Film History: Miramax: How Did They Do It?

In 1987, our fledgling film festival, AFI FEST, took over as Los Angeles’s main public film event. The city’s original festival, Filmex, was bought out by the American Film Institute, a much larger national organization set up twenty years earlier by the Johnson administration.

AFI, and film festivals generally, are treated by the film industry the way the church was treated by European kings: an alternative to their sole authority that has some hold, if grudging, on their conscience and loyalty, to be treated with wary respect, but not remotely in their world of power. President Reagan sent filmed greetings to our first opening night audience. Suddenly we were in business, and we needed product, hundreds of new films a year.

Several smaller companies badly wanted prestige, because it’s an excellent marketing tool. One of them was called Miramax, a company named after Miriam and Max Weinstein by their sons Harvey and Bob. They let us show a number of foreign films that they’d bought American rights to, usually for pennies on the dollar. One of them in ’87, Scandal, was quite good, a drama about the Profumo sex scandal in the early Sixties that brought down a fair chunk of the British government. We gave it the literal red carpet treatment, it went over like gangbusters, and for all of the following ten years that I stayed with AFI, the Weinsteins would be a major factor lending films to the festival. Even Charlton Heston came by to shake Harvey’s hand, when Miramax spent $1 million to restore a classic that Heston starred in, El Cid.

Harvey was volatile and a scary character, but he was relatively good to us, never throwing one of his famous fits. He needed us at that time. When I went to the Sundance film festival in 1990, I saw the other side of him as he glared at his high-ranking staff and yelled at the rest. At Sundance he was approaching royal status and could let loose. When he was at AFI, sitting at a table with Steven Spielberg, Gregory Peck and Michael Eisner, on the other hand, he wanted to impress us with his allegedly noble works, not his foul mouth. In this respect, he wasn’t all that different from another major factor in our lives at that time, Harvey’s political opposite, Sheldon Adelson, the main sponsor of AFI FEST. I knew Harvey Weinstein. I worked with Harvey Weinstein. But as a human being I never respected Harvey Weinstein. Who could?

As a promoter, though, he had the successful strategist’s ability to see an opportunity and make it profitable. For that, he was like Steve Jobs–another swell guy to work for–combined with Erwin Rommel. He noticed something most of us have noticed, but unlike the rest of us, he saw a risky way to take advantage of it: that Academy Awards often went to small prestige films that made Academy voters feel better about themselves. As the culture changed, those small films were generally more controversial because of nudity or politics. Harvey figured out how to legally game that system. He didn’t buy million-dollar films at first: instead he’d spend each year’s million buying eight to ten films and push them all through the system. Instead of being a good boy and working his way through the Hollywood ranks, this quintessential outsider came up with media-friendly angles on films they’d never have heard of otherwise. He worked within the established genres of liberal culture: romantic comedies with a sex angle. Holocaust dramas. European apologies for colonialism, especially if they had fight scenes and bare breasts. A crude and vulgar man at lunch, Weinstein was shrewd enough to have the most elevated vocabulary in his advertising, flattering the intelligence of his easily flattered big city audience.

When Disney bought the company and let them run it independently, suddenly the Weinsteins had all the money they needed to go out and try to win all the Oscars that Disney (and they) ever wanted. Eventually they were such an aggravation and public relations nightmare that Disney boss Michael Eisner fired them in 2005.

But look at what made Miramax unique, because a good part of the explanation of the mystery of how Harvey got away with it is there.

–They weren’t integrated into a larger public company, with its attendant rules, grievance procedures, HR and legal departments. They had no adult supervision.

–They had the raggedy rules of a tiny, founder-led company, but with the bankroll of a larger one.

–They never moved to Los Angeles. So, they were independent of industry policies and had the considerable advantage of much of the nation’s print media on their doorstep.

–Harvey Weinstein was unusually clever about manipulating, tempting and intimidating print journalists. It was said last week that one of the reasons why his tomcatting started to go public was the recent, internet-driven weakness of print media. He can’t bribe reporters who were laid off last month.

–And of course, the content of the Miramax and then Weinstein Company films, though rarely very ideological, was always, in Jonathan Reynolds’s words, “the kind of controversy that people agree with”.