Return of “the Punisher”
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein on how he got his career back on track.
Without the other businesses to worry about, Weinstein turned his attention back to movies, releasing a string of films that show he has not lost his touch. The humility is new, though: the Weinstein of 2012 is not the same as the swashbuckling figure that spent much of the past 30 years upending established hierarchies in Hollywood. The change has been noticed by long-time friends, such as Greg Coote, the film producer who sold him My Left Foot (1989), one of Miramax’s early hits and the movie that won Daniel Day-Lewis his first Oscar. “We have a different Harvey at the moment,” says Coote. “He’s a milder, gentler person now. Maybe that’s just age but I think he was humbled by the experience of going through the problems he had and coming out the other side.”
Weinstein also has a reputation for having a fiery temper. In Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film (2004), the writer Peter Biskind refers to an incident when Weinstein allegedly manhandled a New York Observer reporter out of a party (Weinstein denies the incident took place). “He is who he is,” says a friend of Weinstein’s. “He has incredible drive, which is sometimes fuelled by intense anger and emotional swings, which sometimes manifest themselves as physical swings at people.
“But a lot of his passion comes from wanting to do things the right way. He is so passionate about film and a lot of other people in the industry are not, which is why he loses his patience sometimes.”
Weinstein tells me he toned down the aggression when the brothers left Disney to form the Weinstein Company. “We wanted to be extremely well-liked as we built these other companies, and non-confrontational.” That sounds like a departure from his previous incarnation at Miramax, I say. “Absolutely. I think what we found is that there’s a way to be confrontational and still be well-liked, as opposed to the previous incarnation, which was just confrontational. We didn’t care if we were well-liked as long as the movies were good. We served the movie – that was our master at Miramax. In our second incarnation, the movie is still the master but we’re getting the same results in more subtle ways.” He chuckles. “We don’t back down either, by the way.” This is perhaps what Meryl Streep was intimating at the Golden Globes when she and Madonna both referred to Weinstein as “the Punisher”.
I call Streep to ask what she meant. “He can’t get his heart out of the way of his head, which is a strength as far as I can see,” she says. “He can be really hard on people ... But it’s always, always, in the service of what he sees is the best interests of the film, commercially or artistically.”
When it comes to the Oscars, Weinstein has good reason to hold his ground and fight to make sure his films get recognition. Oscar success can “transform a movie economically,” he says. “[When] I won a best picture nomination with Chicago, we were at $75m gross, and we ended up grossing $175m [in the US] and $350m worldwide, with the best picture win.”
The King’s Speech, which won for best picture, actor, and screenplay last year, was produced for a budget of less than £15m. “We thought the film would gross $10m-$15m in the US,” says Iain Canning of See-Saw Films, which produced the movie distributed in the US by Weinstein. Thanks to the successful Oscar campaign, the film grossed more than $400m worldwide.
Weinstein has an astonishing record at the Oscars. In 1998, he pulled off one of the greatest best picture shocks, masterminding a campaign that saw Shakespeare in Love defeat the highly fancied Saving Private Ryan. An awards campaign has a dual purpose for Weinstein. The weeks of other awards shows in the run-up to the Oscars provide bountiful publicity for a movie that might otherwise struggle. A careful hand is needed, he says: releasing a movie such as The Artist “wide” on 2,500 screens across the US would have been foolish in the early weeks of its release. Instead, he has allowed awards momentum to build, fuelled by its success at the Golden Globes and Baftas, and purposely not added too many screens.
“We were very slow on the pedal with The Artist and I won’t let anyone drive the car,” he says. “I get a call and someone says, ‘It just got 11 Bafta nominations!’ And I say, ‘Don’t add any theatres. Just keep it where it is. We’re going to make the move ... It’s coming but not yet.’ ”
He is the master at persuading audiences to watch challenging films – and what could be a harder sell to the multiplex generation than a silent, black and white movie? “There’s not one thing this movie has going for it, except for the fact that it’s great,” he says. It could run out of steam “if it was overly distributed. Look, we’ve got 10 Academy Award nominations, we’re in 800, 900 theatres. Most people would go straight to 2,500. We will go to 2,500 ... but not now.”
Matthew Garrahan is the FT's Los Angeles correspondent.