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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Seriously, what about Harvey?

September 14, 2004|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | The Big Picture appears Tuesdays in Calendar. Comments can be sent to Patrick Goldstein at patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

Toronto — Even hundreds of miles away from Hollywood, in the midst of this year's bustling Toronto International Film Festival, which has become a strategic launching pad for dozens of Oscar-hopeful films, the subject of Harvey Weinstein is still the focus of intense cocktail chatter. Some ask in a furtive whisper, others with barely disguised glee, but the question is always the same: "What's up with Harvey?" There have been no north-of-the-border sightings of the Miramax chief. In fact, Miramax has had only the slimmest presence here, with only one major film, "Dear Frankie," being shown in the festival. Nor has Miramax been a player in any of the major film sales so far. When Harvey asked for a New York screening of one especially coveted film up for bid that would unspool in New York at the same time it first screened up here, the film's sellers turned him down. Back in the cloistered showbiz circles of Hollywood, Harvey's future is also under close scrutiny. The questions are always the same: Will Harvey stick it out at Miramax until Disney czar Michael Eisner, whose company has owned Miramax for the past decade, retires in 2006? Or if he leaves Miramax to start a new company, can Harvey possibly duplicate the success he's had over the past decade without the cushion of Disney's deep pockets and his brother Bob's cash-generating Dimension film division? In an industry that loves drama, nobody has supplied more three-ring Sturm und Drang than the swaggering Miramax chieftain. A foul-mouthed bully who knows more about long-ago Hollywood cult figures like Ben Hecht and Frank Borzage than most film scholars, Harvey is an impossible tangle of contradictions. He's made more great movies than most of today's studio chiefs combined while making enemies left and right, as with producer Saul Zaentz, who after doing business with Harvey on "The English Patient" described him as "a pushcart peddler who puts his thumb on the scale when the old woman is buying meat."

Eisner's departure date does nothing to defuse the tension, as Harvey's decision will be made in a matter of weeks. Harvey has loudly complained that Eisner's micromanagement has shut him out of all sorts of slam-dunk triumphs, including bankrolling "The Lord of the Rings" and investing in "The Producers," which Harvey then did with his own money, making a small fortune off the Broadway smash. For his part, Eisner has been equally infuriated by Harvey's lavish spending, pit bull competitiveness (Miramax is notorious for putting out its movies on Disney film release dates) and refusal to respect Eisner's authority, whether by starting Talk magazine (which folded after losing pots of money) without telling Eisner or making "Fahrenheit 9/11" against Eisner's wishes.

On the other hand, Disney acquired Miramax in 1993 for roughly $80 million, which could be one of the great steals of recent film history.

In recent weeks, the two sides have been having intense divorce talks that would allow Harvey to go off in quest of more Oscars with an independently financed company while brother Bob stays in the Disney fold running Dimension, which has generated the kind of teen-oriented franchise hits ("Scary Movie" and "Spy Kids") that Eisner likes to see on the Disney balance sheet. If negotiations are successful, Harvey's films still would be distributed through Miramax, allowing Harvey to stay in business with Bob, who would presumably look out for his brother's interests.

When I spoke to Harvey last week, he was playing it close to the vest, wary about making any on-the-record pronouncements about the negotiations. But it was clear he holds out hope of hammering out a deal that would allow him to stay at Miramax. As hard as it is to believe with a guy who has been known to conclude an argument by flicking a lighted cigarette at his adversary, sentiment plays a part: Harvey started Miramax from scratch, naming it after his parents. His mother, Miriam, is still alive, and clearly retains a formidable hold on his psyche. Harvey also could be betting that Eisner won't be at the Disney helm through 2006. Harvey's allies say his optimism is also rooted in a belief that as Disney's Sept. 30 fiscal year milepost approaches, Harvey is back in the driver's seat.

Even though Miramax has let go of a sizable chunk of its staff and has been off the radar this summer, its 12-month track record has been solid, with two "Kill Bill" Quentin Tarantino hits and a surprise success with the martial-arts drama "Hero." Disney's film unit, on the other hand, has been six feet under, deluged with a string of costly flops including "The Alamo" and "King Arthur." To add insult to injury, "Fahrenheit 9/11," which Eisner refused to distribute, has out-grossed every Disney release this year, even "The Village," its biggest hit.

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