The Weinsteins

The Weinsteins

The Weinsteins

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
July 19 1998 3:30 AM

The Weinsteins

Moguls of the old school.

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Everyone agrees: Tina Brown's new deal with Harvey Weinstein is a model of New Media--oh, let's use the word--synergy. There will be a mass circulation magazine, TV shows, books, movies based on magazine stories. It will all be hot, modern, a hone to the cutting edge.

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Harvey, 46, and his brother Bob, 43, run the prolific and profitable independent movie studio Miramax. While they may work in TriBeCa, drink Diet Coke and eat day-old pizza for breakfast, and wear mostly black, the brothers don't fit the archetype of the New Media honcho. They hark back to another, very different model of businessman: the 1930s studio mogul. Like Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, and Jack Warner--the eastern European Jews who invented Hollywood--the Weinsteins are chutzpah personified, imperious and megalomaniac. This is an age when more and more studio chiefs are anonymous number crunchers and dealmakers. But Harvey and Bob run their studio as a fiefdom, imposing their will on directors and stars. Miramax might as well be called Weinstein Bros.

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T hey are emperors with a discerning eye. They invite the charges of pretentiousness by calling themselves arbiters of "taste" and "highbrow." But any moron can produce a Tarantino knock-off or a bit of Italian dreck and call it an art house masterpiece. The Weinsteins actually deliver. Miramax has been the driving force behind some of the most acclaimed films of the last decade: sex, lies, and videotape; The Piano; Pulp Fiction; Clerks; Red; Il Postino; Trainspotting; The English Patient; and Good Will Hunting. It has won five Palmes d'Or (the Cannes Film Festival's top prize) and more than 100 Oscar nominations.

As the old moguls came from petit bourgeois immigrant families, so do the Weinsteins. (They named the company for mother Miriam and father Max, a diamond cutter.) After dropping out of college, the brothers operated a second-run theater in Buffalo, N.Y., and promoted rock concerts. In the '80s, they began distributing small budget films no other company wanted. Miramax took off in 1988, when a British investor poured money into it. The Weinsteins graduated from merely distributing--buying made movies and shopping them to theaters--to actually making movies from scratch. (Distributed movies still constitute about half of their output.)

The Weinsteins' entry into movie making came at an ugly moment in cinema history. Hollywood was stagnating in the late '80s. Video sales were cutting into box office, and big studio execs were ever more cautious. They wedded themselves to focus groups, obsessed over demographics, and relied heavily on formulaic action adventures. With the exception of Orion Pictures, Hollywood studios retreated from the accessible, carefully crafted dramas that had built the film industry.

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Happily, the Weinsteins were a return to form, filling the niche vacated by the major studios and bucking the car chase, machine gun boilerplate. The brothers possess an old-fashioned, very personal notion of product. They make movies the way they want. Most studio heads rely on vice presidents and vast development offices: The Weinsteins read scripts and buy films themselves. Harvey won the nickname "Scissorshands" because of his tendency to chop movies in the editing room.

Only in the '90s did the brothers begin to reap big returns. In 1996, they grossed $250 million in domestic box office receipts. In 1997, they raked in $419 million. A key to their success: They're cheap. Like the old moguls, they cut corners and insist on staying within budget. Where studios spend an average of $40 million to make a movie, Miramax spends $12 million. When producing a movie, it eschews expensive stars. Instead, it uses novices (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting) or revives washouts (John Travolta, Pulp Fiction). In their distribution deals, the Weinsteins find genuine bargains. Last year they bought Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy for $250,000 and grossed $12 million. The Japanese film Shall We Dance? came to them for $300,000 and earned $9.5 million. Miramax's success has attracted buyers and spawned imitators: Disney bought Miramax for an estimated $60 million in 1993 and kept the Weinsteins at the helm under a sweet contract. Meanwhile, Fox, Sony, and Universal have launched art house subsidiaries.

For all their superb taste, the Weinsteins really cash in on schlock. Like their '30s antecedents, the brothers rely on B-grade genre pics to generate the revenues to pay for artier films. Miramax's subsidiary Dimension Films, run by Bob, has made a handful of sci-fi and horror pics aimed at teens, such as Scream 2, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Mimic (a giant-bug flick). Last year's five Dimension films brought in nearly the same amount as the 20 art house films Miramax released.

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T he Weinsteins don't rely on business school strategies. They are hustlers. Their aggressive marketing machine beats any in Hollywood. (Witness their ubiquitous, clever advertising on behalf of Trainspotting and The Crying Game.) They promote shamelessly, pioneering the practice of calling Academy Awards voters to sway their votes. One of their standard devices to garner attention for a film is to pick high-profile brawls with the Motion Picture Association, as they did over X ratings initially given to the films Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Clerks, and Kids. All went on to make small fortunes at the box office.

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They are similarly aggressive with the press. An example: When Harvey got wind that Time magazine planned to reveal the plot twist in The Crying Game--that a character is a transvestite--Harvey called a Time editor 18 times in a single day, unsuccessfully demanding that Time not run the detail. Never mind that the movie had been out for months and that a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination had already been awarded for the portrayal of the female character.

Stories of the brothers' arrogance and brutality are legendary. Variety reported that Harvey once locked a producer in a Cannes hotel room until the producer sold Miramax the rights to distribute his film. In 1993, Fortune magazine named them among the 70 toughest bosses in America. Fortune reported that one former employee claims Bob fired him for making an error at a company softball game. (The employee was later rehired, and Bob denies the charge.) There was even a support group, Mir-Anon, where the studio's former executives commiserated over wounds inflicted by the brothers.

Will Tina tame these tough guys? In many ways, she seems the ideal match for them, and not simply because she's an expert at massaging egos. Tina and the Weinsteins all have highbrow pretensions but feel no shame in embracing pop culture. They all love attention. But can the Weinsteins, who like being the only cocks of the walk, tolerate a partner as famous and visible as they are? Will Tina's notorious lavishness irk the frugal duo? Will the snazzy partnership produce nothing more than a TV newsmagazine with Tina as the talent, as Variety has suggested?

Who knows? But perhaps history is on the Weinsteins' side: It took jerks like the old-time moguls to bring film to maturity. Maybe it will take jerks like the Weinsteins to bring in the golden age of New Media.