Drama in the film industry: Tough times for Hollywood's tough guy

The movie mogul who championed intelligent, independent film-making has never been short of enemies. So has the news that his empire has hit stormy waters been exaggerated by his rivals? Guy Adams reports from Los Angeles

In a town where image is everything and personalities come larger than life, Harvey Weinstein has always been a force of nature. For three decades, the larger than life movie mogul has used his explosive persona and mercurial talent to occupy Hollywood's top table, confounding the critics who said his career was built on style and bluster, rather than substance.

A sense of history in the making is therefore greeting speculation that Weinstein's media empire has sailed into choppy waters. In a troubled market, he faces mounting commercial pressures that would leave a lesser mortal resembling one of the bloodied extras from the blockbusting Quentin Tarantino films on which much of his early success was built.

The impresario, who made his name bringing intelligent, independent cinema to the masses, faces a multitude of problems, but they all boil down a single, intractable difficulty: he is struggling to produce and distribute enough intelligent, independent cinema that the popcorn-scoffing masses actually want to see.

Take, for example, the roll call of recent films he has produced or distributed: Grindhouse, The Promotion, and Death-Defying Acts. All three boasted swanky casts and highfalutin directors, and all three flopped at the box office. The last title, a biopic of the escapologist Harry Houdini which cost $20m to make and starred Catherine Zeta-Jones, was launched two weeks ago with no premiere and little fanfare. Its box-office performance has been far from magic: ticket sales have totalled just $5,665.

Weinstein's troubles are also apparent in a string of bad news from his empire. An expensive lawsuit was filed against him recently by the US television network NBC, his home video company Genius lost $50m and there have been upheavals and departures at senior management level in his film, book and fashion companies. Most damningly, to an unforgiving industry which measures success in Oscar victories, there is a whiff of decline about Weinstein's failure to add a single gold statue to his collection since he left Disney in acrimonious circumstances in 2005.

To a man who in his prime won Academy Award after Academy Award, and whose CV includes such modern classics as Shakespeare In Love, The English Patient and Pulp Fiction, that is quite a comedown. Yet Weinstein is no ordinary film mogul. This week, in defiant mode, he went on a PR offensive, claiming that malicious rumours about the alleged demise of his Weinstein Company were being gleefully exaggerated by jealous former rivals. "We are like Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who won all those titles and everyone wanted them to fail," he said, drawing a basketball analogy.

It was a typical act of chutzpah from a man who has his share of enemies and who was once dubbed "a little Saddam Hussein of cinema" by the director Bernardo Bertolucci. Yet it also underlined how Weinstein's career path represents a free-thinking antidote to the tyranny of big-studio film production, one that nurtured the careers of Gwyneth Paltrow, Leonardo DiCaprio and the late Anthony Minghella.

Despite his "love me or loathe me" manner, Weinstein remains one of the last hopes for a vibrant independent film sector, which is currently in crisis and recently suffered the loss of one of its biggest players, New Line Cinema. Supporters hope he is merely drawing breath, in the middle of a (mostly) glittering career. Real film lovers are praying that Weinstein can, at the age of 56, bring the world another City Of God or My Left Foot.

First, though, the bad news: like every other player in the faltering US economy, Weinstein is suffering from a tightening credit market that has, say Wall Street insiders, left his companies running low on capital. Although it is impossible to study The Weinstein Company (TWC) balance sheets (as a private firm it does not publish accounts), a string of recent box-office flops will not have helped its bottom line.

In addition to the raspberry of Death-Defying Acts, this month also saw the launch of The Promotion, an $8m comedy about supermarket managers which earned just $408,000. His other high-profile flops include The Nanny Diaries, Grindhouse (a $53m production involving Tarantino which made half that), and Grace Is Gone, a John Cusack film Weinstein bought for $4m but which did just $50,000.

Weinstein also pulled out of a string of other releases, including the $30m sci-fi epic Outlander and Virgin Bay, produced by Dino De Laurentis, which is going straight to video. Kill Shot is awaiting a release date amid reports it may never see the light of day.

This month, Weinstein stoked speculation about his finances by unveiling plans to seek backing from major studios for two of his most eagerly-awaited future releases: Tarantino's Second World War epic Inglorious Bastards and the musical Nine, starring Daniel Day Lewis and Nicole Kidman.

Last week, BusinessWeek magazine added to his woes by claiming The Weinstein Company would not move into profit this year, as was originally forecast at the height of the stock market boom, when Weinstein employed Goldman Sachs to raise $1.2bn from private investors to support its launch.

