Miramax - No country for this old maverick

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After no Oscar nominations in 2010 and a drastic reduction of its operations, Miramax appears to be dead in the water. James Mottram asks what the decline of the arthouse giant means for the future of US independent cinema

The camera glides across the water before panning up to see a moonlit shot of the Manhattan skyline. Fading to black, up comes the white lettering: Miramax Films. As film company logos go, maybe it doesn't rank with the roaring lion of MGM or the transmitter sitting on top of the globe that belongs to RKO Pictures. But, no question, the Miramax legend has come to signify something just as iconic in contemporary cinema. The company behind Pulp Fiction, Sin City and Gangs of New York, Miramax means maverick filmmaking. Or, at least, it did.

Last week, Miramax closed its offices in Los Angeles and New York. Whether anyone heard the sound of the doors shutting is debatable. Coming off the back of the announcement last October that its parent company, Disney, was reducing the number of Miramax films to three a year, it's an uncharacteristically meek end for a once-mighty outfit. Naturally, Disney moved swiftly to deny it was all over for the company it bought for $80m from its founders, the brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, in 1993. "Miramax will consolidate its operations within Walt Disney Studios," a rep said, "and will be releasing a smaller number of films than in previous years."

What this means in actuality is anyone's guess. Has Miramax produced its last film? Will it shrink back to its humble origins, distributing the odd foreign- language movie? As yet, no decision has been made. What is clear is that the company which, at its peak, commanded an enviable annual production budget of $700m, is a shell of its former self. Last autumn, Disney gutted much of the company by slashing 70 per cent of the staff to just 20, while folding marketing and distribution into its bigger studio operation. Worse still, the Miramax head, the British-born executive Daniel Battsek, was let go and not replaced.

Indeed, when the Oscar nominations were announced this week, Miramax was notable by its absence, with not one film up for Best Picture. While Disney was at least able to celebrate a nod in this category for the Pixar animation Up, it's a shock to see that a company known for its ability to beat the drum for its films during the awards season has been left out in the cold. Not that many other companies specialising in independent films fared better. While The Hurt Locker, Precious and An Education could be regarded as such, the studios have dominated the nominations, with Fox's Avatar leading the way.

To say it's the end of an era is an understatement. For good and bad, Miramax has loomed large over the Hollywood landscape since its formation in 1979. The Weinsteins began the company as a specialist distribution outfit named after their parents, Miriam and Max. One of the brothers' earliest coups was to pick up the Pythonesque Amnesty International fundraiser concert The Secret Policeman's Ball and its sequel. Splicing it into one film – the first of many edit jobs that would earn the older of the two brothers the nickname "Harvey Scissorhands" – it raked in $6m.

After the Weinsteins made a disastrous attempt to launch their careers as writer-directors in 1986, with a loosely autobiographical musical comedy entitled Playing for Keeps, it was a series of their astute acquisitions that began to mark out Miramax from the crowd. Most cite Steven Soderbergh's 1989 drama sex, lies, and videotape, which grossed $24m in the US, a staggering sum at the time for an independent film. But, in the same year, there were also healthy returns for Peter Greenaway's defiantly non-commercial The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – cannily marketed with the tagline "Lust. Murder. Dessert" – and the Profumo affair story Scandal.

If anything, Miramax was a masterclass in marketing. The Weinsteins may not have been able to compete with the studios' budgets when it came to advertising their product but they sure knew how to create brand awareness. They never shied away from so-called "difficult" films – well aware that provocative material generates acres of free publicity – and the awards season provided a perfect opportunity to stir up interest in their releases. After winning its first Oscar in 1989 – Best Foreign Film for Bille August's 1987 film, Pelle the Conqueror – the company went on to collect more than 50 Academy Awards.

Between 1992 and 2002, Miramax achieved 13 Best Picture nominations, winning for The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Chicago, the latter of which became the company's biggest hit in 2002, grossing more than $300m. Admittedly, by this point, Miramax was almost unrecognisable from its original incarnation. The Weinsteins may have been left in charge when Disney bought them up in 1993 but it was clear where the buck stopped. As far back as 1995, the brothers would create a separate distribution company, Excalibur Films, to release Larry Clark's controversial Kids – distancing Disney from the storm the film was generating.

Meanwhile, as Miramax prided itself on being a film-maker-friendly outfit – with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez nurtured there – plenty emerged with horror stories. Harvey's bullying tactics (locking the producers of 1990's Ju Dou in a room until they signed, for example) and his capricious temper (notably, firing an employee for screwing up in a softball game only to re-employ him) were legendary. Perhaps even worse, though, was Miramax's betrayal of its original ethos. Moving into bigger-budget productions, such as Anthony Minghella's period flop Cold Mountain, it was evident the Weinsteins had delusions of grandeur, desperate to become old-style studio moguls.

Some might say the writing has been on the wall since the Weinsteins and Disney parted company in March 2005, following an increasingly fractious relationship between the brothers and the former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Admittedly, for a while, it was business as usual as Battsek took over, and continued to involve Miramax with films such as The Queen, There Will Be Blood and Doubt – the same sort of independently minded projects the Weinsteins cut their teeth on. But with recent flops such as Stephen Frears' Cheri and Scott Hicks' The Boys Are Back denting Disney profits, the company re-evaluated its interest in bankrolling a speciality arthouse division.

Doubtless, this has left several film-makers a little nervous, as a series of films made under the Miramax banner are still to be released. These include Julie Taymor's take on The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren, Ben Whishaw and Russell Brand, and the romantic drama Last Night, which stars Keira Knightley and the Avatar lead Sam Worthington. The Guillermo del Toro-penned thriller Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and the Jennifer Aniston comedy The Baster could also suffer, with many industry insiders speculating that the films may be either sold off or left on the shelf to gather dust (an irony, given that the Weinstein-run Miramax was known for buying films and occasionally shelving them).

Still, the wider implications of Miramax's effective closure will no doubt be felt. While bespoke studio divisions such as Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics remain strong entities when it comes to acquiring and investing in independent films, the outlets for movies made outside the mainstream are shrinking considerably. Likewise, where will low-budget first- and second-time film-makers call home? Harvey may have once joked that he and Bob identified with the murderous clan in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – but, in truth, the Miramax of old saw its film-makers as an extended family.

While the brothers now run The Weinstein Company – the pairing hit big last year with Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds, which has just scooped eight Oscar nominations – it's clear they are desperate to buy back the name Miramax. Word has it that Disney has failed to respond to their request – though it is rumoured that a not-so-cool $1.5bn will buy you the company name and its extensive back-catalogue.

A "nostalgic" Harvey has recently been quoted as saying: "I know the movies made on my and my brother Bob's watch will live on." True enough. But the next time you see that black-and-white logo on the screen, it may just feel like a reminder of a bygone era. Without the likes of Miramax, tough times are ahead for independent film.

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo are teaming up for a Hurricane Katrina drama

film
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore