Harvey Weinstein: The Fat Controller

There are plenty of powerbrokers in Hollywood, and few come as big, or as boisterous, as Harvey Weinstein. After 30 years at the top, critics say he's losing his touch. But Kaleem Aftab discovers that the movie mogul still knows how to pack a punch

Monday 05 November 2007 01:00
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Harvey Weinstein does not look like one of the most influential figures in Hollywood. With the trouser legs of his ill-fitting black suit riding up, and the collar of his white shirt a crumpled mess, it's hard to believe that this man has managed to bestride the global film industry like a Colossus for three decades.

To be fair, we are meeting at the end of a busy day in Abu Dhabi, a city that might best be described as a five-star hotel in the sand. Weinstein began his working day at first light, being whisked to no fewer than 21 behind-closed-doors meetings where he was, no doubt, figuring out ways to tap into the vast sums seemingly on offer to producers attending a film festival in the oil-rich Arab state. What he may lack in elegance of appearance, however, is forgotten as soon as he opens his mouth. As they say in the industry, he talks a "good game".

Weinstein is certainly one of the most important figures in film. In the modern era, many of the top movie releases have borne the names of his production companies, first Miramax, now the Weinstein Company. And he's as unique an operator as he is prolific.

Weinstein is a throwback to the old studio era, before the advent of the "auteur," when it was universally acknowledged that it was the producer who was the true driving force behind a motion picture. Bombastic, pugilistic, larger than life, his face is as recognisable as those of many of the actors who have starred in his films, a rare thing for any producer in any age.

At Cannes this year, where he was much in attendance alongside his 31-year-old designer girlfriend Georgina Chapman, he approached me and a group of fellow journalists and announced in a friendly tone: "I read all you guys, I read everything." He is, to put it mildly, obsessed with his public image, and has been known to call hacks up when they write things he doesn't like. And yet his flattery, although tempered with menace, still makes it difficult not to be taken in by his charisma. Presumably this has been put to good effect in his business career.

Weinstein, 55, founded Miramax in 1979 with his brother Bob, naming the company after their parents Miriam and Max. They began by championing European films with difficult subject matters, such as Scandal and The Crying Game. After first focusing on Britain, they turned to Italy where, under their careful guidance, Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino became box-office smashes.

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He describes his history in film with a smile. Indeed, he's far more charming than anyone seems to give him credit for. "It was... an antiquated system in England and we tried to change all that and I think we changed it for the good. We released a number of movies out of the UK and it is one of our great achievements that we were able to win so many British film awards. Then, having done it there, I wanted to go and do it in Italy."

Under Weinstein's watchful eye, Miramax released some of the most critically acclaimed films of recent times. They received 16 best picture Oscar nominations and helped 24 pictures on to the best foreign-language film nomination list. Such was their success that studios began courting them. A number of copycat companies, based on the Miramax model, began appearing.

In 1993, the brothers bit the bullet and Miramax was sold to Walt Disney. The brothers continued in charge, but ran it as a separate entity. The major caveat was that Disney could decide what Miramax could fund and release, but it was a dynamic that never sat that well. It was no surprise when, in 2005, the brothers abandoned Miramax to set up their Weinstein Company.

Over the years, Harvey Weinstein has developed an image as a "fat controller". Peter Biskind's 2004 book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and The Rise of Independent Film portrayed him as egocentric and claimed he bullied employees and had an arrogant manner. Directors who sold their films to Harvey often felt bruised by the experience, and he earned the sobriquet Harvey "Scissorhands" thanks to his penchant for cutting movies, often in a bid to popularise them.

The success of promoting smaller non-studio movies has also become a poisoned chalice. The actor Ethan Hawke captured the general feeling when he said: "Miramax has been a blessing and a curse for the film industry. You have to give them credit because they made indie movies sexy. They showed you could make money from them. The curse is that they commercialised them."

Add to this the dominating personality of Harvey Weinstein and many onlookers, including employees, began to hope he would eventually fail.

