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Disney to slash Miramax Films staff to 20, reduce releases to 3 a year

October 03, 2009|Claudia Eller

Walt Disney Co., looking to rein in costs at its Hollywood studio as it focuses on mainstream movies, is slashing staff by 70% at its Miramax Films specialty label and is substantially reducing the number of pictures it releases.

The retrenchment, which has been foreshadowed in Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger's strategy to emphasize family and "branded" films, comes quickly on the heels of the recent ouster of former Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook. The former movie chief left abruptly last month under pressure from Iger, who had been unhappy with the studio's direction and performance.

Under the plan disclosed after Disney's board meeting Friday, Miramax is being forced to eliminate 50 of the division's 70 jobs and cut in half the number of films it releases to just three a year. The label's marketing, distribution and administrative functions, which had operated independently, will be folded into the parent studio in Burbank. The move becomes effective in January.

Daniel Battsek, president of Miramax, will continue to oversee the label, but with a drastically reduced staff: The New York-based company, which at its peak four years ago had more than 500 workers and was once the premier distributor of independent films, will now have about 20 employees.

"This restructuring maximizes operating efficiencies and provides significant cost savings while allowing Miramax to focus on its greatest strength: the creation of high-quality entertainment," Walt Disney Studios President Alan Bergman said in a statement.

Miramax's downsizing comes at a time when Disney is adopting a more conservative approach to the risky movie business, limiting its releases each year to about a dozen, including films from its Pixar Animation unit, from a new distribution deal with DreamWorks SKG and from its pending acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Inc. At an investor conference last month, Disney Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs said the company wasn't likely to expand the number of films it releases.

Disney is the latest big media company to scale back or abandon the specialty-film business, which has undergone a severe contraction after too many independent movies flooded the market that didn't sell enough tickets to justify their high marketing costs. The shrinking number of so-called art-house films, which garner critical acclaim and Oscars but rarely produce the kind of returns that studios' corporate owners demand, is dramatically limiting opportunities for independent releases targeting adult audiences.

Miramax has had more than its share of recent box-office disappointments, including "Extract," starring Jason Bateman; "Cheri," by director Stephen Frears; and "The Boys Are Back," its current limited release.

This is the second time in the last four years that Miramax has been severely downsized.

In 2005, after founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein had a bitter split with Disney, the unit's staff was slashed to 80, its annual production and marketing allotment was cut to $250 million from $750 million, and movie budgets were capped at $20 million.

Some, however, are relieved that Disney isn't entirely turning its back on smaller offbeat movies, as have other studios. Producer Scott Rudin, Miramax's biggest supplier with such films as 2007's Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men" and "Doubt," said: "Given the environment we're all operating in, it's commendable that Disney didn't shut Miramax down like so many others."

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

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