Frodo’s Big Night

Two days after the Oscars, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein was already back at headquarters in New York. There were no trips to Disneyland. No recovery days from late-night parties at the Beverly Hills hotel. Just a return flight to headquarters. Work.

“With our 15 nominations, I feel like the Yankees,” Mr. Weinstein told The Observer by phone. “O.K., we made the playoffs, but because we didn’t win, some people considered it a bad year.”

If Mr. Weinstein was licking his Steinbrennerian wounds, the film industry’s equivalent of the Florida Marlins sat a continent away, near a crackling fire in the lobby of Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel. Bob Berney, president of one-and-a-half-year-old Gotham-based Newmarket Films, wore jeans, a warm burgundy button-down shirt and a serene look on his face. The word in Hollywood-still reeling from the staggering grosses of Mel Gibson’s Passion play on film-was that he was, in industry terms, Son of Harvey. Sunday had brought him a double-header of extraordinary news: As the limousines had begun their slow crawl to the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, news was trickling out that The Passion of the Christ , a $30 million film that Newmarket chose to distribute when all the other major studios and distributors had turned their backs on Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked attempt at career martyrdom, had raked in $117.5 million in its first five days of release. And then, within the rarefied confines of the Kodak, more good news as Charlize Theron, star of Newmarket’s Monster , beat out Diane Keaton and Naomi Watts for the Best Actress Oscar.

With Ms. Theron thanking “Bob” (as in Berney!) in her acceptance speech, and with Passion well on its way to becoming the highest-grossing independent film of all time-the record is currently held by My Big Fat Greek Wedding , a film distributed by, you guessed it, Mr. Berney when he was IFC-Newmarket Films gained, in one night, the kind of credibility that few companies outside of the studio system gain in their first 20 years of existence.

Not that Mr. Weinstein had abdicated his bête noir spot: Miramax won some awards-Renée Zellweger and The Barbarian Invasions for Best Foreign Film-and Mr. Weinstein was still the reigning Zanuck-equivalent in Billy Crystal’s monologue, not to mention in Peter Biskind’s book, Down and Dirty Pictures , which essentially cast him as the one man embodiment of the Rise and Fall of the Independent.

On Saturday, Feb. 28, at Miramax’s annual pre-Oscar night party at the St. Regis Hotel in Century City, Los Angeles Fire Marshals were forced to become ornery bouncers when the crowd of actors, studio executives and professional schnorrers exceeded fire-code capacity. More than a third of the guests were kept from entering the ballroom during the “Max” awards presentation and instead had to settle for watching it on closed-circuit television. But watching who made the cut and who didn’t was more interesting. Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino, in an olive green polo and jeans, was quickly ushered past the marshals upon arriving over an hour and a half late, while White Stripe Jack White-who had a supporting role in Cold Mountain that led to a relationship with Best Supporting Actress Renée Zellweger-had to cool his heels for a good five minutes before one of the Miramax staff realized the gaffe. Those who did not make the cut were monologist and the West Wing star Anna Deavere Smith, and her visibly frustrated date, and actor Leandro Firmino, who played Little Joe in City of God . During the presentation, Mr. Weinstein said “it stinks” that so many people could not get inside the party. Later, he remarked that he figured the fire marshals for Republicans.

But those who left when they couldn’t get past the fire marshals did not miss much. In keeping with the somber, even dull spirit that pervaded this year’s Oscar festivities, Miramax decided to forego for the second year in a row the often-raucous skits that had starred everyone from Dreamworks SKG co-chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, in Gladiator regalia, to Christina Applegate, to Dame Judy Dench, who always seemed to get a skit that incorporated the word “fuck” into her lines.

Last year, with the Iraq war starting up in the days before the Academy Awards, Miramax had shelved the antics and gone with a patriotic sing-along instead. Eleven months later, with Hollywood and Iraq both looking like quagmires, Mr. Weinstein donned a suit and tie and delivered a pep speech of sorts, touching on the success of Miramax this year, and ending with an exclamation worthy of Howard Dean: “We are going to kick George Bush’s ass this year!”

Afterwards, the crowd was treated to performances by Elvis Costello and Sting, who, thank God, sang a relatively modern song “Roxanne,” and didn’t look like he had cadged an instrument from the set of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank’s, The Court Jester .

Mr. Berney wasn’t gloating though. He had too much on his mind, including a business dinner in 20 minutes at Chaya Brasserie. If his success was an indicator of anything, it’s that “you have to be careful what you assume” about “the marketplace, the audience” he said. “I think it will just make everybody try to rethink what they say yes or no to. I think sometimes you have to look over the pitch line or marker or what you think the film’s about and get deeper than that.”

Certainly, the majors had to be thinking some deep and not so pleasant thoughts right around now. Coupled with the 11 Oscars sucked up by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings juggernaut-distributed not by Warner Brothers, but by Time Warner’s Miramax equivalent, New Line, the onetime art-house film distributor that made its bones re-releasing Reefer Madness in the 1970’s-the combination of Monster , the Hobbits and Mel Gibson created the unmistakable impression that irrevocable change had come to the film industry.

This was supposed to be the year that the major studios retrieved the Academy Awards from the upstarts. The Academy’s decision to shorten the Oscar campaigning season by a month, and the Motion Picture Association of America’s decree that DVD screeners were verboten had hurt two kinds of distributors: Miramax and its progeny, which knew how to market their films with the efficiency of a B-1 bomber (You may not have seen Gangs of New York , but you saw the commercials!), and the small distributors with no advertising money to get their message to the voting members of the Academy.

Oscars emcee Billy Crystal, looking as jowly and rubbery as his Mr. Saturday Night character, even alluded to it in the inspired montage of digitally altered film clips that opened the show. Playing Gollum and talking to his reflection, Mr. Crystal told his alter ego that it would be the first time he had hosted the show since the Oscars had been “taken over by the evil wizards.”

“The Orcs?” replied his reflection.

No, he said, the “Weinsteins.”

In the end, Miramax may have been hamstrung, but it had changed the game forever; its bastard children were running wild: here was Newmarket reeling in the kind of box office gold and those little coveted statuettes.

And the majors? Not only did they heave like felled dinosaurs but one of their own-Joe Roth-produced a telecast that was somehow less amusing than Mr. Roth’s last production -Gigli .

And less confusing. The Academy may have shored up its international reach by nominating House of Sand and Fog’s Iranian star Shohreh Aghdashloo for Best Supporting Actress, but the show’s writers seemed to have the Nate and Al’s crowd in mind when they scripted their jokes. ” Mystic River ,” Mr. Crystal sang to the film’s director Clint Eastwood at one point. “As dark and murky as mom’s chopped liver” Where’s Chris Rock when you need him?

But the real elephant in the room was the success of The Passion . On every level-social, cultural, national-the movie was undismissable. Mr. Crystal joked around it, saying the awards ceremony was going to be “simulcast in Aramaic”, but there was no way he was going to confront that kettle of fish and loaves. And you couldn’t help feeling that the crowd at the Kodak somehow felt threatened by the runaway success of a movie that the Hollywood Establishment had rejected on so many counts. That coupled with the fact that a month of giddy promotional build-up had been cut out of the Oscar campaign schedule seemed to cast a strange sobriety over the evening. Not even the town’s liberal firebrand, Sean Penn, could muster anything more defiant than mentioning the acronym “W.M.D.” in his acceptance speech.

In fact, one of the telecast’s few high points came during Mr. Crystal’s film montage: the scene of the Lord of the Rings elephant trampling a politics-spouting Michael Moore was damn satisfying and, well, while we weren’t exactly thrilled to see Mr. Crystal naked in so many scenes, we had fun imagining the special effects boys digitally wiping the comedian’s errant pubic hairs. And Jack Nicholson’s gameness at playing the town’s Gandalf-with-gonads was a pleasure. But once on the stage of the Kodak, Mr. Crystal became as wheezy as what he once had taken so much pleasure satirizing: he and Robin Williams looked like a Martin and Rossi for the 21st century.

