Suing for $18 million, Producer Claims Harvey Weinstein Waylaid His “Controversial” Film

Senator Weinstein? President Weinstein? Is there more to Harvey Weinstein’s political ambitions than writing checks and holding fund-raisers for his favorite Democratic candidates?

That’s what’s hinted at in a complaint filed on April 17 in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. The suit, brought by O, L.L.C., the producer of O , claims that Tim Blake Nelson’s controversial film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello was never released by Miramax because Mr. Weinstein feared its violent content would undermine his political aspirations.

The lawsuit was filed against Miramax Films, its parent, the Walt Disney Company, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob Weinstein, the chief executive of Dimension Films, the division of Miramax that was slated to release O .

One of the complaint’s key allegations describes a March 2001 meeting in Los Angeles’ Peninsula Hotel between Harvey Weinstein and O producer Eric Gitter. The meeting was precipitated by repeated delays in the release of the film, which is set in a modern private high school. In addition to a violent conclusion, which remains faithful to Shakespeare’s four-character body count, O depicts a graphic interracial rape scene.

Dimension initially planned to release the film on Oct. 17, 1999. It received a completed cut of the film in early summer of that year, just a month after the Columbine High School massacre and on the cusp of the 2000 Presidential race.

The Peninsula Hotel meeting described in the suit took place just before the terms of Miramax’s agreement to release O were about to expire. The suit alleges that Harvey Weinstein said he wanted to license O ‘s distribution rights to another company rather than release it under the Miramax shingle. According to the complaint, Mr. Weinstein cited his “ardent” support of the Democratic Party, his role as the party’s “largest” fund-raiser, and indicated “that he had political aspirations and that his current personal agenda included more than a motivation to successfully release quality films.”

The suit goes on to claim that Mr. Weinstein explained to Mr. Gitter that the violence depicted in the film made it “potentially ‘controversial'” and that “he had no intention of allowing the Film to be released under his … Miramax label.”

Miramax, in fact, soon transferred distribution rights to O to Lions Gate Films, in an announcement that was reported in the April 11 issue of Daily Variety . But the transfer was allegedly made over the objections of the film’s producer. (Lions Gate is reportedly set to release O on 1,500 screens in August.)

During that same L.A. meeting, the suit claims, Mr. Weinstein allegedly “overtly threatened” Mr. Gitter, saying that unless the producer agreed to allow Miramax to sell the film to another company for future release under a different title, “he and his brother, Robert Weinstein, would see to it that the Film was released on 1,000 poorly venued screens at inopportune times with no public relations support.” The suit also says he threatened that “he would invest the required print and advertising funds in an inappropriate manor [sic] and would ‘bury’ the Film in the press.”

Mr. Gitter’s recollection of the meeting, as described in the suit, concluded with his assertion that Mr. Weinstein threatened that “he and his brother would see to it that ‘no one in Hollywood’ would do any future business with Mr. Gitter, personally.”

A Miramax spokeswoman declined to respond to the specific issues in the suit, including the allegations of Mr. Weinstein’s “political aspirations,” noting that it would be inappropriate to comment on a legal matter. But the company issued a statement: “We do not believe that disputes should be litigated in the press. We understand that the complaint has just been filed with the court and will respond as appropriate. We are confident that the court will find that we have fulfilled our obligation and acted appropriately. In licensing the film to Lions Gate, we wanted to continue to act in a socially responsible manner and to not have the profile of our company stand in the way of a film we admire.”

The suit was first filed on March 19. O, L.L.C. later filed a beefed-up complaint on April 17. The complaint cites breach of contract by Miramax for failing to release O before March 17, 2001, claims irreparable harm to the film and its chance for commercial success, and asks for $17.85 million in damages-$10 million for compensatory and $7.85 million for punitive damages.

It is not clear whether the suit will affect Lions Gate’s plans to release the film. A spokesman for the distribution company did not return calls for comment.

O was filmed in early 1999, with a cast that included then-unknown teen actors Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett, Mekhi Phifer and Rain Phoenix in leading roles, and veteran actors Martin Sheen and John Heard in supporting roles. Ms. Stiles has since proven her box-office mettle with the recent success of Save the Last Dance . Mr. Hartnett will soon appear in the highly anticipated Pearl Harbor. The film’s director, Tim Blake Nelson, also an actor and playwright, starred this winter in Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? and has since completed the editing of The Grey Zone , a Holocaust drama starring Harvey Keitel.

Miramax was initially so eager to release the film in the midst of Oscar season that they asked Mr. Nelson to rush a completed print to Dimension. Mr. Nelson did-just one month after the April 20, 1999, massacre at Columbine High School. Oscar season came and went-twice-and the film has remained shelved.

The Observer wrote about the delays on Nov. 13, 2000, quoting sources who speculated that they were related to Mr. Weinstein’s deep involvement with the Gore-Lieberman campaign. The campaign, heavily supported by Hollywood, was struggling to distance itself from film violence.

