Taking an Independent Path
For some time, independent film companies have been frustrated by the vast reservoirs of untapped movie audiences who will take a chance only on a film accompanied by the reassurance of heavy advertising, extensive promotional campaigns and a lot of hype.
In “Scandal,” which averaged almost $7,000 per screen on its opening weekend last week, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, co-chairmen of independent Miramax Films, have dared to tread in a land inhabited mostly by studio giants.
To get there, the Weinsteins applied the seat-of-the-pants techniques they learned from promoting concerts in Buffalo, N.Y., by barroom rockers such as Lynyrd Skynyrd to marketing art-house films by the likes of Claude Lelouch.
“Marketing is not a dirty word,” said Harvey, 34, in a conference call from New York with his 37-year-old brother. “Although we market artistic films, we don’t use the starving-artist mentality in our releases. Other distributors slap out a movie, put an ad in the newspaper--usually not a very good one--and hope that the audience will find it by miracle. And most often they don’t. It’s the distributor’s responsibility to find the audience.”
There’s a basic element to the two Bronx natives that places them more naturally in a recliner with beer nuts cheering for their hometown Yankees than jetting to the South of France to purchase avant-garde art films at Cannes. Yet the brothers are relentless in their pursuit of quality films. From polling audiences for marketing ideas to writing ad copy, there is no facet of operations over which they do not maintain tight control.
“That’s one part of our organization we’re never going to delegate,” said Bob, who is the businessman of the two; Harvey is the fast-talking negotiator. “Using a baseball analogy, we’re player-managers. We don’t want to be managers. There’s no fun in it for us if we’re not involved in the day-to-day
“Our staff calls us Israeli generals,” Harvey added, “because in the Israeli armies the generals go out in front and are often the first casualties.”
The Weinsteins, who have turned a profit with more than 100 offbeat films including “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing,” “Aria,” “The Thin Blue Line” and “Pelle the Conqueror,” have found their broadest audience yet with “Scandal"--produced by Miramax and Palace Pictures in London--about Christine Keeler’s affair with British defense minister John Profumo that toppled the British government in 1963.
When the film received an X rating last month from the Motion Picture Assn. of America for a sexually explicit orgy scene, the Weinsteins hired prominent First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus to appeal the narrow 8-7 decision.
“Some guys run from the controversy, we run toward it,” Bob said, and then paused before clarifying: “We don’t seek controversy--we have enough problems with theater chains--but if we feel the cause is just, we’ll meet it head on.”
The Weinsteins lost the mock courtroom battle, which Harvey likened to the famed Scopes trial, and re-edited the controversial sequence for an R rating.
The defeat was a minor setback; the avalanche of publicity ignited by the controversy has catapulted “Scandal” into the national spotlight. The film is booked in 94 theaters nationwide, including several major theater chains--a first according to a Miramax spokesperson.
“Scandal” print advertisements feature a nude Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Keeler draped seductively and strategically over a black chair. Last month, Miramax flew the real Keeler in from London to do the TV talk-show circuit to promote the film.
While some laud Miramax’s promotional antics, others feel the Weinsteins’ raw treatment of sensitive and artistic films is harmful to the independent film industry.
John Pierson, a producer’s representative in New York who finds distributors for independent film producers, contracted with the Weinsteins two years ago to distribute Lizzie Borden’s “Working Girls,” a gritty, businesslike look at life in a Manhattan bordello.
“I have nothing but respect for Harvey’s sense of daring, adventure and willingness to walk a fine line in terms of finding what’s exploitable in a film,” Pierson said. “ ‘Working Girls’ is a fantastic illustration of that. He found just the right touch. . . . The campaign was a model of how to be intelligent and sleazy at the same time.”
But when Pierson commissioned an independent audit of Miramax’s handling of “Working Girls"--a fairly common practice that producers have the right to exercise once a year--he found distribution charges he claims were unrelated to the film.