But hovering over the entire operation was Mr. Gibson’s renegade spectacle, an event to which the industry had not yet prepared a response. It’s tremendous box office success was, it could be said without hyperbole, historic. No independent movie had ever made that much money, let with such speed and explosive power. It made previous independents like Pulp Fiction and My Big Fat Greek Wedding look like pip-squeaks. The movie industry had yet to even figure out what it thought of it-but one thing was sure, it was an instant, and upsetting revolution: the jokes trying to contain it were feeble and the reaction to it truly thunderstruck. How could Hollywood’s elite exult in shallowness of their industry when their own Academy had frowned upon such excess and when a movie as serious, as fervently religious and as violent as anything in Tarantino’s oeuvre had stolen their thunder?

Suddenly, that screener ban was looking like a rather quaint problem. Indeed the ban, initially regarded as an attempt to marginalize specialized films, ended up providing the greatest boon to smaller films. “The smaller movies had their day, and they shined,” Mr. Weinstein said. When you think that some of the movies like Monster , or Whale Rider , or Sony’s Fog of War , or Triplets of Belleville -without the DVD’s you wouldn’t have seen any of these movies nominated, including The Station Agent , City of God and Dirty Pretty Things , said Mr. Weinstein, who was thanked by IFP/Los Angeles executive director Dawn Hudson during the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony for being the only studio chief to provide an affidavit for the anti-trust suit against the MPAA. “I think piracy can be tackled in many other ways,” the Miramax co-chairman said. “But I don’t think there should be a reassessment of the screeners because you wouldn’t have the diversity of movies that you have.

At the IFP Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica on Feb. 28, Ted Hope, producer of 21 Grams and American Splendor disclosed a strange summit: he had tea with MPAA president Jack Valenti the day before at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York, and that a settlement of the anti-trust dispute was in the works. But when the subject of the screener ban came up, Mr. Hope beamed.

“I love a good fight,” he said. “On top of it, at the end of the day, I think people were reminded of how important these left of center marketing devices are.”

Mr. Berney said he knew exactly what Mr. Hope is talking about.

“All of a sudden everybody that either you didn’t know or didn’t want to take your call is like, ‘Yeah, c’mon, were going to get together next time you’re here in L.A.,” Mr. Berney said, his receding red hair formed a wispy peak at the top of his head. “I remember when I was at IFC and we did Greek Wedding . I always thought that was one of those weird once-in-a-lifetime projects that you almost can’t understand.” And then, he said, referring to Mr. Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ , he spoke in that weird Hollywoodese: The Passion , he said, “is going to outdo it. I think we’re going to have the number one and two independent films of all time.” Hooray for The Passion ! It’s an indy triumph!

Mr. Berney added: “I think you know how to manage the luck, if you get it.” And that’s what Mr. Berney said that he and his 15 employees did when controversy greeted Mr. Gibson’s The Passion , most notably with Frank Rich’s August 2003 article in The New York Times. As the debate raged over whether Mr. Gibson’s film would stoke the flames of anti-Semitism, Newmarket was fueling a word-of-mouth campaign that easily could have raged out of control and consumed the film itself. “Icon”-Mr. Gibson’s production company-“had started all of this grassroots stuff during the production,” Mr. Berney said, reclining in his chair at the Four Seasons. “And so…our job was really to corral that and try to then turn that energy, to get the theaters and broaden it.”

Mr. Berney said that Newmarket’s mandate is to “do stuff” that the major studios “don’t want to do or can’t do right. They’re too big to do a subtitled film or even Whale Rider …. Passion was, for whatever reason, too controversial for them, so it fits into the independent world, even though it’s a big film.”

The growing consensus among some in Hollywood is that Newmarket has picked up the mantle that Miramax dropped on the way to becoming a Disney subsidiary, producer of The Aviator . At first, Mr. Berney said he considered the comparison “an honor” because the company started by the Weinstein brothers, “turned everything on its head, and they did very aggressive, showman-type campaigns.” After all, Mr. Berney’s beginnings in the film business aren’t that different from the Weinsteins in Buffalo, N.Y. After graduating from college he bought, renovated and programmed the art-house Inwood Theater in Dallas, Texas.

