Harvey’s Golden Age-and After: How Indie Films Came and Went

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, by Peter Biskind. Simon and Schuster, 544 pages, $26.95.

“Harvey does it because he loves film.” Some variation of that sentence has been uttered countless times by the rank and file of Miramax’s marketing and publicity army, by friends and enemies of Harvey Weinstein, by members of the so-called Miramax “family,” and by casual observers of his frequent public outbursts, rude behavior and raging anger. The refrain is meant to neutralize any complaint about the boss’ modus operandi, and it works-up to a point.

Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), which chronicled the “New Hollywood” of the 1970′s, has written a nuanced and thoroughly researched history of the independent-film movement that came of age in the 1990′s. He interviewed hundreds of major and minor Hollywood players-including Harvey Weinstein himself-and the result is an evenhanded look at the making of the Miramax machine, its impact on the major Hollywood studios and the Disneyfication of Miramax.

A more realistic subtitle for his new book would have been “Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise and Fall of Independent Film.” Mr. Biskind shows how Mr. Weinstein led greedy studio execs down a path paved with profits, promising and doling out Oscars with the help of megabucks publicity campaigns-and in the process, independent films became as commercialized as studio films.

In the mid-90′s, when deficits were a thing of the past and million-dollar Wall Street bonuses were a healthy sign of the invisible hand at work, Miramax was in what Mr. Biskind calls its “Golden Age.” Founded in 1979 and named after Miriam and Max, the parents of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the company revolutionized the film industry. By creating an environment where unknown talent could flourish, Miramax gave birth to modern independent film. It bought and distributed dozens of films, many of them hugely successful, but also sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Or, anyway, the destruction of independent film as we used to know it.

Sure, Harvey loves film, but he hasn’t always been a smart businessman. Miramax, which at one time employed over 500 people spread out in three Tribeca offices, was famously inept with its finances. Mail would sit unopened, bills went unpaid-some actors and directors claim to have been shafted. Miramax employees worked 13-hour shifts and had to drop everything whenever Mr. Weinstein called a meeting. Mr. Weinstein’s assistants, some with families to support, had to survive on $27,000 a year-while Gwynnie flew from New York to Paris in a private jet.

Two movies launched Miramax’s heyday. Mr. Weinstein initially passed up the chance to make The Crying Game, a love story with a big surprise at the end. After buying out the original investors in Neil Jordan’s film, Miramax widened its release in 1992 (putting it on screens in the “red states”)-and, largely because audiences kept the “secret,” the movie went on to gross $62.5 million. The Crying Game blew away the $25 million indie box-office ceiling, ended Miramax’s three-year slump with a windfall of cash, accounted for half of the company’s 12 Oscar nominations that year and paved the way for Disney’s purchase of the company in 1993.

The next smash hit, Pulp Fiction (1994), rewrote the rules. Mr. Weinstein has referred to Miramax as “the house that Quentin built,” and Mr. Biskind evidently agrees: Quentin Tarantino, he writes, “cemented Miramax’s place as the reigning indie superpower.” Pulp Fiction, the first indie film to shatter the $100 million mark, eventually grossed $107.9 million in the U.S. and $212.9 million worldwide. Mr. Tarantino, with his wholehearted embrace of celebrity, his bizarre sense of humor and his sly, encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, was the perfect director for Mr. Weinstein’s relentless publicity machine.

Things turned sour in the second half of the decade. Flush with Disney money, Miramax went shopping, scooping up everything in sight-sometimes finding a gem but often left with a flop. Although the company nurtured actors like Ms. Paltrow, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, it alienated or irritated a veritable A-list of the country’s best and brightest directors and filmmakers: Alexander Payne, Todd Haynes, Baz Luhrmann, David O. Russell, Larry Clark, Todd Solondz, Julie Taymor, Ron Howard, Neil LaBute, Kim Peirce, Pedro Almodóvar, Miguel Arteta and Martin Scorsese. After Shakespeare in Love’s 1998 Oscar for Best Picture, Miramax didn’t win a Best Picture Oscar again until Chicago (2003).

Miramax’s market-research screenings, frequently conducted in New Jersey malls, were a bad omen for serious filmmaking. They allowed audiences to rate films numerically; Miramax would then recut or reshoot accordingly. Independent filmmaking had entered “an arid desert where nothing grows,” Mr. Biskind writes, “save the TV networks with their lowest common denominator programming ruled by the Nielsen ratings.”

Meanwhile, Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films had become a very profitable part of Miramax, with the Scream, Hellraiser and Scary Movie films. Now all the big studios have “independent” divisions: U.A., Sony Classics, Focus Features, Paramount Classics and Fine Line. Artisan, unaffiliated with a studio, beat Miramax at its own game with The Blair Witch Project (1999). Although the company always denied a dirty-tricks campaign against A Beautiful Mind (2001), it doesn’t seem improbable that the nasty rumors Matt Drudge posted about the film were nurtured by Miramax. Mr. Weinstein’s brief professional dalliance with Tina Brown cost him at least $27 million when Talk folded in January 2002. Miramax assistants grew accustomed to cleaning up after Mr. Weinstein’s finger-pointing, spittle-spewing, obscenity-laced tirades. Business as usual.

Mr. Biskind spends a considerable amount of time on the Sundance Film Festival and Robert Redford’s struggles and foibles. Sundance played a critical role in pictures like The Crying Game, Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), among many others. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Sundance became-to the dismay of young indie filmmakers everywhere-a farm team for the major studios. “Judged by one of its original, loftier goals, an institute to help outsiders, Sundance has failed,” Mr. Biskind writes. “Women, Native Americans, African-Americans, and the poor still don’t have equal access to the camera.” (Mr. Biskind’s book is testimony to his impressive range: He switches easily between rank gossip and pious sentiment.)

In a postscript, he writes that Miramax killed the independent-film movement with success: Having taken things to a higher level, the company suddenly had to compete on the studios’ playing field, where the question of which hot actor can “open” a film is always bandied about-not an arena in which the kind of indie film Miramax originally invented can be produced.

Down and Dirty Pictures is a smart, funny and depressing insider’s look at the workings of a messy business. Peter Biskind deftly weaves money-shot quotes into the back story and has an eye for the perfect anecdote. It’s a real roller-coaster ride: Harvey does it because he loves film-but after you’ve watched him do it for 500-odd pages, you just might need to light up a cigarette.

Christopher Carbone has reviewed books for The Washington Post and The New York Sun. He lives in Brooklyn.