Since the advent of the Weinstein Company, it has seemed that Harvey Weinstein's ability to cherry-pick Oscar contenders has deserted him. Some say he has lost his mojo. While lower-profile brother Bob continues to make money for the duo under the Dimension label – which specialises in horror pictures and films for teenagers – Harvey has seen several of his personal projects tank. The Libertine, Breaking and Entering, School for Scoundrels, Nomad, Grindhouse and The Hunting Party all failed to make the tills ring in recent years, and John Madden's Elmore Leonard adaptation Killshot has been in post-production hell for almost two years, with Harvey ordering changes to the edit.

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I put it to him that he has lost the Midas touch. "I wish everyone could lose their touch the way I have in the last few years," he retorts. "I just finished a board meeting where the value of our Genius Home Video Company was put at $425m." He goes on to spout more financial details before adding: "The thing about my company is that it is the most written-about and the most envied. There are so many competitors and the one thing about us having been in this business for 27 years is that we have always been No 1 or No 2 – and that is a hard thing, even for me.

"If you are head of a baseball team, or a soccer team, if your team is always No 1 you start to get tired of it after a while. So I think that people are tired of our success. As far as the financial people and our investors are concerned, they're delighted with our success. Right now, as the old term says, we're printing money."

But the financial picture may not be as rosy as Harvey suggests. A recent New York Times article headlined "More misses than hits" claimed that financiers on the Weinstein Company board were concerned over the lack of box-office successes. This followed Tarak Ben Ammar, a Franco-Tunisian producer on the Weinsteins' board, telling Forbes magazine in June that the fiscal year had been "disappointing" and wondering publicly: "Maybe we need to bring in a high-level [chief executive]."

While $425m is a great sum to dazzle the press with, it's not so hot for the backers at Goldman Sachs, who have provided access to $1bn for Harvey to make the Weinstein Company as successful as Miramax.

His appearance in the Middle East may all be part of a strategy to achieve this, and Weinstein certainly looks to be going back to his original business model of developing films around the globe that can be translated into box-office success. To this end, the Weinstein Company has just opened offices in Hong Kong.

"Having seen Hero, a $20m movie, make $200m worldwide at the box office, we knew that this was a market that we wanted to exploit. We're currently making Igor, an animation film, in Hanoi in which an assistant of a mad scientist decides to make the most evil woman in the world and ends up, of course, making the nicest. We have animators working in shifts in Hanoi and the ambition they are showing on the budget [they have] is remarkable."

For Weinstein, the American box-office is apparently no longer as important as it once was. "There is a universality of the marketplace that didn't exist before. Last year, there was a movie made in Korea that made $70m in Korea alone. It never even got an American release. But so what? There is no need for someone to make an American-style romantic comedy in Brazil. Countries should not try to Westernise movies because they invariably don't work.

"The best films are local stories that have universal emotional themes that can travel. There are so many auxiliary markets that you never know where the money is going to come from. We had a movie called The Nanny Diaries which did $5m from American Airlines alone. You never know where the money is going to come from."

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It's when Weinstein talks cinema that he is most impressive and likeable. He spins great yarns about the trade. "Working on Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino set the groundwork for making Gangs of New York, which ended up being more than four months over schedule," he remarks. "I can tell you, of all the places that you want to run over schedule, it's in Italy. Every day was an amazing day: we'd be shooting late and wouldn't have any plans for that evening and the Italians would say, 'Don't worry, we'll open a restaurant for you tonight.' We'd shoot until three in the morning, a restaurant would open and there would be Cameron Diaz singing in the backroom."

He drops the names of his starry friends nonchalantly. "When Quentin Tarantino came into my life, my love of world cinema became even more pronounced. We had many exciting Saturday nights. I remember when we put on A Touch of Zen, a beautiful martial arts movie, that led to me acquiring all these great catalogues from China – Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow."

There is some tactical game-playing in this talking up of his relationship with Tarantino. After Grindhouse tanked in the US, he ordered the film to be split into two: Death Proof and the forthcoming Planet Terror, in part for the American DVD release. Tarantino hated the idea, and their relationship was under strain. The fact that Death Proof did terribly at the box office as a single feature did Weinstein no favours.

Now, he is clearly making concessions to Tarantino and taking all the blame for the film's failure. "With Grindhouse, I want to make it perfectly clear that I'll take all the shots aimed at the film. It was my idea to make it two films. We've bought a library of classic grindhouse films to release on DVD, so we're not giving up on the idea of grindhouse yet."

