“When I was 16, I went out with a 35-year-old woman,” said Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein at the Monday-night premiere of his company’s new movie, Tadpole . A wide grin spread across his face. “It was a miracle-the ninth wonder of the world!”
Tadpole is a romantic comedy about a prep-school kid, Oscar (Aaron Stanford), who comes home to the Upper West Side for Thanksgiving besotted with his stepmother (Sigourney Weaver) and winds up in bed with her best friend (Bebe Neuwirth). The movie opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 19.
“It’s a great New York story,” said Ms. Weaver at the premiere. “It reminded me a little of The Ice Storm , with laughs.”
But Miramax isn’t settling for a New York love-letter sleeper. And insiders say the indie behemoth’s massive publicity blitz is a reflection of the peculiarly desperate climate of the current independent-film world, where factors like Mr. Weinstein’s adolescent reverie can be enough to make or break an indie-film project. How else to explain how a digital movie made in 14 days for an anorexic $200,000 will have cost Miramax what sources estimate to be around $10 million to purchase, retool and publicize?
It started at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, where Tadpole provided the chum for an indie feeding frenzy, with Mr. Weinstein keeping the stakes high. The bidding war ended with Mr. Weinstein getting Cablevision president (and Independent Film Channel backer) Jim Dolan to accept his $5 million bid over equal offers from Fine Line and Fox Searchlight.
As financing from European markets and television companies has dried up, good product is becoming scarcer. With more mouths to feed, distributors are increasingly willing to compete for and spend on a quality project-no matter how small, inexpensive or roughly hewn it may be.
Tadpole’ s director, Gary Winick, who grew up on East 63rd Street and went to Horace Mann, had directed five previous features, none of which had been asked to Sundance. In 2000, he began work on Tadpole for InDigEnt, a digital-film company he co-founded in 1999 with ubiquitous indie lawyer John Sloss and the Independent Film Channel, expecting modest success for the New York coming-of-age “novella,” written by Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller.
As a kind of directors’ cooperative, InDigEnt adheres to a profit-sharing plan. Budgets are skimpy, but the promise is that almost everyone involved in a film’s production will eventually share in its wealth. When Tadpole tapped the $5 million Sundance vein, cast and crew were guaranteed shares of the booty that average about $50,000 a piece.
“It was a miracle, just a miracle,” said Ms. Weaver, who worked, like the rest of the cast, for the S.A.G. minimum of $249 a day, and said that one of the things that intrigued her about the project was InDigEnt’s socialist payment practices. “More movies should be made like that,” she added.
Well, maybe in remunerated retrospect.
Dolly Hall, a producer on the film, remembered her anxiety at seeing the standard clause in Ms. Weaver’s contract that specified how close her trailer must be to the set.
“I’m reading this and I’m thinking: ‘How do I explain the part where there is no trailer?’” she said. Ms. Weaver wound up warming her toes at the radiator of Ms. Hall’s 1985 Range Rover.
Ms. Hall said that because Mr. Winick was an InDigEnt co-founder, Tadpole had a bit more leeway with the InDigEnt’s standard $150,000 budget: “Gary is a partner in InDigEnt. If he said ‘I need this,’ then he would just go get it.”
Previous InDigEnt projects, including Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls and Campbell Scott’s Final by setting their narratives in single, inexpensive locations. But Tadpole was shot all over New York: Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, Fairway, Payard and three uptown apartments, including Mr. Winick’s mom’s East 76th Street pad.
The film had been “finished” for the Sundance screening, but in Mr. Weinstein’s hands it has been re-edited, partially rescored (including the addition of David Bowie’s “Changes” and a cover of Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”), remixed and meticulously transferred to film for what some sources estimated to be an additional $1 million. A Miramax source, however, put the number at less than half that sum.
Mr. Weinstein made no bones about his touch-ups. “It didn’t look as good at Sundance as it does now,” he said at the premiere party. “We literally spent more money on post-production than they did on the actual movie.” Or, as Ms. Weaver’s Tadpole character says, “The heart is simple. Fixing it is complicated.”
