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Friday, January 29, 2010

Miramax Dies: Rest in Peace

It’s been a slow death, but Miramax dies on Thursday.

The New York and Los Angeles offices of the arthouse movie studio owned by Disney will close.
Eighty people will lose their jobs. The six movies waiting distribution -- "Last Night," "The Debt," "The Tempest” among them -- will be shelved, to gather dust, or win a tepid release.
It’s not clear that anyone at the studio will care.
But a lot of other people around the movie business mourned the impending loss of a label that once set the bar for taste and artistry. (Update Thursday: A Disney spokeswoman called to protest that Miramax is not 'dead.' "Miramax will consoldiate its operations within Walt Disney Studios, and will be releasing a smaller number of films than in previous years. But it will continue to operate within the Walt Disney Studios," she said.)
Over 31 years, the movie company that for most of its existence was led by founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein brought the public enduring stories that plumbed the depths of human emotion (“My Left Foot”) and pushed the boundaries of cultural barriers (“Reservoir Dogs”).
When we think of the movies that defined the latter part of the 20th century -- the movies that mattered, that stories that hit pop culture like a hammer and left a dent -- more often than not they came from Miramax.
“The Piano.” “Pulp Fiction.” “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” “Clerks.” “The English Patient.” (See slideshow.)
All too often, we may find ourselves saying: Why doesn’t Hollywood make those movies anymore?
Maybe the movie industry doesn’t know how to. Miramax, for well over a decade, was something special.
“Miramax wasn't just a bad-boy clubhouse, it was a 20th century Olympus,” filmmaker Kevin Smith wrote to TheWrap. “Throw a can of Diet Coke and you hit a modern-day deity. And for one brief, shining moment, it was an age of magic and wonders.” (Read Kevin Smith's full Hollyblog.)
With these in the vault: “Shakespeare in Love” (Oscar: Gwyneth Paltrow). “The Crying Game” (Oscar, Neil Jordan). “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (5 noms). “Chicago” (6 Oscar wins).
“If there was any company that contributed more to the shaping of a generation and a sensibility -- I don’t know it,” said veteran publicist Fredell Pogodin, lamenting the closure.
There were lots of overambitious flops, or movies that tried too hard -- “The Aviator.” “The Shipping News.” “The Four Feathers.” “Cold Mountain.”
But there was also lots of plain audacious filmmaking, movies that nobody else would dare make, much less ride to awards glory: “Kill Bill I and II.” “The Ciderhouse Rules.” “Good Will Hunting.” “Swingers.”
The story of Miramax has been told and retold: Scrappy New York brothers name the studio after their parents, wheel and deal to hold their movie company together, bully business partners, seduce filmmakers and spend loads of money on Oscar campaigns.
Then came the sale to Disney. The success, the hubris, the Oscars, the overspending. The loss of identity, the desperate attempts to reconcile with Michael Eisner followed by the bitter divorce, and the quiet takeover by Daniel Battsek.
The final chapter has been short and bitter.
Battsek was squeezed to a smaller and smaller size by Disney, despite releasing some respectable movies including “The Queen,” “Tsotsi” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
The studio endured endless rumors of its impending closure. On Oct. 2, Disney announced that “Miramax Films will reduce the number of films it releases annually while consolidating certain of its operations.”
Dick Cook, the former chairman of the studio, told me last summer that while reduced in size, the studio would continue.
But by year-end , Dick Cook was gone, and Rich Ross had taken over. Soon after, Daniel Battsek was gone, too.
Remained the final sweep-up -- the firing of the remnant staff as part of the Ross reboot of the larger Disney studio, focused on a digital future with great, big, global brands.
I asked Harvey Weinstein how he felt on Wednesday. He wrote:
"I'm feeling very nostalgic right now. I know the movies made on my and my brother Bob's watch will live on as well as the fantastic films made under the direction of Daniel Battsek. Miramax has some brilliant people working within the organization and I know they will go on to do great things in the industry."
The Weinsteins have tried to buy the name of their former company back. Disney has not responded. But Bob Iger has made it known that he would be willing to sell Miramax outright -- for about $1.5 billion.
Too rich for the Weinsteins, and probably anybody else.
So on Thursday, one more arthouse film outlet goes away.
Some in this business just can’t believe it.
“I refuse to believe it will go away forever,” said Amanda Lundberg of 42West, who spent eight years of her life at the company.
“I think Miramax is too strong a brand to not exist in some incarnation. Maybe not this year or in five years, but the library is huge and the brand is big. I can’t imagine it will disappear.”