The Mousetrap

The discord between Disney and Miramax reaches boiling point with Moore's new film

"I'm out of a job," Miramax co-chief Harvey Weinstein famously called out after last month's Cannes premiere of Fahrenheit 9/11.Michael Moore's rousing attack on the Bush administration may burn the final bridge between Miramax and its parent company, Disney, which forbade the New York-based subsidiary from releasing the film. Now being distributed by a consortium of industry players, including the brothers Weinstein, Lions Gate, and IFC Films, Fahrenheit 9/11 is not the first movie to stick a wedge between Michael Eisner's "Mouse House" and the Weinsteins' East Coast studio, but it might be the last.

Many in the film business believe the Fahrenheit 9/11 hubbub may be a carefully orchestrated Weinstein scheme to leverage Miramax's position with Disney, as its contract is up for renegotiation in 2005. "The Weinsteins are using this to widen the rift," explains one industry observer. "It serves their purposes, whether it's because they need to renegotiate their contract, or it's because they want to get rid of Eisner, or they want to buy their company back. If they're hot, if they're getting Palmes d'Or, and if they're making money, and Michael Eisner is beleaguered and reviled, why smooth things over? Why go quietly and hand your film over to strangers when you can make the biggest possible stink about it and, at the same time, sell tickets to your movie and turn a corporate political situation to your advantage?"

Disney purchased Miramax in 1993, after the Weinsteins hit their stride with The Crying Game, Strictly Ballroom, and 12 Academy Award nominations. But the marriage was one of power-hungry convenience, and as Peter Biskind notes in his book Down and Dirty Pictures, many in the film business "predicted it would end in a messy divorce." "On the face of it," he writes, "it would be hard to imagine two companies more ill-suited than the white-bread, wholesome, Burbank home of Mickey and Donald, and the two slobs from Queens with their ragtag, anything-goes company in Tribeca."

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    In 1995, the companies clashed over Antonia Bird's Priest and Larry Clark's Kids. The story of a gay Catholic clergyman, Priest drew vociferous ire from the conservative watchdog Catholic League. The movie was originally scheduled to open on Good Friday to maximize the controversy, but Miramax, caving in to the parent company's wishes to curtail the controversy, shifted its release date three weeks earlier.

    Kids presented another affront to Disney: an NC-17 rating, which Miramax was contractually forbidden to touch. It had already relinquished another adult-rated film, Martin Lawrence's crass concert stand-up You So Crazy, but had successfully overturned an NC-17 on Kevin Smith's Clerks. After a similar campaign failed to get an R for Kids, the Weinsteins purchased the rights from Disney and formed a new company, Shining Excalibur Films, to release it themselves. "I never perceived any annoyance [from Disney]," says Eamonn Bowles, who shepherded the Kids release and was in brief talks to work on Fahrenheit 9/11. "[The Weinsteins] took it out of the company; they took the heat off Disney, which is just what Disney wanted." Adds Bowles, "I think they had a better relationship with Disney at that point."

    In 1999, the Catholic League saw another target in the Miramax property Dogma, Kevin Smith's Chris- tian-themed scatological satire. Again, the Wein- steins salvaged their relationship with Disney as well as the film's status through a careful strategy (in a manner that mimics the unveiling of Fahrenheit 9/11): "Take the film to Cannes, create a great deal of anticipation by riding the media attention, present it as an underdog that needs to be protected, and then hand it over, having given it a global platform from which to shine," says ThinkFilm's Mark Urman, who was then co-president of Lions Gate, the eventual beneficiary of Dogma. "But there was no sense they were giving away their baby for adoption," continues Urman. "They had unprecedented visitation rights."

    As Miramax has grown into a Hollywood-on-the-Hudson juggernaut, the company's disagreements with Disney have shifted from sex and blasphemy to even more contentious disputes over cash. At a conference at the Waldorf Astoria in early June, Michael Eisner reportedly said, in the wake of Miramax's near $100 million productions like Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain, "We are attempting to take capital out of Miramax. They were a little boutique making independent films. They are now more of a major spending a lot more money." In the midst of budget overruns, Miramax's production efforts have slowed and rumors of massive cost-cutting layoffs hit the presses late last week.

    No one in the film business expects the Weinsteins to return to their indie past. "Under any scenario, I expect them to thrive," says Bowles. "I don't think they'd be wanting for suitors if they left Disney. There would be a line out the door to fund them." Or as one film exec puts it, "You had to see it coming; people like Harvey Weinstein can't have bosses."

     
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