Return of “the Punisher”
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein on how he got his career back on track.
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Bing.
Until a few weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein had no idea who designed his tuxedos. “A fashion blogger asked me at the Directors Guild awards,” he told me over breakfast recently. “I had to look at the label. My wife [Georgina Chapman, designer and co-founder of the Marchesa fashion label] buys them for me ... They’re all laid out in the closet like when I was in school.”
Weinstein clearly has more important things to think about than who makes his suits. The burly 59-year-old is, after all, the man who turned independent cinema into a thriving global business, launched the career of Quentin Tarantino, and last month was addressed as both “God” and “the Punisher” by Meryl Streep as she accepted a Golden Globe award.
And yet a tuxedo, worn most weekends from January to March as he attends a succession of the awards ceremonies that can help turn a film into a commercial hit, is practically a uniform for Weinstein. So far this year, he has dressed up for the Baftas, Screen Actors Guild awards, Globes and all the other events that can seem like mere warm-ups for the main event: the Oscars.
On Sunday, at the 84th Academy Awards, a tuxedo-clad Weinstein will once again walk the red carpet into the glitzy auditorium and find himself front and centre at Hollywood’s biggest night.
With 16 nominations for three films – The Artist (favourite to win best picture), The Iron Lady, and My Week with Marilyn – released by his company, Weinstein has finally returned to the pre-eminence he and his brother, Bob, once enjoyed with Miramax, the film distribution company they founded in 1979. Named after their parents, Miriam and Max, and later acquired by Walt Disney, Miramax revolutionised the industry, delivering a string of critical and commercial hits, such as Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), Pulp Fiction (1994), The English Patient (1996), Good Will Hunting (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Chicago (2002).
But when the brothers left Disney in 2005 to set up the Weinstein Company, with $1bn raised by Goldman Sachs, their dreams of an expanding media empire began to sour. While still with Miramax, Weinstein had experimented with publishing, co-funding with Hearst the short-lived magazine Talk. In 2006 he bought A Small World, an online social network for the wealthy and connected, and, a year later, the fashion label Halston. Taking directorships with other companies, he neglected his biggest talent: finding and distributing movies. In its first three years, the Weinstein Company couldn’t buy a hit, money was running out and Hollywood was abuzz with talk that Weinstein was finished.
All of which will seem like ancient history on Sunday evening when the mogul takes his seat and the curtain goes up on the Oscars. Weinstein’s Oscar comeback, which began last year with The King’s Speech, has snowballed into 2012, with more nominations than he has had in years.
“I don’t think I ever fell out of love with movies,” growls Weinstein, when I ask why he seemed to lose his touch after leaving Disney. “But I fell out of love with the politics of making movies. It had reached the point where I didn’t want to do it any more, not in the same way, anyway.”
It is Sunday morning and we are in a Beverly Hills hotel with David Glasser, the Weinstein Company’s chief operating officer, and Weinstein has just ordered a protein shake. They explain that a company restructuring – and a change in focus for Weinstein – helped get things back on track. “The key was seeing Harvey at the film festivals,” says Glasser. In the Miramax days, Weinstein would religiously attend festivals, seeking movies to release. But when he became preoccupied with building a media empire, he neglected the events. “Between 2005 and 2008, he would maybe show up for a day and that would be it,” says Glasser. “Now, he’s showing up again.”
Not all of Weinstein’s new business ventures turned out badly. Project Runway, a reality show about fashion designers developed while at Miramax, is a global hit, becoming a foundation of the company’s growing TV division. But the others were a costly distraction: at one point the company was saddled with $480m of debt. Drastic action was required: Goldman Sachs, the company’s main lender, was given a library of 200 Weinstein movies as collateral. Goldman will keep the library, which produces income every year, until the debt, since cut to about $200m, is paid off. Halston and A Small World were sold while the company’s 200 staff was cut to about 80. Weinstein, the mogul who never backed down, earning as many enemies as friends in Hollywood for an abrasive, take-no-prisoners style, had, improbably as it seemed, conceded defeat. “The ideas [for the other businesses] were sound but they were poorly executed,” he says with a sigh. “I give myself full credit for the poor execution.”
Matthew Garrahan is the FT's Los Angeles correspondent.