream). And just as many of Miramax’s films pondered the institutions and industrial shifts behind Miramax’s success (sex, lies and videotape and home entertainment, Cinema Paradiso and arthouse theatres) so Scream was a self-aware horror for the encyclopaedic video-age viewer.

Scream’s smart mouth is generally credited to screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who also wrote The Faculty which was directed for Dimension in 1998 by Robert Rodriguez. It’s like a fun, good-looking version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers without Donald Sutherland’s existentially terrifying maw, and must be considered Important as it’s probably the best Famke Janssen has looked on screen.

Because the exploitation business has no shame, when the Scream franchise ran dry it was Dimension itself that made a further giant pile of money from ripping it to pieces with the Scary Movie series, “Scary Movie” being the working title for Craven’s original film.

And mixed in with all the wry demographic-humping slashers was the occasional bit of class, like Alejandro Amenábar’s period ghost story The Others, which is excellent even before Eric Sykes turns up.

See also: The Prophecy (1995), Scary Movie, 2,3,4 (2000), Dracula 2001 (2000), The Others (2001), Equilibrium (2002), The Amityville Horror (2005), Sin City (2005), Death Proof (2007), Planet Terror (2007)

Chasing Oscar

Miramax’s success altered the landscape around them. Other big studios launched or acquired ‘boutique’ side operations to compete (New Line at Warner, Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight) and indie films became big business. Budgets bloated, and Miramax’s output changed.

The company still made small, sharp movies. Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy is a good example – it’s his best film, and a look at the funny but disciplined filmmaker he might have been. Also on Netflix are heavy drama In The Bedroom, which did us all the favour of making Tom Wilkinson a name in Hollywood, and searing Brazilian import City Of God, which proved the Miramax name was still on thrillingly good films as late as 2002.

But after the success of The English Patient at the Academy Awards in 1997, Miramax and Harvey Weinstein’s focus shifted to prestige films. Films with classy themes, with the names of Booker Prize-winning authors written on the poster in fucking big letters, set in the desert or by the sea or some other bastard poignant place. Films which win Oscars.

It was a sensible switch of strategy. In the arthouse arms race winning the Oscar is the final stamp of quality. And, like dragging the MPAA to court because you’re ‘shocked’ your Spanish movie about a BDSM-fetish rapist got an ‘X’, it’s also great free publicity. The problem was that as time went on Miramax’s award-chasing films got costlier and drearier, from The Cider House Rules at $24 million in 1999 to Chicago’s $45 million in 2002 and Cinderella Man’s $85 million in 2005. Miramax was no longer independent, specialist, or very interesting.

See also: The Castle (1997), Wings Of The Dove (1997), Rounders (1998), Chocolat (2000), Serendipity (2001), Kate & Leopold (2001), The Son’s Room (2001), Infernal Affairs (2002), Frida (2002), Hero (2002), The Station Agent (2003), Kill Bill 1 & 2 (2003/4), Finding Neverland (2004), Jersey Girl (2004), Kinky Boots (2005), The Brothers Grimm (2005)

The Mouse That Roared

With Miramax clearly not fulfilling the function for which is was originally intended, the Weinsteins’ contracts were wound down and they were effectively ousted by Disney execs in October 2005.

The company continued for a few years following their departure and made some excellent films. Maudlin noir drama Hollywoodland did the seemingly impossible and made Ben Affleck look good again after the tabloid ruin of Bennifer and Gigli, and then his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone made him look positively fucking golden. The Lookout was a tough thriller from Out Of Sight scripter Scott Frank which caught Joseph Gordon-Levitt on his rise to being the coolest guy in Hollywood, and There Will Be Blood is a raging geyser of thick, blinding, black fury. (It’s really good).

See also: The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (2008) but watch out because it’s really sad.

The Weinstein Company

The Weinsteins took Dimension with them (I’ve not separated the pre- and post-divorce films in the list above) and set out to make more Academy-friendly films of tedious quality with slightly less money. Evidence on Netflix includes Miss Potter from 2006, and Hannibal Rising from 2007 (the Weinsteins having not learned Dino De Laurentiis’ lesson that, if you didn’t make Silence Of The Lambs, it’s over.)

What makes tracing the path of Miramax and the Weinsteins on Netflix particularly interesting, and the reason I decided to write this post, is that tucked away in the documentary category is Barry Avrich’s Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Story. It takes in the same basic story as I’ve just laid out, without as much swearing and with visual reference to Peter Biskind’s extra-terrestrial moustache. It puffs up and re-uses a lot of old Weinstein stories – He shouts! He edits! He went to see 400 Blows by accident! – but they are good stories.

See also: Derailed (2006), The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Outlander (2008) but actually, don’t.

Afterword

The documentary’s one failing is reflected on Netflix: it leaves the story too soon. Smarming on the failure of Miss Potter, it all but condemns Harvey as an Oscar has-been just months before he owned the 2011 awards with The King’s Speech.

Tellingly, he looks set to do the same again this year with The Artist, a film made for just $15 million which features more charm, style and brains than anything he’d made at Miramax this century. And if not The Artist then maybe his other frontrunners My Week With Marilyn or The Iron Lady – Harvey Weinstein, without Disney’s money and apparently with a sharper sense of hunger, is on a legitimate roll. I’m glad to see him back.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. SolidChris permalink
    February 19, 2012 11:33 pm

    Excellent as usual chap. Weinstein is a figure of fun in a way that no other movie executive has ever been but he’s like Nigel Benn off the ropes or like Eric Bana’s Hulk, he just comes back every time.

    Also, big call on Famke Janssen. Not saying you’re wrong but I just don’t know 100% if The Faculty is the best Famke. She was smokin’ in City of Industry.

    But I digress, great post.

  2. February 21, 2012 5:21 pm

    Anyone the least bit interested in Miramax and the Weinsteins needs to read Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind. There’s an endlessly fascinating story there.

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