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'King's Speech' helps restore Weinsteins to film royalty

The low-budget British drama is Harvey and Bob Weinstein's first best picture winner since 2002. It also represents a big turnaround for their studio, which was on the verge of collapse not long ago.

March 01, 2011|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Harvey Weinstein arrives at the Academy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theatre with his wife, fashion designer Georgina Chapman.
Harvey Weinstein arrives at the Academy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theatre… (Kirj McCoy, Los Angeles…)

Harvey Weinstein vowed he would return to the glory days atop the independent film business, and Sunday night he delivered on that promise.

After Weinstein Co. nearly shut down last year, the New York studio's low-cost British drama "The King's Speech" took top honors at this year's Academy Awards, the first best picture victory for the movie impresario since 2002.

As when "Shakespeare in Love" defeated "Saving Private Ryan" in 1999, Weinstein's movie prevailed over an early favorite from a big Hollywood studio, in this case Sony Pictures' film about Facebook, "The Social Network."

Even more important for Weinstein's independent studio is how the historical drama has ridden a wave of awards buzz over the last three months to rake in $114.2 million in domestic ticket sales and more than $130 million overseas, where the studio shares distribution rights.

Weinstein Co., which co-financed the $15-million production, is expected to end up with a profit of $75 million to $100 million, based on current box office, home entertainment and television projections, a person familiar with the matter said.

That would be a windfall for a company that not too long ago was skating on thin ice.

Since Weinstein and his brother Bob were forced out of Miramax Films in 2005 and co-founded Weinstein Co., the studio lost money every year through 2009 because of a failed film slate and ill-fated ventures in social networking and fashion. The company refinanced its debt last summer, and Harvey Weinstein promised to use the financial lifeline to refocus on the type of low-budget dramas that were his bread and butter at Miramax.

"The great thing about the movie business is if you are smart and focused, things can turn around really fast," Harvey Weinstein said.

Weinstein's Miramax of the 1980s and 1990s was known for not only crafting successful Oscar campaigns but also for making big profits in the process. Like "The King's Speech," his last three best picture wins were also movies that drew beyond the limited specialty-film audience. The 1996 period drama "The English Patient" grossed $232 million worldwide, while 1998's "Shakespeare in Love" raked in $289 million and 2004's "Chicago" collected $307 million.

Weinstein is famous for taking creative risks with subject matter and casting choices that aren't obvious or would not necessarily appeal to more risk-averse Hollywood studios.

However, Weinstein didn't rely solely on the cast or the film's story about the relationship between a stuttering King George VI and his speech therapist to help turn "The King's Speech" into a runaway hit. Rather, he employed his legendary knack for crafting marketing and for distributing prestige movies to a broader audience.

After the film opened in a handful of theaters, Weinstein expanded "The King's Speech" to more screens timed to nominations and victories in such prominent awards races as the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. He ultimately unleashed a marketing budget that equaled what the major studios spend on their movies.

"The longer we were in the market, the softer the competition got and the more the word of mouth increased," Weinstein said of how his picture lasted in theaters against such fierce competitors as "Black Swan" and "True Grit."

It remains to be seen how much box-office momentum "The King's Speech" has left. It is already close to surpassing "Inglourious Basterds" as the biggest box-office hit for Weinstein Co., not accounting for ticket price inflation, and it could unseat some of the highest-grossing specialty films, such as "Juno" ($143.5 million) and "Slumdog Millionaire" ($141.3 million).

How it fares will depend partly on the studio's strategy of releasing a PG-13 version with two curse words edited out. Harvey Weinstein previously said that downgrading "The King's Speech" from its current R rating could draw more families. In Britain, where moviegoers older than 12 can see the picture without a parent, it has generated $60 million — more than such big hits as "Inception" and "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse."

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