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."