There is also the question of length. Seventy-seven minutes feels short, especially to audiences who are ponying up $10 for some quality time in an air-conditioned theater. Mr. Winick is sensitive enough about the film’s brevity to have checked his video collection and determined that several of Woody Allen’s beloved movies clock in at under 80 minutes. He also said that Tadpole was meant to be a “novella,” not a novel. (For the record, while many of Mr. Allen’s films hover around 85 minutes, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? is a scant 79 minutes, and Bananas is 82.)
Film-community insiders are also aware of the ” Happy, Texas curse,” which refers to Miramax’s notorious 1999 Sundance purchase. After spending $10 million on a comedy about escaped cons who stage a children’s pageant, the company shelled out for improvements to the film, which opened to dismal box office and became a vaunted cautionary tale. This level of crash-and-burn is unlikely for Tadpole , since a source at Miramax said that the international-distribution rights have already been sold for a cumulative $7 million.
While Mr. Weinstein’s reputation for creative meddling precedes him, Mr. Winick insisted that he knew what he was getting into. “Do they [Miramax executives] have opinions? For sure. But they were good ones. When they were bad ones, we didn’t do them.” As an InDigEnt director, Mr. Winick had full control of the film’s final cut, a right he said he retained “never in writing, but as an understood thing” with Miramax. He also pointed out that the Weinsteins’ willingness to spend on improvements was one of the reasons he went with their bid.
“I knew that they were going to want and let me make the film better,” he said, adding that the only risk he considered when entering the Miramax maw was that Tadpole would not get seen. “There have been instances-some of them with my friends-where Miramax has bought a film and then not supported it,” he said.
Not Tadpole . Though Miramax never comments on the cost of its marketing campaigns, one source at the company estimated that nearly $4 million will be spent on Tadpole out of the gate, with several million more possible as the movie opens around the country over the next few weeks. Their crack publicity team has already been hard at work flooding morning shows with older women crowing about their teenage conquests. The “tadpoling trend” is getting written up as a new phenomenon in gossip columns across the country. Does no one remember Benjamin Braddock? Even Janet Jackson has conspiracy theorists wondering if she’s on Mr. Weinstein’s payroll as she openly hangs on embryonic swain Justin Timberlake. A July 17 press release for a screening sponsored by Miramax and Nerve.com gushes: “Youthful activities. Energetic conversation. Passionate opinions. Legendary sex. These are just a few of the rewards older women are discovering when they trade in those run-of-the-mill eye doctors, investment bankers or history professors and hit the town in the arms of a hot young Tadpole (loosely defined, a man at least 10 years her junior).”
They’ve even set aside a special time for the country to reflect on mama-boy love.
“This whole National Tadpole Week, did you hear about that?” asked Mr. Winick last week. “They are definitely going the distance on this one. I mean, I’m not really a fan of that, and I’m not sure what it’s all about, but hey … if that’s what’s going to get people to see my movie, then I’m all for it, I guess.”
Indeed, the question of whether all this dirty fun will bring viewers into theaters remains a tricky one. Critics and audiences are still divided on the aesthetic merits of the digital technology that has made small movies like Tadpole possible.
The nagging critical complaint about Tadpole at Sundance was about its picture quality. Miramax’s transfer has fixed most of that, but the movie retains a slight, informal, choppy feel. But shown in a New York theater, the soothing effect of an honest-to-God-and-Zabars New York romantic comedy seemed to make up for all that. When Oscar pleads with Ms. Neuwirth’s character not to cause trouble by joining his family at dinner, the crisp, tart Ms. Neuwirth shrieks, “Not go to Café Boulud? Are you kidding? Your father’s paying!” The audience at the premiere whooped at the frothy accuracy of the moment.
Franny and Zooey haunt Tadpole ‘s commuter trains full of disaffected boarding-school students. So does the memory of Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy telling Diane Keaton that she goes to high school. Somewhere, Nabokov is smiling.
Ms. Weaver voiced what everybody who had cheered as the closing credits ran to David Bowie’s ebullient “Changes” was secretly thinking: “A light, loving New York movie is particularly nice after the year we’ve had. We needed this.”
Mr. Weinstein agreed. “This is the quintessential New York movie. We are a New York company. This is the kind of movie we did back at the beginning of Miramax, and it’s the kind of movie we better keep doing in the future.”