With Tarantino and others, Weinstein is aware that his company would have no product without its directors, and his favourites are treated extremely well. Clerks director Kevin Smith is a case in point. Smith tells me: "I think I'm only going to make films with Harvey. Whenever I've spoken to other producers, they've always wanted to exert too much control on my vision."

Where Weinstein has been having success is with documentaries. Sicko, which by Michael Moore standards was considered a box-office failure, still made $25m on a $9m budget in the US alone.

"I love documentaries," Weinstein says. "The first one I did was The Thin Blue Line, an amazing movie about a guy indicted for murder and this movie helped get him released. I think documentaries need to be transformational rather than self-important. Sadly, we live in a world of television where the documentary format doesn't win when it comes to their barometer of ratings. It is difficult for people to want to make documentaries as there isn't much money involved and people have an expectation of getting them for free."

Weinstein sees television as an influential training ground for film-makers, "At the moment, I'm working with Stephen Daldry on an adaptation of The Reader starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. If you look at all these great British directors – Stephen Frears, Ken Loach and Daldry – they all had tremendous TV experience. It's a situation that I wish was repeated around the world."

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The mogul is also always on the lookout for new talent. He already has his eye on the British singer Lily Allen, and he cites the Korean pop-star-turned-actor Rain as a global talent to watch.

Naturally, though, Weinstein only remembers his successes: "Ben Affleck and Matt Damon had a script called Good Will Hunting. I read it and we had to give them $1m or they would've lost their pants. Their passion and the screenplay made me go for it. We went to lots of directors and eventually Gus Van Sant said yes. But then I got worried because it was Gus Van Sant who said yes." Typically, his humour shines through. But you can't help thinking that it's 10 years since that film and Harvey's still dining out on it.

I finish our meeting thinking that – while feature films are Weinstein's bread and butter – his tendency to dwell on fond recollections of yesteryear is doing nothing for his personal kudos. His cachet will only be restored by another Oscar success, but his big hopes for this year – the war drama Grace is Gone and Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters – have only outside chances of success.

To all but the most boundless optimist, it might seem that the days when Harvey had it all his own way at the Oscars are long gone, and that the Weinstein Company may never quite reach the dizzying heights of Miramax. And yet, daunted by nothing, Weinstein is continuing his global mission to show that he can find the movies – and the talent – that will ensure that the clothes once again start to fit.

Harvey's other other half

Just how did 31-year-old Brit Georgina Chapman, one half of the designer label duo Marchesa, rise to the top of the fashion business? In three short years, she has gone from pinning hems in her Shepherd's Bush flat to dressing A-listers. Her catwalk show commands a plum spot on the New York Fashion Week schedule.

Cynics will point to the ex-model's other double act – as the girlfriend of Harvey Weinstein. The official story is that the couple got together in December 2004, after a year-long friendship. When they moved into a $7m SoHo loft, the ink was barely dry on his divorce from Eve, his wife of 17 years and mother to his three children. Weeks later, they made their first public outing. "We were friends and now we have moved on to this nice situation," the then slimmed-down mogul said at the 2005 Golden Globes.

As if by magic, soon afterwards Chapman's fashion brand – she designs with partner Keren Craig – was being worn by the cream of Hollywood clothes-horses, from Cate Blanchett to Renée Zellweger. Fashion insiders sniped that the actresses who wore Marchesa's fussy, theatrical frocks either starred in films Weinstein had produced, or could be employed by him in future. Worse, it was said that US Vogue seemed to be favouring Marchesa after Weinstein paid Anna Wintour a visit.

Born in 1976, Chapman grew up in Richmond, west London, with her brother Edward and parents Caroline and Brian; her father is the millionaire businessman behind the Percol organic coffee brand. And Chapman does have fashion training – in costume design. In her twenties, her modelling career peaked with ads for Head & Shoulders and Soothers sore-throat pastilles. Then she moved on to acting, getting bit parts in telly dramas like Jeffrey Archer: The Truth and the movies Bride & Prejudice and Derailed.

But fashion was always her real ambition. In 2004, she and Craig launched Marchesa, named after the belle époque socialite Marchesa Luisa Casati. Its investors include Weinstein's playboy buddy Giuseppe Cipriani and Steven C Witkoff, both partners in the Witkoff Group real estate company in Manhattan. Weinstein, too, has made (undisclosed) contributions.

