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The Envelope: Behind the Screens

Imagine Oscar hype minus its master

November 14, 2005|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Get ready for Harvey Lite.

For nearly 20 years now, Harvey Weinstein has cast his formidable shadow over pretty much every Oscar season.

As a scrappy underdog in his pre-Walt Disney Co. days, Weinstein mastered the art of getting publicity for his Miramax films by trumpeting critical adulation ("My Left Foot") or exploiting unconventional plots ("The Crying Game").

Later, after Disney acquired Miramax and made its deep pockets available to him, Weinstein turned Oscar campaigning into the equivalent of the U.S.-Soviet arms race.

He never hesitated to up the ante and spend whatever it took to get his films, actors and directors the nominations he believed they deserved, even besting Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" with "Shakespeare in Love" for best picture.

This coming awards season you'll hear the cliched "never count him out," along with analogies that he's something of a lurking predator (cue theme from "Jaws"), circling the gold statuettes, waiting for everyone else to turn their backs.

But unless he's the butt of a monologue joke by the Oscar host (your name here), the ballot-counters at PricewaterhouseCoopers probably will have a bigger presence.

For starters, Weinstein doesn't have his usual portfolio of films to make much of a run.

Even before he officially kissed Disney and Miramax goodbye at the end of September, it hadn't been a stellar year for Weinstein. In recent weeks such forgettable films as "The Great Raid" and "The Brothers Grimm" were dusted off, released, and then quickly disappeared.

His first post-Miramax release, "Derailed," with Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen, premiered Friday, falling flat with critics.

There's always a possibility some films carrying his stamp could pull in some acting nominations: Judi Dench for "Mrs. Henderson Presents," Johnny Depp in "The Libertine" or Gwyneth Paltrow for "Proof."

But his biggest awards successes have come when he could ride a bigger movie, such as "The English Patient," "Shakespeare in Love," "Chicago" "Gangs of New York," "Cold Mountain" and "The Aviator."

This year, he has nothing remotely close to any of those.

Weinstein also lacks Disney's checkbook. With the settlement he and his brother, Bob, got in leaving, they can easily afford the few million dollars an Oscar campaign costs.

But spending somebody else's money is a lot more fun than spending your own. It's possible Disney could foot the bill if it believes one of the films is a serious contender. But don't count on any enthusiastic spending spree.

On the subject of money, Weinstein and his brother also just raised a lot of dough from private equity folks and other investors to fund their new Weinstein Co. Among those sinking money into the firm are hedge funds Perry Capital and GLG Partners.

As a general rule, the people who run hedge funds are pretty demanding types who don't make the kind of returns they do by allowing loose purse strings.

They prize fiscal discipline and don't like to see anyone they are betting on throw good money after bad, even if it's relative chump change. Appearance means something, and you don't want the people who just sank $490 million into your venture to start having even an inkling of buyer's remorse.

The bigger question is: What's Weinstein's incentive this year?

After having spent nine months of the year (at least on paper) in the Disney fold, pretty much any awards glory would feel as if it was being shared with a company he loathed being owned by.

Granted, a lot of his problems were with the departed Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner and former strategic planning guru Peter Murphy.

But you'd think he would rather wait until he has a good shot at an armful of awards earned by a homegrown Weinstein Co. film. You can already picture him crowing about the triumph of passion for film and art over the kind of oppressive bean counting he endured at Disney.

Now, a caveat. Weinstein has used Oscar campaigns, as all studios do, to stroke stars, directors and producers, viewing the practice as an investment in future relations. So expect ads touting Depp in "The Libertine."

But there's a misguided feeling in Hollywood that Weinstein is so addicted to Oscar glory he won't be able to help himself.

He's too smart for that. So figure he'll stay on the sidelines, no doubt emerging again in full force maybe even as early as next year.

Proving again that you can never count him out.

James Bates is deputy entertainment editor at the Los Angeles Times. He writes Behind the Screens as a regular column for the Envelope (theenvelope.latimes.com), a Times website devoted to Hollywood's awards season. Send your ideas, comments, criticisms and tips to james.bates@latimes.com.

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