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The Weinstein Company swallows up New York's most adventurous art house distributor

Harvey and Bob Weinstein used to cultivate art films in the United States, releasing the likes of Farewell My Concubine and Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy. Last week, the moguls may have helped stifle them by gutting Wellspring Media, one of New York's best loved art house theatrical distributors.

Blame it on corporate consolidation: Just three months after the brothers' new mini-studio the Weinstein Company (TWC) purchased a 70 percent stake in Wellspring's corporate parent, Genius Products, the companies announced a "corporate realignment," effectively shutting down Wellspring, letting go many of its employees and handing over any future releases to TWC. (Executives at Genius and TWC declined to comment.)

News of the "realignment" first spread during the recent Berlin Film Festival, where many leading international producers have relied on Wellspring's art film aficionados to distribute their movies in U.S. theaters. "Who else is going to do that now?" says Kent Jones, a programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. "For a time, they were the most adventurous distributor around." But as so often happens in the world of independent film, corporate forces arrive to squash risk taking for the sake of the bottom line.

Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn, a Wellspring release
photo: Wellspring Media
Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn, a Wellspring release

"It's a sad day for art house cinema," says IFC Films' Ryan Werner, who formerly worked for Wellspring, overseeing the high-profile releases of Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique, Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen, and Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny. "Now there's either the studios, which don't care about challenging films, or there's the micro-companies that open them in a handful of markets without much publicity or marketing," says Werner. "Wellspring was somewhere in the middle, and with that huge library, they should have been able to keep the profit driving the company."

Wellspring's home entertainment library of over 700 titles, ranging from auteur films to fitness videos, was the anchor of its business. But theatrical releases have always served as a publicity campaign to fuel video sales. While TWC claims it will still distribute Wellspring movies in theaters, with no specific films and no employees designated to work on them, it seems doubtful that the next Godard or Gallo film will see screen time via TWC.

It's never been easy for Wellspring, which has answered to five different owners in as many years. Longtime Wellspring exec Marie Therese Guirgis says the multiple buyouts are testament to the outfit's value. "I don't think this company failed," she says. "I think what we did was remarkable." Indeed, filmmakers who worked with Wellspring speak highly of the boutique operation's good taste and fiscal responsibility. "These weren't ivory tower film purists unwilling to sully their hands with economics," says Ira Sachs, who worked with Wellspring on his Sundance winner Forty Shades of Blue. "You can't make Kill Bill money putting out unique films like Palindromes and Goodbye Dragon Inn. The spirit of individualistic cinematic vision that Wellspring championed is directly antithetical to the Weinstein ethos."

Palindromes director Todd Solondz notes that as individualistic as Wellspring seemed on the surface, "We all knew they were owned by people who had no interest whatsoever in film," he says.

Indeed, Wellspring's evaporation is a likely result of the Weinsteins having little use for art films as they try to satisfy the investors of their $1 billion behemoth. By gobbling up most of Genius/Wellspring and forming a home video and foreign-sales partnership with art house distributor IFC Films, the Weinsteins can retain a hint of indie cred while focusing on potential moneymakers. The studio's upcoming slate consists mainly of genre films ( Lucky Number Slevin, Grindhouse), franchise pictures ( Scary Movie 4, Sin City 2), and kid pics ( Doogal, Igor). "We own 51 percent of a billion-dollar company," Harvey Weinstein recently said in a New York profile. "That's $510 million."

So while the Weinsteins get richer, film lovers get poorer. "I've very sad about it," says Guirgis. "I really think that people are just not going to have the opportunity to see the kinds of films in theaters that they once had."

 
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