Michael Atkinson: Did Miramax Die for the Weinsteins' Sins?
See ya, Miramax. Dying a slow death the past few years, the movie studio we love to hate shut down officially yesterday. Will we miss it?
I dare say we won't, and not merely because since the Weinstein brothers abandoned their mom-&-pop's namesake to the outlying Disney provinces and started up their own shingle in 2005, the company has been more or less irrelevant. A few high-profile releases like The Queen, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men aside, the company's output dwindled and waned, supported by the semi-soft cheese of Dimension. In 2009, Miramax released only five films. It was destined for the boneyard.
But the clubhouse for shuttered boutique distributors is getting crowded, and it seems undeniable that the "indie" film culture that Miramax helped create in the late '80s is wheezing its last gasps. In some senses, it's not the tragedy it might seem. First off, what passed for "independent" in the '90s was rarely that: Instead of being financed as an indie should be -- by credit cards, loans, and small investors -- these movies boasted Industry funds and star power.
The "independent movement" turned out to be a different marketing paradigm, with a different cost-and-profit measure, turning out movies that could benefit from the scene's own brand of hype, aggrandized not for their size or ambition but for their production modesty and "passion." The Weinsteins, of course, played the game perfectly, and were roundly praised for it (Queen Elizabeth named Harvey a Commander of the British Empire). They drummed up idiosyncratic buzz for Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, and Kevin Smith even as their turnout was mostly a glut of treacly Euro-trash and Sundance yawns.
Miramax lorded over the short-lived heyday of the modest-budgeted alt-film, and of course the company has been dished as often as it's been hailed for successfully selling what the suits in L.A. would never greenlight. Just don't call the movies indies. Even as the news cycle loudly laments the "death of the indie," now that the bullgoose is dead, the indie flourishes -- if I had a dime for every genuine MasterCard movie or video doc that hit the slipstream, theatrical or video or online, in the last six months, I could afford the meals that have made Harvey's waistline so famous.
It's the Miramax-created "dependie" that's dead -- aging movie stars now look to TV to coolly extend their careers past the sell-by date, not to $5 million heist sagas written by film school grads and shot in the neighborhood gin mills. As much as I may have enjoyed Bruce Willis snapping the samurai sword in Pulp Fiction, or Sylvester Stallone lumbering through Cop Land, I won't miss their third- or fourth-generational equivalents. It was a mutant form of American showbiz to begin with, born without the genetic tools for survival.
So what this long goodbye is really all about is the passing of a moviemaking and movie-selling culture that has lasted just over 20 years-- not bad -- ever since Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line and Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies & videotape. The impact of the Miramax strategy was felt, their template was followed, success greeted some lucky cineastes and failure fell on many more. Not unlike the tech stock boom of the '90s, when just an abstract idea for a web device could land non-engineers a venture capital pile of cash, the Weinsteins' flowchart read like a get-rich-quick scheme to too many hapless would-be Quentins: Spend your parents' retirement money on a movie, get it back tenfold at the restaurant tables in Park City.
And I suppose there has been an upside: By sheer force of will, Miramax made Tarantino happen, and funded and/or distributed Takeshi Kitano, Leos Carax, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jim Jarmusch, and Gus Van Sant when others might not have, even if too often it did it badly. (When it came to Abbas Kiarostami and Wisit Sasanatieng, poor distribution would've been preferable compared to what they actually got.)
But oh, the downside. Forget the irate filmmakers who had their work mutilated and emasculated at Miramax, or the critics who've had Harvey's spittle land in their eyelashes, and may get it yet again someday. The filmgoers are the true beneficiaries and victims, finally. Because of Miramax, America developed a short-lived appetite for Roberto Benigni, lost life-minutes to the deathless Scary Movie parody franchises, and got its Miyazaki redubbed by Billy Crystal. Looking at the list, there are too many movies I regret having had to see, too many for a hot firm spearheading a "specialty" cultural trend: Marvin's Room, Curdled, Senseless, The Mighty, B. Monkey, Music of the Heart, Diamonds, Committed, The Golden Bowl, Kate & Leopold, Life Is Beautiful, Pinocchio.
It might not be fair to skewer a film company for making and hawking loads of crummy movies, especially if they were happily in the black most of the time, but if Harvey and Bob only wanted that bottom line, we just wanted good movies.
Ah, well. It's not a good thing to see yet another distributor fold, but the Miramax sensibility is defunct, and where one top-heavy dinosaur falls, a hundred small-boned creatures can rise and scamper, tiny new distribution outfits like Oscilloscope, Film Movement, Cinema Libre, Magnet, Paladin, Wishbone, Rainbow, Industrial, Leisure Time, ad infinitum. Plus a few more incorporated in the time it took you to read this. Plus more and more independent film houses (like the IFC Center, Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives) simply "releasing" films for limited runs on their own. Plus proliferating self-released features, in every format.
Miramax's moment came and went, but it shouldn't be any skin off of our noses. Nothing will change, nothing "died," others will fill the void, and what Miramax judged unmarketable in the U.S., will likely still go unreleased.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.