The incident is reminiscent of Miramax’s involvement with another controversial film, Dogma . In 1999, Miramax-perhaps mindful of its relationship with the wholesome Walt Disney image-decided against distributing Kevin Smith’s religious comedy and licensed U.S. distribution rights to Lions Gate Films.

The suit said Miramax had bought rights to O and agreed to distribute it on 1,000 screens and spend at least $10 million on print and advertising promotion. Strangely, according to the suit, Miramax plans to retain control of the marketing of O , despite the film’s transfer to Lions Gate.

Noting that O , “like almost all Films, has only one opportunity to make a commercially successful theatrical release,” the suit charged that Miramax’s delayed release “has missed the opportunity to capitalize on the heightened popularity of the Film’s cast,” has allowed the popular music on the accompanying soundtrack to slip out of date, and has cost O ‘s creators money and exposure. In addition, it charged Miramax and its divisions with denigrating the film, further hurting its box office potential, in “negative statements and quotes about the Film that have been published in The Daily News , Variety , The New York Post , and The New York Observer .”

Neither the producers nor their attorney would comment beyond the contents of the suit.

Oddly, the suit claims that while Miramax has displayed a “lack of motivation to exploit the Film and outright hostility towards the Film” in the United States and publicly declared its reluctance to release the film here, the company “has begun and continues to exploit the Film in foreign markets” by licensing to foreign companies rights to distribute the film outside the U.S.

Galotti’s Paradise Lost

Talkmedia president Ron Galotti was acting like a proud father at a recent screening party for Paperboys , a 40-minute documentary directed by Mike Mills and “conceived of” by Jack Spade designer Andy Spade. The short film deals with paper boys in Stillwater, Minn., and though neither Talk (The Transom’s former employer) nor Mr. Galotti had anything to do with its production or distribution-he and Tina Brown were simply hosting the evening-Mr. Big clearly endorsed its depiction of no-frills suburban bliss. “We forget what real America is all about,” he said. “We live in this vertical world called New York, and we forget about the real world.”

For the young Mr. Galotti, the “real world” was just outside of Peekskill, N.Y.-light years away from his current car-serviced existence. “I had two brothers and a sister. My brothers and I slept in one room, and my sister slept in the dining room” in their two-bedroom house, he explained. “We thought the guy across the street was rich because he had a new lawnmower.”

The Transom asked Mr. Galotti how he felt about his 2-year-old daughter spending her formative years in Manhattan. “My wife and I talk about it continually,” conceded the former Vogue publisher. He almost appeared to regret the breezy future of his loaded progeny. “Every one of those kids [in Paperboys ] has that glitter in their eye. We forget what it looks like here; it’s innocence.

“The real tragedy is these 8-year-old kids with their legs crossed, drinking cappuccinos,” said Mr. Galotti with a shake of his shiny head.

Andy Spade’s wife, Kate, the semi-affordable-handbag designer, joined the conversation. Dressed in a neat black pleated skirt and top, sparkly starfish brooch and a faceful of freckles, the twinkly Ms. Spade looked as innocent as any of the kids Mr. Galotti was kvelling over. She downplayed her involvement in Paperboys , which will run at the Screening Room every Sunday from April 29 to June 3, claiming that all she did was “sit there and scream, ‘I love it!'”

Ms. Spade said that her brother had been a paper boy while she earned milk-shake money by baby-sitting. Her husband, puckish in a plaid suit jacket, approached the group just as Mr. Galotti was tracing his early career path. “I cut lawns, I waited on tables,” the media macher ticked off, “but I never thought we were poor.”

“Kids don’t know,” chimed in Mr. Spade.

“We thought we were rich!” said Mr. Galotti. He leaned in, earnestly proclaiming that this was “no bullshit now, really,” and filled out the picture of the two-bedroom house, explaining that his cousins eventually moved in with them.

Mr. Spade nodded understandingly. The men exchanged a look and then said, almost simultaneously, “It’s about love. It’s about love.”

Soon, Mr. Galotti was getting downright emotional. “The thing I want for my daughter, bar nothing, is to be happy. That’s all. I don’t care about the private schools and four hours of homework.”

So why are you boys in the Tribeca Film Center, being handed sushi-grade tuna and apple martinis, instead of cracking a Bud and firing up the grill in the backyard? “There are a lot of great things about New York,” said Mr. Spade. He paused. “But there’s definitely a sense of loss. You lose a piece of your past. I hope I can let my kids play outdoors.”

Mr. Galotti piped up again: “I want to give my daughter a sense of that. A sense of the neighbors.”

“You know, we didn’t have to lock our doors,” Mr. Spade said with an almost incredulous look.

Mr. Galotti didn’t miss a beat. “We didn’t even have a key! There was no key to the door of my house!”

Mr. Spade recalled the sense of security he felt when on his childhood paper route, long before he started designing $85 messenger bags. “Some of the older people, if they’re lonely, they invite you in.” Don’t try that on Greenwich Street, kiddo.