Times Staff Writer

Peter Abrams, the producer of “Underclassman,” says his movie was caught in the “Weinstein-Disney buzz saw.” He’s hardly alone.

Over the next three months, Miramax Films, founded and operated by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, will release at least 10 movies, including seven films that have been gathering dust on the studio’s shelves for up to four years. The backlog is so profound that the directors of three of those films have started, filmed and almost completed new movies with other studios in the time it has taken Disney-owned Miramax to bring their earlier films to theaters.

“To have it be sitting there just kills you,” Abrams says of “Underclassman,” a drama about an undercover police officer played by “Drumline’s” Nick Cannon.

The release of several of the Miramax movies was held up partially by the very public divorce of the Weinsteins and Disney, which bought the studio in 1993. With the Weinsteins set to leave Disney and Miramax on Sept. 30, the brothers say they are determined before their exit to supervise the debuts of movies they produced and purchased.

“It’s about us overseeing the movies,” Bob Weinstein says. (More current Miramax movies that were in production when the Weinstein-Disney split commenced will be released by the brothers’ new company.)


Added Harvey in a statement: “Releasing these films prior to our departure gives us the ability to continue to support the filmmakers and the projects.”

In the rush to get their Miramax movies out, the Weinsteins have scheduled five films for release in one two-week span in September, often a slow month for movie ticket sales. And some Miramax movies scheduled for wide release in August will face steep competition from heavily marketed fare; “Underclassman,” for example, is set to open the same day as “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

The makers of “The Libertine” complained to the studio about the planned Sept. 16 release date for the Johnny Depp period drama, saying it was too early in the year for Academy Awards attention, according to three people familiar with the matter.

As for “Libertine’s” awards chances being hurt by its release date, Bob Weinstein says, “That theory has been disproved by others.” “Gladiator” and “Seabiscuit,” Bob Weinstein says, both received plenty of awards notice despite their respective May and July theatrical debuts.

Even though the company has cut its workforce in half, Bob Weinstein says Miramax has the experience, expertise and personnel to market and distribute every movie successfully. While he won’t single out any titles, he does admit some of the postponed movies may not be very good.

“Sometimes bad movies are put on the shelf,” he says.

That Miramax shelf is rarely bare. The studio took nearly four years before releasing 2001’s “Prozac Nation,” which debuted in March on television, not in theaters. And some Miramax films still remain unaccounted for, including 2002’s “Plots With a View,” starring Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina.

All the same, Miramax will try to do as well as it can with the recently scheduled releases and give every film full consideration no matter how long it has been around, Bob Weinstein says.

“In our experience, there are no rules,” he explains, adding that Miramax’s marketing and distribution divisions are fully staffed. The studio’s martial arts movie “Hero,” Weinstein notes, sat on the shelf for almost two years before its debut and nevertheless grossed more than $53 million. The initial results among the new batch of Miramax releases are not encouraging. The Weinsteins purchased the British documentary “Deep Blue” in December 2003. According to three former Miramax employees, the studio believed the underwater story could become the next “Winged Migration,” a hit documentary about birds that won an Oscar in 2003.

To improve its commercial prospects, the studio replaced the “Deep Blue” narration by Michael Gambon with a voice-over by Pierce Brosnan. Then Miramax dribbled the film into release. Last weekend, “Deep Blue” debuted in two theaters, grossing a measly $8,373.

Award winners affected

Harvey Weinstein’s personal best-picture Oscar win came via director John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” for which Weinstein served as a producer. Director Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat” brought Miramax a combined 12 Academy Award nominations and two trophies. And yet both Madden and Hallstrom find themselves -- and their movies -- caught in the Miramax release rush.

Madden’s “Proof,” an adaptation of David Auburn’s hit play, was filmed in late 2003 and stars Gwyneth Paltrow. The film was originally set for a Christmas 2004 release, but Miramax was running low on cash and slashing its staff, so decided to focus its year-end efforts on “The Aviator” and “Finding Neverland.”

