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Scrappy Miramax Disappears on ‘Yards’ Marketing

Director James Gray knew his movie “The Yards” was in trouble when he arrived at the Miramax film’s premiere party at the Writers Guild last month and discovered that the usually sumptuous catering spread consisted of bad finger sandwiches and Martinelli sparkling cider. But Gray had already suspected something was wrong when he and Mark Wahlberg, the film’s star, went to a word-of-mouth screening Miramax held in New York several days before.

“It was just me, Mark and the seven beautiful girls he brought,” says the 31-year-old director. “They had a seat roped off with Harvey Weinstein’s name on it, but he never showed up. But the so-called premiere in L.A. was really humiliating. The place was half-empty, and no one from Miramax showed up. I saw someone the next day who said, ‘Geez, that was maybe the worst studio premiere ever.’ ”

While sister company Dimension Films has enjoyed teen smashes with “Scary Movie” and “Scream 3,” Miramax has had a rocky year at the box office, with “The Cider House Rules” being the studio’s only bona fide hit over the past 12 months. Five years ago, Miramax’s once fabled marketing machine would’ve jumped all over “The Yards,” a gritty drama with a cast featuring three hot young actors--Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron--as well as such respected Oscar-worthy elders as Ellen Burstyn, James Caan and Faye Dunaway.

But instead of giving the film--a grim story of corruption and family loyalties--a splashy send-off, Miramax released it last month in 150 theaters without any TV ads or even a street-poster campaign. Greeted by mixed reviews, the film quickly died, grossing less than $1 million in six weeks of release. Gray contends that Miramax gave up on the film. Miramax counters that it strongly backed the film, but that without widespread critical support the studio had no choice but to cut its losses and move on.

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Believe whom you want, but one thing stands out here: Movie dramas, once the launching pad for acting careers and the mainstays of Academy Award season, have become an endangered species. It’s one reason everyone says there’s such a weak Oscar field this year. Having lost a bundle on expensive star vehicles that didn’t play for young moviegoers, studios have radically cut back on drama production, especially ones like “The Yards” that don’t have crowd-pleasing endings (like “Erin Brockovich” or “Billy Elliot”).

Miramax knows the pitfalls all too well, having failed to find an audience for such dramas as “Music of the Heart,” “Guinevere” and “A Walk on the Moon.” Miramax’s treatment of “The Yards” also reflects a change of priorities at the company, which is moving away from quirky independent films to movies like “Bounce,” a drama marketed as a date-night movie that could’ve been made at any Hollywood studio.

For Director James Gray, Movie Is a Personal Story

Gray’s script, co-written by Matt Reeves, was originally at Fox Searchlight, but the studio put it in turnaround after a series of executive shifts. Miramax quickly stepped in and picked it up. The movie was especially personal to Gray; much of the story was inspired by an incident involving his father, who was indicted in a bribery scandal in New York City involving a company that supplied electronic parts for subways.

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The honeymoon with Miramax was short-lived. The studio gave the director a generous $17.7-million budget, but Gray and the strong-willed Weinstein (who didn’t respond on the record to Gray’s charges) were at odds over almost everything else. Gray says Weinstein made “every major decision from beginning to end. It’s all top down, starting with him.” To get Weinstein to approve the casting of singer Steve Lawrence in a minor role, Gray had to guarantee the studio his salary against the days it would cost to re-shoot the Lawrence scenes if they didn’t work out.

Gray finished the film in September 1998, but it took months to hold two test screenings: Miramax says Gray delivered his director’s cut late; Gray says Weinstein was unavailable to attend the screenings. Finally in May 1999, Weinstein went over the re-shoot pages with Gray, who recalls with a laugh that “Harvey, spitting crab meat at me, kept yelling, ‘I’m the master of the invisible cut!’ ” Weinstein gave Gray money to do re-shoots in return for Gray, who already owed Miramax another film, agreeing to do an additional movie.

