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Weinstein Co. has a lot riding on Tarantino's campy WWII movie

If the Brad Pitt film 'Inglourious Basterds' is a hit, it could give Harvey and Bob Weinstein some much needed breathing room and quiet speculation that their production company is on the ropes.

August 15, 2009|Joe Flint

If Miramax was the house that Quentin Tarantino built, is Weinstein Co. the house that Tarantino will save?

That answer may become clearer next weekend when the director's 153-minute, campy World War II action movie "Inglourious Basterds," starring Brad Pitt, opens.

A lot more than the fate of the free world is riding on whether Tarantino's renegade soldiers succeed in their mission to kill Hitler. A hit could give Bob and Harvey Weinstein some much needed breathing room and perhaps quiet -- at least temporarily -- speculation that their production company is on the ropes.

Of course, the reason there is so much smoke around Weinstein Co., which the duo founded in 2005 after selling Miramax to Walt Disney Co., is because there's definitely a fire.

The company said as much in June, when it hired Miller Buckfire, a New York-based financial consulting firm that boasts on its website that it is "distinguished for its advisory work with overleveraged companies."

Further fueling concerns about the health of one of Hollywood's last independent studios is the constant shuffling and postponement of several of its movies over the last two years. Among the films that have had their release dates pushed are "All Good Things," "Youth in Revolt," "The Road," "Shanghai" and "Piranha 3-D."

"The Road," which is considered a potential Oscar contender and now set for release in October, probably will be moved -- again -- to December.

When it comes to handicapping the fate of the Weinsteins, the industry is divided into two camps: those who seem to want the mercurial brothers to fall on their faces, and those who see them as gutsy impresarios willing to make the kinds of arty and risky movie bets that big studios won't touch.

"They are great partners for people trying to make good movies," said Nick Wechsler, one of the producers of "The Road," which is based on the post-apocalyptic novel by Cormac McCarthy and stars Charlize Theron and Viggo Mortensen.

The problem is, making good movies became less of a priority for the Weinsteins over the last few years.

The Weinsteins raised $1.2 billion in equity and debt from investors -- including Goldman Sachs, advertising giant WPP, French broadcaster TF1 and Internet mogul Mark Cuban -- with a mission to assemble instantly a vertically integrated media empire.

Besides seeking to release up to 20 movies a year, the brothers invested in a cable network, social networking site, video distributor and even a fading fashion label.

But veering away from their bread and butter of making a handful of specialty films that Academy members loved to nominate -- almost as much as the Weinsteins loved to promote -- for Oscars, and the occasional horror flick, turned out to be a miscalculation.

Whereas the Weinsteins often had the Midas touch in picking movies and backing filmmakers, their knack at managing far-flung assets has been a little less deft.

The company also spent hundreds of millions buying up cheap action and horror movies that it hoped would become the foundation of a library that would provide a steady revenue stream over time.

Miller Buckfire has told Weinstein Co. to shed the diversions and get back to basics, according to a person familiar with the situation. The company plans to follow that advice, which means it will be stripping away all of its non-core businesses and focus solely on making movies, television shows and plays.

It appears to have little choice. And it's not clear how much any asset sales will yield. The priority now for Weinstein Co. is renegotiating the terms of $500 million in debt weighing down the company, which comes due in 2016.

Think of Weinstein 2.0 as more Bob and less Harvey. Of the two brothers, it is Harvey who has spearheaded Weinstein Co.'s ill-fated push beyond movies while Bob has tried to keep the focus to the big screen and little else.

Instead of trying to make 20 films a year and buying up another 50 to 60, Weinstein Co. will make a more manageable eight movies a year and, of those, half will be Dimension Films, a label of horror and family movies that Bob oversaw.

Already in the works is a revival of the "Scream" franchise and another "Spy Kids" sequel, both of which have proved to be cash cows in the past.

Weinstein Co. also will look to become more active in selling films it didn't make in the international marketplace and already has a deal in place with Paramount and Relativity to handle overseas distribution for "The Fighter," starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale.

Whether these moves will be too little, too late remains to be seen. A Weinstein Co. spokesman said the studio has "the resources it needs to support its full release slate" and that there is "no danger of having to file for bankruptcy."

The spokesman confirmed that "The Road" may be moved to December to better position it for an Oscar campaign and that the production company's other big Oscar bet, the musical "Nine," will still be released around Thanksgiving.

Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" has strong buzz, but traditionally his movies have limited appeal and tend to top out at $75 million or so in the U.S. Since the movie is a co-production with Universal Pictures, there is less risk for Weinstein Co. But there also is less reward as Universal has overseas rights and the U.S. home video market.

Next up is Rob Zombie's "Halloween II," which will face a big challenge as it is opening Aug. 28 against "The Final Destination," a heavily anticipated Warner Bros. horror movie. Hopefully the title won't serve as a coda for Weinstein Co.

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joe.flint@latimes.com

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