At the same time that “Proof” and Hallstrom’s “An Unfinished Life” were nearing completion, the often volcanic relationship between Disney and Miramax turned into a full-scale eruption, highlighted by a public feud over Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which Disney prohibited Miramax from releasing.

“We would have liked to have come out last year,” says “Proof” producer John Hart. “But the biggest issue was the separation between Miramax and Disney.”

Now that the breakup has been resolved, Hart says, “Proof” is being well cared for. “The whole process seems to be moving, and the momentum seems to be there,” Hart says of the Sept. 16. release. In fact, Madden plans to make his next film, “Killshot,” for the Weinsteins’ new company.

“An Unfinished Life” has been on hold as long as “Proof” and also was once scheduled for release last Christmas. Starring Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez, “An Unfinished Life” is now set to open Sept. 9, about three months before Hallstrom’s next movie, Disney’s “Casanova,” is scheduled to come out.

The other long-in-the-works Miramax releases include John Dahl’s rescue drama “The Great Raid,” which filmed in 2002 (it’s due Aug. 12), and Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm,” which started filming in June 2003. It’s coming out Aug. 26.

“The Great Raid,” Bob Weinstein says, “is really good.” As for “The Brothers Grimm,” Miramax showed 20 minutes of footage at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Terry took a little bit longer to finish the movie,” Weinstein says. Gilliam made another movie, “Tideland,” after filming “The Brothers Grimm.”

But neither Hallstrom nor Madden nor Dahl nor Gilliam wins the prize for Miramax patience. That honor goes to Asif Kapadia, whose “The Warrior” was purchased by Miramax in September 2001. It is now set to open in limited release on July 15. “It’s taken a long time,” Kapadia says with a laugh.

Part of “The Warrior’s” delay resulted from a disagreement over whether the film, set in feudal India, should be released with its original subtitles (its few lines of dialogue are in Hindi) or dubbed into English. The film now will be released with subtitles.

“I hope people, especially the critics, will forget about the time it was made,” says “Warrior” producer Bertrand Faivre. “You can say very good things about the film, but when you say that it was made in [2001], it kills the movie right there.”

Kapadia is sanguine about the whole affair, hopeful the film’s story of war and pacifism is actually more relevant today than when he made it. “I’m really proud of it,” the director says. “It was a very tough film to make -- an epic journey. And it’s been an epic journey to get it released.”

Competing with himself

When director Marcos Siega is asked about his new movie, it’s understandable if he has to ask, which one?

Two films made by Siega will open within a week of each other later this summer: His police drama “Underclassman” debuts Aug. 5, while “Pretty Persuasion,” an uninhibited black comedy featuring Evan Rachel Wood, comes out Aug. 12.

The collision was once avoidable. Miramax commenced “Underclassman” production in late 2003 and originally considered launching it in the summer of 2004, then moved its release date to January 2005 before abandoning that date too.

“They just shut everything down,” producer Abrams says of Miramax. “We basically sat on the fence for a year. They were looking for an excuse not to release the movie.”

Fed up with all of Miramax’s delays, Siega decided to make “Pretty Persuasion” without a studio (the independently financed film was acquired at this year’s Sundance Film Festival by the Samuel Goldwyn Co.).

“There was no one left at Miramax for me to talk to,” Siega says. “We’d get on the phone and say, ‘Let’s talk to the marketing guy.’ But the marketing guy had left. It was very screwy. I made [“Pretty Persuasion”] because I was scared to death my movie was going to get shelved. I had no control.”

In fact, Miramax earlier this year held an acquisitions screening of Siega’s “Underclassman,” trying to sell the movie to another studio or find a financial partner. There were no takers. The studio also asked Revolution Studios, a producing partner on “An Unfinished Life,” if it would release the Hallstrom movie. Revolution declined.

Despite all the delays, Siega and his producer Abrams are hopeful Miramax will give “Underclassman” its full support, but remain unconvinced.

“I still don’t know when the trailer is going to come out,” Siega says. “And I have not received one phone call from Harvey.”