After the re-shoots, Gray says Miramax only gave him four days to integrate the new footage into the picture before the studio held another test screening. It went reasonably well, but audiences still found the film--then at 2 hours plus--dark and slow-paced. Weinstein reacted by having Gray cut the film down to 1 hour, 23 minutes so it could be sold as a thriller. The new version tested even worse, so Gray was allowed to restore it to its eventual 1-hour-and-45-minute running time.

Along the way, Miramax says, Gray went nearly $7 million over budget, largely due to re-shoot and post-production costs. Gray, for example, hired and fired two composers before agreeing to use Howard Shore. By January of this year, when Weinstein came down with what Gray calls “his mysterious Kremlin leader illness,” the film was still in limbo.

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Then Gray caught a break. One of his producers showed the film to Cannes Film Festival President Gilles Jacob, who fell in love with it and insisted on debuting it at the festival. A pair of GQ editors who saw the film also liked it. Buoyed by the positive reactions, Miramax quickly got the film to Cannes. However, the screenings were a disaster; the trade reviews were terrible, and the movie was shut out at awards time. It sat on the shelf until this fall, when Miramax initially planned to only release the film in three cities.

Shortly before the film’s Oct. 20 release, a new burst of preview-screening enthusiasm earned the film a 140-screen release. But the studio never supported the expanded release with any TV ads.

The filmmakers argue that most studios would’ve spent the marketing dollars to support the film, either to cement its relationships with the film’s stars or because the added visibility would eventually result in additional home video and DVD sales. But Miramax is notorious for ruthlessly cutting its losses on films that don’t catch a wave; having taken in more than $15 million in foreign pre-sales on the movie, the studio was unwilling to risk throwing good money after bad.

Miramax insists that it didn’t abandon the film.

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“We all loved the movie,” says Mark Gill, president of Miramax Los Angeles, who oversaw the film’s marketing campaign. “Unfortunately, we got shellacked by the critics and we didn’t get the kind of word-of-mouth we needed to make it work. We would’ve run TV spots, but we could never get a spot that tested well.”

But “Yards” producer Nick Wechsler, who also produced two current dramas--"Quills” for Fox Searchlight and “Requiem for a Dream” for Artisan--argues that Miramax didn’t give the film a fighting chance. “Both of those films have difficult and disturbing themes, yet both Fox Searchlight and Artisan have spent the money to support them,” he says. “I think Miramax has evolved into a more mainstream studio. And Harvey has moved past the point where he has the energy or need to be the kind of P.T. Barnum figure who can create a market for a movie even where there isn’t one.”

Miramax executives acknowledge that Weinstein was often unavailable, first because of his illness, then because of his involvement in Democratic political campaigns. But they say the studio never interfered with Gray’s vision. “From Day 1, James always got what he wanted,” says Miramax executive vice president Jon Gordon. “We’re all disappointed in how the film did, but we believe in James and wouldn’t hesitate to make another movie with him.”

But would Gray, who now owes the studio two more movies, make another film at Miramax?

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“I will because I have to,” says Gray. “But believe it or not, I’m not bitter. I got to make the movie I wanted to make. And Harvey was initially supportive. It just would’ve made a big difference to me and to the actors if Harvey had acted as if he was proud of the movie and judged the film on its merits, not just on its salability.”

Does ‘Cast Away’ Trailer Spill the Beans?

No Man Is an Island: Twentieth Century Fox has largely been keeping “Cast Away” under wraps. But the Tom Hanks-starring film’s preview trailer has been in theaters the past few weeks and, judging from our e-mail, it hasn’t been a hit with moviegoers. The beef: The trailer tells so much of the story, even showing Hanks being reunited with his wife (Helen Hunt), that it spoils the magic of the film. (DreamWorks, which is releasing the film overseas, doesn’t reveal that Hanks comes home safely in its international trailer.) Fox marketing chief Bob Harper wouldn’t discuss the studio’s internal discussions involving the new trailer, although it’s no secret that Fox tested two versions of the current trailer, one that showed Hanks coming home, one that did not. Both versions played well, but the studio went with the one with more plot detail. Harper defends the move, saying the film “goes far beyond what we’ve shown in the trailer. The picture has a lot more to offer--it’s an emotional journey that involves a lot more than whether he gets off the island or not.”

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The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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