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Movie men behaving badly

Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review and reviews movies for Time. He is the producer-writer-director of more than 30 documentaries, including most recently "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin."

Peter Biskind intends “Down and Dirty Pictures” to be a sort of sequel to his much-discussed “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” This makes a certain sense. Once the directors (Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas et al) who arose in the 1970s were established as major Hollywood players in the 1980s and ‘90s, the next big movie story -- or should we say the next big movie story that could be shaped into a coherent and compelling narrative -- was certainly, as Biskind’s subtitle has it, “Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film.” It is regrettable that his basic technique -- endless trash-talking quotations from a rich variety of eyewitnesses to alleged im- and amorality -- serves him even less well now than it did in his previous book.

In oversimplified essence, this is the not-uninteresting tale he has to tell: In 1978, the Utah Film Commission started a low-key, essentially retrospective festival known as the United States Film Festival in Park City. In 1985, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, then mainly devoted to summer workshops in which independent filmmakers got to test their works in progress under the tutelage of established movie professionals, took it over, changing its name in 1989 to the Sundance Film Festival. At least in part because it took place in late January, when nothing else was going on in the movie business, it became the prime showplace (and marketplace) for independent films needing distribution.

The year 1989 was crucial for the festival, and not just because of the name change. That was the year Steven Soderbergh hand-carried his print of “sex, lies, and videotape” to Park City, won its audience prize and set off a bidding war among the distributors, which was won by a relatively new company known as Miramax.

When, a few months later, the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and went on to solid success, a lot of things changed in the indie world: It ceased to be a gentlemanly competition among small companies more or less rationally seeking the right to make (or lose) small sums of money distributing “art” films in a limited number of theaters. It became instead a jungle ruled by an 800-pound gorilla named Harvey Weinstein, co-owner (with his brother, Bob, a more shadowy figure) of Miramax.

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The Weinsteins take over Biskind’s book as they took over indie film, through the sheer bullying force of Harvey’s presence. This does not, I think, entirely please Biskind. He struggles hard to keep his focus wide, recounting the rise and demise of Miramax’s many competitors. He tries hardest of all to paint Redford as a passive-aggressive villain, equal to the Weinsteins in his noxiousness, though utterly different in style. He emerges as a distant, casually oracular figure, always late (usually by hours) for meetings, slow to make decisions, constantly playing favorites among his staff only to drop them when they fail to respond to his gnomically expressed desires.

This portrait may surprise the general public, which nowadays knows Redford mainly as a director of draggy movies and an impeccably correct spokesman for the environment. But the movies’ Abominable Snowman is fairly quickly shoved aside in these pages by the Abominable Showman, the monstrous Harvey Weinstein, who overshadows everyone else in the book -- including his brother and dozens of production executives and filmmakers who thought they might be able to tame him and, with one or two exceptions, ulcerously failed.

What Biskind essentially proves is that all the rumors you have heard about Weinstein are true -- and then some. He is a huge man, swigging Diet Cokes, chain-smoking and screaming at everyone in sight. He believes himself to be a master re-cutter (“Harvey Scissorhands”) of other people’s work, a man who pretty much makes certain that filmmakers never see any money from their share of the profits and who is entirely capable of burying the films of directors who cross him. And that says nothing about his manners. People working for or with Miramax are routinely bullied, whimsically fired, rehired and occasionally threatened with bodily harm. To be sure, he often sends flowers after his outbursts. Or mumbles contritely about taking an anger-management course.

But, like the legendary moguls of old, he operates in an essentially psychopathic realm, excusing his excesses (as their apologists always did) by claiming to “love film.” Also, like them, he has been wildly successful with his demonic marketing skills, making hits of movies ranging from “The Crying Game” to “Pulp Fiction,” from “Sling Blade” to “Life Is Beautiful.” He made his fortune as a pickup artist, buying finished films in both the international and domestic markets. And since his taste ran equally to the sensational and the sentimental, he turned Miramax into the most potent force in a niche that big American studios largely abandoned in their single-minded concentration on big-budget action films and gross-out comedies aimed at adolescents.

On the whole, Miramax’s releases cheapened the art market -- many of them are simply disguised feel-good movies -- but most people neither noticed nor cared. By the time Weinstein sold out to Disney and got something like $700 million a year to play with, his pictures had, at least, a patina of seriousness. They often grossed two, three or more times what worthwhile movies had previously taken in, and they crushed his competitors, who scrambled on the edge of bankruptcy with his leavings.

In Biskind’s book, Harvey Weinstein makes a great antagonist. The writer’s problem is finding a protagonist worthy of him. In this he fails. There are numberless candidates for the post, many of whom were at one time Miramaxers. And he records their whines and outrages, their occasional successes and their more frequent failures, with mind-numbing faithfulness. But none emerges as a fully fledged character of Weinsteinian proportions. They all sound, and act, pretty much alike, and as they pop in and out of this overlong story, the reader scrambles for the Cast of Characters list to identify them.

Meantime, Harvey has left the building. Miramax is only nominally in the acquisitions business these days. He’s now producing big, wildly expensive movies -- “Gangs of New York,” “Chicago,” the current “Cold Mountain,” among others -- from scratch. All of them are pegged to the same marketing strategy: Get a lot of Academy Award nominations, then win as many Oscars as possible. So far that’s worked out all right, though Biskind suggests that Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films division, producing genre titles like the “Scary Movie” and “Spy Kids” series, has lately been carrying the company. He also wonders whether behaving like a major studio is a good long-term strategy for a company that does not, in fact, have major studio assets to finance its increasingly stratospheric ego trips. One major failure can have a vertiginous effect on a company like Miramax.

That would cause no sorrow in the industry. “People have had their fill and don’t want to deal with him [Harvey] anymore,” says producer Scott Rudin, by repute not the nicest guy in town either. “They’re tired of being bullied and threatened, and tired of the vendettas and the punishing and the ugliness. People go to great pains here to make this look like a business, not a candy store. His shenanigans are not good for the public perception of the industry, not good for people whose businesses are publicly traded.” In short, the little company that once garnered some “us against them” sympathy is long gone; it is now the “them” that all the little “usses” despise.

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Still, one would not bet against Harvey’s manic energy or his capacity to reinvent himself. Nor, finally, would one want to bet against “Down and Dirty Pictures.” Messy, often boring, deeply repetitive, it’s jammed with irrelevant gossip about people no one outside the indie world could possibly care about. But like its only worthwhile subject, Harvey Weinstein himself, it has an omnivorous, unsatisfiable appetite for bad behavior, which will keep that handful of readers who care about inside showbiz gossip reluctantly, relentlessly turning its pages.


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