But later, he reconsidered.

He said that “it pisses me off when those in the industry pigeonhole Newmarket” as the new Miramax. He said that “I’m definitely more laid back” than the famously volatile Mr. Weinstein, though he added: “I’ll probably change under pressure.”

As for Mr. Weinstein, he said: “I think he’s done a sensational job with the movies that he’s been involved in.” But he added: “To be Miramax, as my brother always says, is a very simple thing: you have to have a best picture nomination 11 years in a row, you have to have 13 best pictures and over 200 nominations in the other categories, and once you achieve that, you are the new Miramax. That’s the standard. If he can do it, that’s good for everyone because it will mean a lot more great movies for us to enjoy.”

Whether or not Mr. Berney ever can duplicate those numbers, the complexion of the movie business is already changing, according to Mr. Hope. “For the first time in the 15 years that I’ve been in the business, we’re at a point where you can actually see the markets for adventuresome cinema growing,” he said, growing he said from “what has always been a standard 5-percent market share to 13 percent.”

Mr. Hope said the statistics indicate that the major studios have been “relying on the old ways and “the absolute need to come up with new things. People would say a movie like The Passion is unmarketable. That maybe, at best, it would do $10 million, $20 million-not $20 million in a day. I think it shows that if you come up with a new way to reposition your material and make people really need to see it, all sorts of different stories can find real audiences.”

The Passion of The Christ even haunted the rather lackluster pre-Oscar social scene. At the opening reception of the Andy Warhol: Late Paintings and Helmut Newton: Photographs exhibits at the Gagosian Gallery on North Camden Drive, author Fran Lebowitz, in her traditional jeans, white shirt and blue blazer uniform, and Hairspray director John Waters settled into conversation in front of Warhol’s silkscreen interpretation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper . Upstairs, the kinky photos of Helmut Newton-whose Hollywood ending came earlier this year in an auto accident outside the Chateau Marmont-recalled the more sadomasochistic side of Mr. Gibson’s movie. And in one arrangement that Mr. Waters would have appreciated, two life-sized black-and-white photos of models wearing nothing but high heels flanked a picture of a whole, uncooked chicken, the tips of its drumsticks inserted into a pair of fuck-me pumps.

Producer Robert Evans, wearing rectangular sunglasses, a beige ensemble he must have bought during the Nixon administration, and a blonde on his arm, was immediately ushered upstairs upon his arrival, so that he could indulge his satyrical sense.

Or, perhaps, his love of poultry. As the evening wore on, one bearded patron with a ponytail and an untucked black shirt could be heard telling his friend as he climbed the stairs: “I’m gonna go look at the chicken one more time.”

On Feb. 27 at the Concorde on Cahuenga Boulevard , Vanity Fair threw a party for Kevin Spacey’s and Dana Brunetti’s online film Web site Triggerstreet.com. Mr. Spacey, in a black suit, white shirt, and Triggerstreet.com baseball cap, said that Triggerstreet, which features web-only films from first-time directors, was “about trying to give people an opportunity to break through a wall they can’t get through.”

And when The Transom asked Mr. Spacey about the negatives of online technology-namely piracy-he gave one of his trademark leers and said: “The major studios need to give up the goose. I think there’s no question that the distribution model is going to shift and change over the next five to 10 years. If [the music industry] had realized technology was going to win, they could have long ago figured out a way to make it work for themselves financially.”

Though Vanity Fair was sponsoring his soiree, Mr. Spacey wasn’t reciprocating on Oscar night. “I’m in post-production on a film I just directed, so I have to fly back to London right away,” he said. His partner Mr. Brunetti was more than willing to serve as Mr. Spacey’s proxy, but as of that evening, he wasn’t exactly in demand. “I’m going to try to go to the Vanity Fair party, but I’m not on the list yet,” Mr. Brunetti said.