In October, Chapman threw a glitzy party at Harrods for the brand and took part in Fashion Rocks at the Royal Albert Hall. She's also found the time to take walk-on roles in Match Point and The Nanny Diaries, a Weinstein production. In turn, Weinstein has caught the fashion bug. Last spring, he announced his purchase of the legendary 1970s label Halston.

Of accusations that her romance with Weinstein is behind her catwalk success, Chapman has said: "There is a backlash. But whatever people say about Harvey to me, I want them to look at the dresses."

Susie Rushton

Harvey's hits

Clerks (1994)

In the same year that Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was making Miramax millions, another young writer-director also gained Harvey's favour with a low-budget, large-profit tale of verbally dextrous video-store employees. Kevin Smith made Clerks with some friends on a shoestring, something that appealed to the ever cost-conscious Weinstein brothers, and he became a key member of the Miramax family.

The English Patient (1996)

The English Patient heralded Miramax's arrival as the company to beat at the Academy Awards, sweeping up nine Oscars in 1997, including Best Picture. Anthony Minghella, the film's director, has enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Weinsteins ever since, receiving their backing for his subsequent pictures, The Talented Mr Ripley, Cold Mountain and Breaking and Entering.

Shakespeare In Love (1998)

Another Oscar triumph for the Weinsteins, Shakespeare In Love sealed their reputations as the producers with the golden touch, and saw Gwyneth Paltrow crowned Queen of Miramax. It also, however, marked the high water mark for the studio, coming in the same year as the monumentally rubbish 54 and Velvet Goldmine.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

The success of Michael Moore's polemical documentary about the Bush administration's "war on terror" marked something of a comeback for the Weinstein brothers after their departure from Miramax, when they formed the Weinstein Company. It won them yet another Oscar, and their first Palme d'Or, courtesy of the Cannes jury president Quentin Tarantino.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Weinstein has oftened referred to Miramax as "The House That Quentin Built", as the huge success of Tarantino's instant cult classic secured the company's financial future. As a prize, Tarantino became one of the select few Miramax employees given free rein on their films, without the threat of Harvey and Bob's "creative" interference.

...and the howlers

54 (1998)

The making of 54 is a cautionary tale for any filmmaker. A fictional history of Manhattan nightclub Studio 54, the finished feature is far from the original vision of its writer-director, Mark Christopher. Unhappy with test audience responses to a gay sub-plot, the Weinstein brothers intervened and demanded reshoots. This hands-on approach, which became known as "McMiramaxing", made the pair notorious, and still couldn't prevent 54 being a box office turkey.

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

This off-key glam-rock ramble (pictured below), full of thinly veiled portraits of Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, David Bowie et al, had a troubled gestation and a disastrous release. Writer-director Todd Haynes rarely saw eye-to-eye with the Weinsteins, who wanted him to make radical cuts. In the end, the film was ignored by audiences and the Academy, with box office returns of just $1.5m (£700,000) on a budget of $9m.

Cold Mountain (2003)

Cold Mountain followed the same blueprint as The English Patient: adapted from a respected literary novel, directed by Anthony Minghella, with a cast of cultured Americans and classically trained Brits. A touch bloated and hubristic, it failed to make the same impact as its predecessors, either at the box office or the Academy Awards, where it picked up just one Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for Renée Zellweger).

the Brothers Grimm (2005)

Terry Gilliam is infamous for overreaching, most notoriously with his adaptation of Don Quixote, the unravelling of which became the subject of its own tragic-comic documentary. He managed to complete The Brothers Grimm, which starred Weinstein favourite Matt Damon and should have been an ideal vehicle for Gilliam's fantastical vision. Delays and studio wranglings, combined with a dodgy script, were to be its undoing.

Grindhouse (2007)

Tarantino finally tasted commercial failure this year with Grindhouse, his double-bill homage to 1970s B-movies made with fellow Miramax graduate Robert Rodriguez. Together, Tarantino's Death Proof and Rodriguez's Planet Terror ran to over three hours, and US audiences avoided it in their millions. Weinstein decided to release the films individually this side of the pond, though Death Proof has so far fared little better here.

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