For two weeks now, Michel Cohen, the French pediatrician who’s the pride of Tribeca, pays house calls on his bicycle and reminds his patients of Marseille, circa 1950, has been working his médecin de campagne magic in the actual campagne . Dr. Cohen has been operating a little satellite offshoot of his popular Harrison Street practice in the Marcel Carné–worthy village of Southampton. One might argue that, really , Southampton isn’t the country, but at least the bucolic locale shares some important characteristics, such as its concentration of S.U.V.’s, espresso shops and AmEx Platinum cards, with that other quaint little village called Tribeca.
“It’s good for my patients, a lot of them go there, even in the winter,” Dr. Cohen said when reached on his cell phone. “And actually, it’s also good for the local population.”
There is one Cohen staffer at the Hampton Pediatric practice on Hampton Road in Southampton, and there will soon be a nurse practitioner there as well, Dr. Cohen said. Although Dr. Cohen himself will actually only go once in a while, he said that the people in place will offer the same service, so that patients will find their files on computer and process the same insurance claims. How did Dr. Cohen like the Hamptons? “Oh, it’s great,” he said. “I mean, it’s the Hamptons!”
In other Cohen news, the Frenchman reported that Judith Regan, of Regan Books fame, had recently signed him on to write a book about his softer approach to medicine and pediatrics. Ms. Regan, who’s signed on such other soft-approach proponents as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, confirmed that the book had been contracted but was unavailable for further comments.
“Everyone told me, ‘Get an agent, get an agent,’” Dr. Cohen said of his meeting Ms. Regan. “But I just went in there, not at all belligerent, and we really understood each other right away.”
Dr. Cohen added that although he briefly considered hiring a ghostwriter, he was actually going to pen the opus himself.
“I want to do something really lively,” he said. “So I’ll have a tape recorder with me when I work and I’ll just tape what I tell patients.”
The Transom Also Hears …
That all of Southern California’s royalty turned out for the memorial service for Lew Wasserman, one of Hollywood’s last true moguls. Mr. Wasserman, the former talent agent who was named chief of the Music Corporation of America in 1946, shepherded the company through five decades of growth and a series of corporate takeovers.
Mr. Wasserman died on June 3 after suffering a stroke. He was 89 years old.
On Monday, June 15, nearly 4,000 people gathered at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheater. Among them were actors Warren Beatty, Sharon Stone and Kirk Douglas, Paramount chief Sherry Lansing, former actress and First Lady Nancy Reagan, California Governor Gray Davis, and Al Gore and Dick Gephardt, whose appearance in the midst of Hollywood’s left-leaning soft-money donors could well serve as an official announcement that both will be running for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination.
Speakers at the service included Vivendi-Universal chairman Barry Diller, former MCA Inc. president Sidney Sheinberg, Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti, DreamWorks SKG co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, A.F.L.-C.I.O. president John Sweeney, actress Suzanne Pleshette, director Steven Spielberg and former President Bill Clinton.
According to one source who attended the service, Mr. Clinton said that it was probably a good thing that his wife, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, had been detained on Capitol Hill working, “since Lew’s money helped put her in the job.” He also joked that “under full disclosure, Lou and his wife Edie stayed overnight at the White House. That was when you could still have friends stay there.”
MCA Inc. was transformed by Mr. Wasserman from a music company into a multimedia corporation that included amusement parks, record labels, film companies and television-production arms. In 1953, MCA bought Universal Pictures. In 1990, Japanese company Matsushita purchased MCA Inc. and renamed it Universal. In 1997, the Seagram company, run by Edgar Bronfman Jr., purchased Universal. In 2000, Seagram’s was swallowed by French water company Vivendi, a company which along with AOL Time Warner is suffering from a well-publicized corporate meltdown.
And in the face of a crumbling corporate world, Mr. Diller remembered Mr. Wasserman as a “beacon of corporate responsibility.”
At Mr. Wasserman’s 90-minute memorial service, neither Mr. Diller, Mr. Sheinberg nor any of the other Hollywood insiders said the words “Bronfman,” “Vivendi” or “Matsushita.” Instead, they referred to Mr. Wasserman’s kingdom as “MCA/Universal.”
Follow Elisabeth Franck via RSS.