If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded an Oscar for most dramatic comeback, no one in tonight's audience would be surprised by the outcome.
The winner would be Miramax Film Corp., which has rebounded from a string of box office disappointments to become the industry's unchallenged leader in independent movie distribution, largely on the basis of a quirky British import called "The Crying Game."
New York-based Miramax is competing for 12 Academy Awards--more than any Hollywood studio except industry giant Warner Bros. Six of those nominations belong to "The Crying Game," which Miramax turned into a national sensation by incessantly playing up its secret plot twist. The company also is up for "Enchanted April" and "Passion Fish."
Brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, college dropouts from Queens, N.Y., who founded Miramax 14 years ago, are renowned in Hollywood for their tireless pursuit and promotion of low-cost, unconventional films, many of which might never be seen in U.S. theaters if not for Miramax.
But their aggressive and often ruthless behavior contrasts sharply with the classy films with which the Miramax name is associated. Even in the rough and tumble world of independent film distribution, the carelessly attired Weinsteins stand out. "The boys," as Harvey and Bob are commonly referred to--even though they are 41 and 38 respectively--have inspired comparisons to Hollywood's most legendary tyrants.
While fans in the industry ranging from Madonna to Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg report good experiences, others the Weinsteins have done business with accuse the brothers of reneging on agreements and shortchanging them on payments.
Unlike most distributors of art house films, they have been known to pressure directors to make changes after test screenings. Miramax's penchant for interference has given the elder brother the sobriquet of Harvey Scissorhands and has led to showdowns with such industry figures as director James Ivory and actor Liam Neeson.
As bosses, they are sometimes compared to one of Hollywood's most notorious bullies, Harry Cohn, who ran Columbia Pictures in the 1940s. Ex-Miramax employees say they labored excessively long hours under conditions of extreme tension marked by frequent screaming, yelling and tearful outbursts. One former secretary said she was fired every time her boss could not be located.
So bad was the atmosphere at Miramax, these former employees say, that many of them still gather to swap stories and lend moral support, calling themselves "Mir-Anon" in sardonic reference to the alcohol recovery program.
The Weinsteins insist they pay their bills and say they are involved in relatively few disputes, some stemming from filmmakers' misunderstanding of what constitutes a firm deal. While acknowledging that they can be tough, demanding and temperamental, the Weinsteins say their recent success has allowed them to loosen up and treat employees better. They attribute most of the complaints to disgruntled young workers who were not up to the job.
"Let's just face it. They weren't good enough to work at Miramax," Harvey Weinstein said, speaking in his office in a converted lower-Manhattan warehouse.
When it comes to business, one of the most heated disputes involves Kees Kasander. His Dutch production company, Allarts, contends it is owed at least $275,000 for 1990's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," which grossed more than $7 million in the United States. Allarts is also suing Miramax in British court over $675,000 it claims it is owed for the 1991 "Prospero's Books," a second film by director Peter Greenaway.
Saying they have yet to receive a claim from Kasander for "The Cook, the Thief," the Weinsteins maintain that he is not entitled to any more money, based on the film's box office revenues. Kasander said he has been delayed in making the claim because he only recently received an auditor's report. As for "Prospero's Books," the Weinsteins contend that Kasander delivered it late.
The brothers also have incurred the animosity of producers who say Miramax reneged on deals to distribute their movies, spoiling their chances elsewhere. Miramax got Randall Fried to make several changes in "Heaven Is a Playground," a 1991 movie about inner-city basketball, and held two marketing research screenings before deciding not to release the film.
Although New Line Corp. wound up releasing "Heaven" on a limited basis, Fried believes that by abandoning his film, Miramax harmed its prospects. "After that my film was considered 'damaged goods,' " he said.
Bob Weinstein said the deal never became final because about a dozen issues remained unresolved. "Negotiations and deals are two different things," he said.