Miramax - No country for this old maverick

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
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The Independent Culture

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.