“It’s unfortunate, but a lot of their competitors in the specialized film field would like to be able to dismiss them as a pair of crooked, former rock-and-roll bookers from Buffalo, New York,” Pierson said.
The Weinsteins began promoting concerts in 1972, when they belonged to a student council at the University of Buffalo that had booked Stephen Stills. When school funding suddenly came up short, they borrowed a friend’s wedding gift of $2,500 and some money from a local pizza hangout and produced the concert themselves.
Harvey took out a loan and bought the Century Theater, a dilapidated, 3,000-seat movie house in downtown Buffalo. They renovated it and spent the next five years booking national tours with artists such as Genesis, Billy Joel and the Grateful Dead.
“To pay for the heating bills we needed another source of income,” Bob said. “I went downstairs and found some broken-down, unused film projectors. We refurbished the projectors and started to run film festivals on Friday and Saturday nights. Two thousand kids would show up and live at the theater on weekends.”
The Weinsteins formed Miramax (from their parents’ names: Miriam and Max) in 1979 and took turns conducting city-to-city campaigns for a Genesis concert movie. Tom Sherak, president of domestic distribution and marketing for 20th Century Fox, was with General Cinema when first approached by the brothers.
“They were these two young guys who wanted in the worst way to get their movies out and run midnight shows,” Sherak said. “Normally when you pick up a midnight show from a major, they ship you a print, you take out a newspaper or radio ad and then you send it back. But Harvey and Bob did it all, and they genuinely cared about their films.”
The brothers’ break came in 1982 when they purchased a film of a live benefit concert for Amnesty International featuring Monty Python comedy bits and music by several rock performers. There wasn’t enough footage for a feature film, so they bought a second film of the concert tour and edited the two into “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball.”
The Weinsteins received sprinkles from the impending storm of controversy that would stay with them when their TV commercial for the film, in which Monty Python trooper Graham Chapman satirized the Moral Majority, was banned by NBC. Still, hard-core Python fans would not be denied, and the film grossed more than $6 million at the box office, more than any other Miramax film to date (most independent features gross well under $2 million).
Last year, a surge in independent productions resulted in what one insider described as a “next batter up” syndrome--too impatient to milk slow-starting independent features for profit, theater owners sent the next film in line up to the plate and hoped for a hit.
To worsen matters, video retailers passed over smaller films with limited releases in favor of well-known, heavily endorsed commodities from the studios, cutting into the profits independents rely on to make up for a poor box-office showing.
While competitors such as the Cannon Group, Island Pictures and Cinecom Entertainment Group struggled to maintain a foothold in the burgeoning market last year, Miramax confidently stepped forward with two releases the other distributors had balked on: “The Thin Blue Line,” a stylized documentary that helped release a convicted murderer last month after 13 years in prison, and “Pelle the Conqueror,” which won top honors at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar as best foreign-language picture at the 1989 Academy Awards.
“People in the industry told us we were crazy at first,” Harvey said. “They said nobody would pay money to see ‘The Thin Blue Line’ because it was a documentary, or ‘Pelle the Conqueror’ because it was 2 1/2 hours long and depressing.”
Today, Miramax is one of a few independents holding strong--and perhaps the only one to show consistent growth--in a field where a company’s life expectancy is as long as its most recent box-office receipt. Miramax currently has a solid release schedule that includes several co-productions and the recent acquisition of domestic theatrical rights to the highly sought-after psychological drama “Sex, Lies and Videotape” for $1.1 million plus a commitment to spend $1 million in advertising.
“We chose Miramax as our distributor based upon Harvey’s bid, his marketing plan and the level of enthusiasm he showed for the film,” said producer Bobby Newmyre of Outlaw Productions in Studio City. “He came in and showed a religion for it.”
“We look at ourselves as a Rolls-Royce dealership,” Harvey said. “We’ll sell a few good cars a year and take care of them, as opposed to General Motors who will put out a million cars and not worry if they break down.”