Film: Take a good look in the Miramax, boys

The US film company Miramax has brought ground-breaking movies to a mass audience since 1980. But, argues Geoffrey MacNab, with the launch of `Copland' next week the stress of reconciling art with commerce is beginning to tell.

The headline on the full-page ad Miramax took in Variety to celebrate the success of Copland was "$20,103,425 first 7 days - The Largest Opening Week In Miramax History". With it, a picture of the film's four main actors - Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and ... Sylvester Stallone?

The presence of Stallone immediately raises the eyebrows. Stallone is the studio star par excellence while Miramax is king of the independents, a company ostensibly dedicated to bringing "class cinema" to the mass American audience. Copland is not likely to be Stallone's only venture with Miramax. He is currently gearing up to star in a Formula One film. And just in case Stallone wants to get back into khaki, Miramax has bought sequel rights for the Rambo series.

The first Miramax movie to reach these shores was The Burning (1980), a nasty tale about a bogeyman who terrorises teenage campers. Its villain, Old Cropsy, "a maniac, a thing no longer human ... they say he lives on whatever he can catch...eats them raw...alive, maybe..." might almost have been based on Miramax boss, Harvey Weinstein, one of the few contemporary film industry figures as flamboyant and as intimidating as the old-style studio tyrants.

"Harvey's a passionate man who leads with his chin," observes Jonathan Tatlin, a hapless executive who had the temerity not to sell American rights for Shine to Miramax, and was bawled out by an irate Weinstein in a restaurant as a result. Like Stallone's smalltown New Jersey police sheriff in Copland, Weinstein is prepared to take on the big, bad studios. Miramax rescued The English Patient when the original financing unravelled. It has consistently managed to find a mainstream audience for foreign- language and art-house films and in doing so has changed the American film-making landscape. Its ability to capture what the trade press refer to as "the cappuccino dollar" prompted the studios to establish their own art-house divisions.

There is a certain irony in the fact that two New York hustlers such as Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob are responsible for bringing art- house cinema to America. They formed Miramax in 1979 after starting out as concert promoters in Buffalo. Their first major success came when they bought the American rights to two Secret Policeman's Ball films and edited them into one package. The philosophy back then was more or less the same as it is now. They wanted films with "critical oomph," which, using their alchemical marketing skills, they could give popular appeal.

Not everybody approves of their methods. They were described recently in the LA Times as "the indie film world equivalent of Microsoft, an unapologetic giant capable of smothering competition". They acquired Takeshi Kitano's acclaimed Yakuza-thriller Sonatine then didn't give it a release. They lopped 20 minutes off Masayuki Suo's romance, Shall We Dance, which has gone on to become the most successful Japanese movie ever in the US. Sometimes their marketing campaigns go way over the top. Canadian director Atom Egoyan was reportedly unhappy with the way they sold his film Exotica as an erotic thriller. But there is no arguing with results. Their brilliant teaser campaign for Neil Jordan's The Crying Game ("Sex, muder, betrayal ... nothing is what it seems to be ... play it at your own risk") helped a film that only did modest business in the UK make an astonishing $60m in the US. They achieved something similar with Michael Radford's Il Postino, which made more money at the US box-office than any previous Italian film. Once they're behind a movie, they'll do anything to help it reach an audience.

Miramax has always suffered from a certain schizophrenia when it comes to reconciling art and commerce. This was highlighted when the Weinsteins sold the company to Disney for an estimated $60m in 1993. It looked like a marriage made in hell. But despite a clash over Kids (hardly the type of project likely to appeal in Uncle Walt's Magic Kingdom), relations between the indie brats and their parent company have blossomed. What binds the two companies is their shared instinct for marketing. They are both hucksters supreme.

Sceptics argue that the more Miramax diversifies, the more it risks diluting the very brand it is trying to sell. The company has always separated its art-house fare from the more mainstream product (put out through its off-shoot Dimension), but with films as different as BBC Scotland's Mrs Brown and Copland released in the US under the Miramax label, it is becoming harder and harder to work out what the name means. Does it still stand for cutting-edge independent film? Or is it becoming more like the big studios against which it used to define itself?

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