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Company Town | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Miramax's 'Patient' Approach

March 21, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER

Executives at 20th Century Fox are kicking themselves.

The film they nearly financed, "The English Patient," is not only handicapped to win best picture and possibly more awards at Monday night's Oscar ceremonies, it's one of those unlikely sophisticated adult dramas that popped through to attract mainstream audiences.

Not that Fox was wrong in thinking that Anthony Minghella's sweeping romantic epic was financially risky at $30 million and more of a marketing challenge than it wanted to take on--given its complex narrative structure, difficult subject matter and lack of obvious commercial hook.

That, everyone in Hollywood would agree, was perfectly logical.

But it was just the sort of challenge Miramax Films, the maverick film marketer and distributor, relishes.

Even though the budget was way beyond its normal reach, Miramax--courtesy of its parent, Walt Disney Co.--came to the rescue of producer Saul Zaentz with $27.5 million in production funds.

Then the New York-based company did what it does best: It used its trademark marketing prowess to help turn an esoteric work of art into commerce.

Miramax can now relish the fact that the movie has grossed more than $60 million domestically and is on its way to being a worldwide hit.

Miramax co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein and Zaentz, who put $5.5 million of his own money into the $33-million movie, predict that "The English Patient" will collect well over $200 million in global revenues by the time all ancillary streams are realized.

"Our fondest wish was that everyone would get their deferments back," said Zaentz, referring not only to himself and Minghella, but to the eight or nine actors and others associated with the film who agreed to take only a percentage of their normal fees upfront. Zaentz, who is no stranger to producing successful films with difficult subjects, such as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus," said he deferred 100% of his salary and that Minghella deferred 75%.

Deferments can take years to be repaid and are doled out only if and when a film recoups all of its production and marketing costs.

But when Miramax knows it has a hit on its hands, it often pays deferments early on as a thank you to those willing to share the risk, as was the case with "Pulp Fiction," "The Crying Game," "The Piano" and "Scream."

Weinstein said that after seeing a rough cut of "The English Patient" in July, "we knew this was not going to be the easiest movie to market, to say the least. It was as tough as it gets."

Minghella's moving-screen adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel is an unhurried romantic wartime tale told in nonlinear form with extensive flashbacks. Its hero (played by Ralph Fiennes), who has a passionate liaison with a married woman (Kristin Scott Thomas), is burned beyond recognition in a plane crash and spends a good portion of the film in a bombed-out Tuscan monastery tended by a French Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche).

Not exactly high-concept.

For a film like "The English Patient" to break through, strong reviews and early positive word of mouth can mean the difference between life and death. In this case, it had both.

But when Miramax marketing executives first began screening the movie last year, the overriding response from critics and editors was that "The English Patient" was a great artistic achievement, but hardly something thought commercially viable enough to draw big crowds.

"I remember someone saying: ' . . . You have to make it commercially successful? Good luck!' " recalls Miramax Marketing President Mark Gill.

Capitalizing on the reviews and early buzz, Miramax set about making the movie a "must-see," combining its marketing savvy and studio-size marketing budget to get the film noticed.

"We wanted people to think they couldn't go to a party unless they saw this movie," Gill said.

Sources say Miramax spent practically as much marketing "The English Patient" as it did financing the production--between $27 million and $30 million, which included one of the year's most extensive and expensive Oscar campaigns.

Weinstein insists the figure is too high and that the prints and advertising expenditure is closer to $20 million and the Oscar campaign about $650,000. He admits that with the exception of "Pulp Fiction," it's "the highest amount" Miramax ever paid to sell a film.

Marcy Granata, Miramax's executive vice president of marketing and publicity, says the company's goal in marketing "The English Patient" was "to make this an event film--not like 'Independence Day' or 'Twister,' but an emotional event." She explained that the company wanted to avoid selling it "as a small, precious film," but rather as an epic movie "with big emotions, sweeping environments and a story of intrigue, romance and betrayal."

The original campaign, which focused on the romantic elements of the film and its visual beauty as an old-fashioned David Lean-like spectacle, primarily appealed to women.

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