Movie Article

Wither Harvey?

Miramax struggles to stay king of indie cinema -- A lack of hits, employee layoffs, and increased competition from other art house studios weakens the Weinstein brothers' once-indomitable company  

Harvey Weinstein is legendary for throwing his weight around, but recently there's been a lot less of it to throw. In the last year, the Miramax chief has shed 60 pounds by cutting down on the carbs and sweets he now claims fueled his notorious screaming tantrums. The company he runs with his brother, Bob, has slimmed down too. Having dangerously overextended itself, Miramax has laid off 120 employees since August and has reduced its slate of films by nearly 30 percent. With one year left on his contract with corporate parent Disney and Miramax's future increasingly uncertain, Weinstein says he's getting his company down to fighting weight. Whether this leaner Miramax survives in its current incarnation or Weinstein folds his cards and starts over, the question becomes: Does the indie film biz he revolutionized have a place for Harvey anymore?

Once famed for being quick on its feet, Miramax — not so happily celebrating its 25th anniversary — has been grindingly sluggish this year. As Weinstein publicly feuded with Disney CEO Michael Eisner, a number of the studio's movies gathered dust on the shelf, while new production slowed almost to a halt. The studio's only two hits have been Kill Bill—Vol. 2 and Hero. Meanwhile, Miramax's competitors have reaped the buzz and box office bonanzas. Newmarket Films gambled on The Passion of the Christ and went from little-known to indie player. Fox Searchlight acquired two of the summer's most unlikely sleepers, Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite, and has the most anticipated indie of the fall, Sideways. Universal Pictures' indie arm, Focus Features, is beginning to bask in the success of The Motorcycle Diaries and hopes to ride Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the Oscars. Lions Gate Films surfed the no-budget sharkfest Open Water to a $30 million box office (and partnered with the Weinsteins on Fahrenheit 9/11). Warner Bros. recently launched Warner Independent Pictures, brokering deals with Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh. And on and on. When Weinstein does get back in the game, one rival indie-studio head says, ''he'll find a world that's far less hospitable.''

Never mind the fact that many in that world owe their businesses to Miramax, which singlehandedly introduced to the art-house realm a level of innovation, competitiveness, and marketing muscle never before seen. Without it, geeks like Quentin Tarantino wouldn't have starlets on their arms, and overpaid big-name actors wouldn't have as many places to burnish their Inside the Actors Studio cred. Without it, no sex, lies, and videotape, no Pulp Fiction, no Shakespeare in Love. But in the view of his critics, Weinstein got swept up in dreams of moguldom, overrelying on stars, expanding into unfamiliar businesses, and pumping such huge budgets into Oscar-hunting epics like Gangs of New York that he jeopardized his company and opened doors for competition. ''They started that crazy magazine, they had ideas of launching a cable channel, they got into network television production — they weren't doing the things they did when they began,'' says one high-ranking studio exec.

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