Not long after that, actor/comedian Tom Arnold sauntered down the aisle, wife in tow, hamming it up to whomever would offer him a microphone. Meanwhile, The Bachelor ‘s Andrew Firestone, wearing a jacket similar to the one Michael Jackson wore in his “Rock With You” video talked about keeping it real in light of his new found fame. “I’ve always kept my day job,” Mr. Firestone said with a big, slightly uncomfortable looking perma-grin. “I’m in the wine business. I always have been. So I think the important thing is that I never lost sight of what I know how to do. Celebrity comes and goes, but practicality and business is a little bit more long term.”

Speaking of celebrity coming and going, actor George Clooney slipped into The Concorde without running the press gantlet, and then must slipped out soon after. Outkast’s Andre 3000, wearing an aqua sweater and rolled up jeans, also made an appearance to promote his upcoming HBO Films musical, Speakerboxx , which will also star his partner, Big Boi, and was written and directed by music-video veteran Bryan Barber. But Mr. 3000 had some disappointing news. After all those articles about him moving to New York and eventually striking up a friendship with Anna Wintour, Mr. 3000 had fallen for another city’s siren song.

“Well, I was going to move to New York at one point in time, but L.A. is calling,” he said. As Howard Dean might say, “Hey, Yaaargh!”

On Oscar night, the 12th annual Elton John Aids Foundation party, sponsored, in part, by InStyle magazine, proved to be the kids’ table of the post-Oscar party scene. While Hollywood’s youthful-looking elite rubbed up against each other at the Vanity Fair party, the industry’s real young Hollywood-including Traffic’ s Erika Christensen and her twin 17-year-old brothers-gathered to hear soul vixen Joss Stone perform alongside Mr. John. A middle-aged man approached Diary of a Teenage Drama Queen star Lindsay Lohan, and asked if she would take a picture with him. Ms. Lohan, who was hanging with The O.C. star Mischa Barton, said that the photo was for the man’s daughter. Then she ran outside for a smoke with Ms. Barton and some boys with applicator tans. The outdoor smoking lounge was quite the scene: dozens of fresh-faced actors and their friends, including helping themselves to plates upon plates of Marlboro Lights and Kools. After satisfying their nicotine cravings, they left to go to the winners’ circle, namely The New Line party, missing what turned out to be the most eagerly photographed celebrity pairing: Sting and pint-sized In America co-star, Emma Bolger. As the flashes exploded around here, Ms. Bolger did not even blink while she kept up a conversation with Sting. The kid’s going to be a star.

The most popular person at the InStyle fete was American Idol judge Randy Jackson, who came with his wife, Eve, and didn’t go more than five seconds without saying “Yo, Dawg!” to someone. That group included My Baby’s Daddy star Anthony Anderson and goateed rocker Sammy Hagar, who was dressed in a black shirt and a pair of white slacks. “I’m going to be evaluating Joss Stone,” Mr. Jackson told The Transom. Ms. Stone’s performance must have been good, for as she posed for a picture with him and Simon Cowell in the sequestered Important Celebrities area, she placed her hand on his cheek. Nothing but love for sure.

Robin Williams was trying to make a quick exit, but was blocked by photo-hungry partygoers determined to waylay him. When asked if he would ever consider hosting the show instead of his good friend, Billy Crystal, Mr. Williams replied: “Never.” He added that if were to host, “I’d be blacked out like the Witness Protection program instead of there being a delay.”

As the evening turned into morning, Mr. Cowell made his way to the outdoor smokers lounge to relax with his date, a sultry brunette in a slinky aqua dress. “It’s fascinating TV, isn’t it?” Mr. Cowell said of his American Idol show in which, it seems, all of the contestants consider 15 seconds of fame one of their inalienable rights. “You see the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Mr. Cowell said. Funny, the Oscars used to be like that too, gaudy and elegant, they were a Funhouse reflection of our American Skin. But Mr. Cowell showed he understood where he was: “We’re all working,” he said, flashing a smile as he made he made his way to the loo. The Hollywood credo.