The magazine also asked questions about the company's recent deal which allows the Showtime network to screen its films. It alleged that TWC settled for roughly half the going rate for the seven-year deal, and paid millions in advance fees to secure it – a move that some observers said smacked of desperation. On Monday, The Hollywood Reporter joined the fray with a report entitled "Whither the Weinsteins?" noting (among other things) that Genius, a home video firm of which TWC has a 70 per cent holding, had seen its share price fall from $2.50 to about 20 cents, losing TWC $50m.

Although few in the industry will speak publicly about Weinstein's affairs, there is now a private consensus that the next few months represent a crucial test for his prospects. "For the first year or two, people were prepared to give TWC the benefit of the doubt," said one rival producer. "Unfortunately, the economy is now headed south, there is a glut of films on the market and they losing their patience."

But Weinstein's problems run deeper than just films. Last Tuesday, Halston, the fashion label he bought after he was introduced to the rag trade by his wife, the designer Georgina Chapman, parted company with its creative director, Marco Zanini. Weinstein Books, founded in 2007, spent a five-figure sum on the US rights to Gordon Brown's collection of essays, Courage, launched in May, only to see its current sales ranking on Amazon.com stand at 225,491. The architect of the deal, Rob Weisbach, recently left the company. Other forthcoming departures from TWC include Glen Basner, who heads the international sales office, its production president, Michael Cole, and Eric Roth, the head of business and legal affairs. There is also trouble in TWC's television arm. In April, NBC filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract over TWC's decision switch the Heidi Klum show Project Runway to a rival channel.

Of course, coping with adversity has never been a problem for Weinstein, who founded his first company, Miramax with his younger brother Bob in 1979 (it was sold to Disney in 1993) and made his name with a string of hits including The Crying Game, My Left Foot, Good Will Hunting and Scandal.

Coming from a tough suburb of New York, he has often annoyed film-makers with his streetwise manner. In a 2004 memoir, James Ivory said he was "unlovely in manner and speech, possessing no artistic talent of any kind" and added: "That he is emotionally 12 doesn't help matters." Saul Zaentz, who produced The English Patient, described him as "full of shit".

Weinstein may have become a victim of his own success. Having created a market in which independent film can thrive, he now faces competition from many rivals. It must also be said that TWC's roster of recent films does include its share of hits, including Scary Movie 4 and 1408; other films which have tanked at the box office, including Death-Defying Acts may end up making money through DVD sales, or the overseas market. Spokesmen insist that rumours of financial trouble are unfounded and the future is bright.

Mr Weinstein's spokesman said: "Everyone in the sector is facing a tough time, and almost all of the major studios have closed independent labels. Harvey is not immmune from that. But what he's actually doing, in typical Harvey fashion, is doubling down: at the moment, he's got more films, not less, in production than before."

A more immediate test comes next month, when TWC releases Crossing Over with Harrison Ford, fresh from his success as Indiana Jones. Hollywood will be watching, and Weinstein will no doubt be praying that cinema audiences do too.

The greatest hits...

The Crying Game (1992)

Writer/director Neil Jordan's gender-bending love story won a best screenplay Oscar and persuaded Disney to buy Weinstein's Miramax studio. He later recalled: "They said 'OK, that's it, this is something we have to do'."

Pulp Fiction (1994)

This confusing gangster tale with an exhausting, non-linear plot starred the then washed-up actor John Travolta. It became Quentin Tarantino's greatest hit and cemented Weinstein's standing as a major player at the Oscars.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were two spotty youths from Boston when Weinstein bought their script about a university janitor who is also a maths genius. He turned it into one of the sleeper hits of the decade, winning two Oscars.

... and the misses

Death-Defying Acts (2008)

Catherine Zeta-Jones won an Oscar in Weinstein's Chicago. They were reunited for this Harry Houdini biopic but, after being launched in only two US cinemas, it closed having taken just $5,665.

Grindhouse (2007)

This Quentin Tarantino/ Robert Rodriguez double-bill had decent reviews but its three-hour length turned off audiences and it made just $12m on its opening weekend. It closed with total reciepts of $25m.

The Promotion (2008)

This knockabout supermarket comedy came out last month and has recouped just $400,000 of its $8m production costs so far, although it was pre-sold to overseas markets for $4m and to Comedy Central for $750,000.

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