PARK CITY, Utah — Where's Harvey?
Harvey Weinstein, the co-founder of Miramax, is not at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Instead, the man who is credited with brilliantly expanding--and at times ruthlessly manipulating--the world of independent film has been in a New York hospital for more than a week recovering, Miramax officials say, from a bacterial infection.
He may be absent, but he's on everyone's mind.
"Harvey is the most public face representing what's happened in the indie film business over the last 15 years, and he's the best acquisitions executive that ever lived," said Jonathan Dana, a producer and former acquisitions executive who has gone nose to nose with Weinstein. "I wouldn't call it a pall, but there's a definite sense of mortality that he's not here."
But there's also a sense of opportunity.
"It used to be when Secretariat ran, you knew who would come in first. You just wanted to know by how many lengths and who would come in second," said Clint Culpepper, executive vice president of acquisitions at Sony Screen Gems, whose company bought one of the big hits of the festival, a boxing movie called "Girlfight," for about $3 million.
"Now, first place is up for grabs. It's within our reach," he said, adding that Weinstein's absence "has leveled the playing field."
To grasp how the absence of one man could have such an impact, you have to understand the mystique that surrounds him. Even within the film industry, which tends to attract larger-than-life personalities, Harvey Weinstein is huge. His business acumen is legendary, his personal style, by turns abrasive and warm, is unique. Nicknamed "Harvey Scissorhands" for his penchant for cutting or reshooting films, he is also a born showman, the closest thing today's corporate, cautious Hollywood has to the decisive, hands-on moguls who founded the movie business.
"Harvey is the most important person in this world," said John Sloss, an entertainment lawyer who is selling several films at this year's festival. "He drives the market. And people at Miramax will always tell you, 'If he likes it, we'll pay more than anyone else.' "
What has people here rattled is not so much Weinstein's physical absence from Park City. After all, he was only in town for one day of last year's festival. But in 1999, he still called the shots, buying a comedy called "Happy, Texas" that nearly everyone else wanted. This year, his illness has made Miramax--which has a team of acquisitions executives here but has yet to buy a film--appear less aggressive. And it has prompted endless rumors about whether Miramax officials are telling the whole story about the seriousness and nature of Weinstein's ailment.
"It seems like the illness of a Soviet dictator," observed one rival studio executive who, like everyone else here, had heard the rampant speculation. "It's like the rumored death of Andropov or Yeltsin's flu. Everything gets mysterious, and suddenly you're hearing official symphonies rather than news broadcasts."
Director Kevin Smith, who is a juror in the dramatic competition this year, acknowledged the whispering campaign about Weinstein the other day at a press conference here about his new animated series, "Clerks," which will air on ABC.
When a journalist asked a question about the series, which is produced by Miramax Television and Touchstone Television, Smith feigned relief, saying, "I thought you were going to ask me what Harvey's condition really is."
Bob Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, said he too has heard the rumors.
"I've heard them all: cancer, heart attacks. Not true," he said. But he acknowledged that his brother Harvey's absence had affected the company. "It's like when your team leader is out of the game. Are you going to be the same? The answer is no. Harvey is Harvey, and it's a compliment to him that things can't run as well without him--though they run pretty damn well."
Particularly after the lackluster performance of "Happy, Texas," Bob Weinstein said, the company had come to Sundance determined not to buy unless the acquisitions team was bowled over. They weren't, he said, "so we didn't buy."
"The competition got a year off from Harvey," Bob Weinstein said. "And he will be returning next year."
Harvey Weinstein is not the only Sundance stalwart who is missing from Park City this year. Bingham Ray, the former president of October Films, isn't here. Neither is Lindsay Law, the former longtime head of Fox Searchlight, who left the studio recently to produce the stage version of "The Full Monty." Neither are a couple of senior acquisitions people from October and New Line Cinema who were well known and respected.