The Ode: Miramax Films

The legendary studio had its best years after founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein sold it to Disney. Too bad they didn't stick around to run it.

Miramax was born to sibling rock concert promoters Harvey and Bob Weinstein in 1979 in Buffalo, N.Y. Named for their parents Miriam and Max, the motion picture production and distribution company flourished as the brothers developed a knack for acquiring foreign films and reworking them to suit the sensibilities of American audiences.

Some say that if Hollywood ever begat an original idea, it would die from loneliness. Yet unique concepts thrived at Miramax. The Weinsteins were adept at launching low-budget vehicles to critical acclaim, establishing themselves with the 1989 release of Steven Soderbergh’s breakthrough sex, lies and videotape – a film credited with touching off the independent film boom of the following decade. Miramax went on to launch the careers of other noted directors, including Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. It aggressively courted accolades at the Academy Awards, successfully marrying them with its distribution strategies whenever possible.

The brothers sold their studio in mid-1993 for US$80 million to the world’s largest entertainment company, the Walt Disney Co. They stayed aboard, setting the stage both for Miramax’s golden age and, arguably,its eventual decline. Between 1992 and 2002, the studio garnered 13 best-film nominations at the Oscars. Commercial triumphs included Pulp Fiction (above), The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Good Will Hunting. The tail end of that productive period brought the fantastically lucrative Chicago, which earned more than $300 million at the box office.

In its best years, Miramax commanded more than 500 employees and an annual production budget of US$700 million (while also, admittedly, unleashing some unpopular efforts such as The Human Stain and Cold Mountain). The studio generally achieved commercial success, but the Weinsteins chafed under Disney’s ownership, arguing frequently over financial and creative control. By early 2005, the parties reached a “mutual agreement” to part ways. The brothers shuffled off to found the Weinstein Co., while Miramax was merged into Disney’s other studio operations.

Under the control of Disney veteran Daniel Battsek, Miramax continued to produce inexpensive but worthy titles like No Country For Old Men and The Queen for a while. But clever specialty films do not often deliver the box-office returns necessary to justify their high marketing costs. Meanwhile, stdios grappled with plunging DVD revenues as piracy and downloading cut into revenues.

In response to such forces, Disney shrank its film-productions arm to focus on family-oriented titles – concepts at little risk of dying from loneliness. It relocated much of Miramax’s operations from New York to Los Angeles, and slashed its production budget and output. “The reality is that film doesn’t matter nearly as much to the stocks of media conglomerates as it previously had,” wrote Barclays Capital analysts Anthony DiClemente and George Hawkey in a report earlier this year.

Last year, Disney embarked on a bloody restructuring resembling a low-budget slasher flick; Miramax lost most of its staff in October, and Battsek announced his departure at the end of that month. On Jan. 27, 2010, to the surprise of virtually no one, industry publication The Wrap reported Miramax’s demise. Its New York and Los Angeles studios would close, the publication reported, turfing 80 from their jobs. Media reports claimed Disney put Miramax’s catalogue and storied nameplate up for sale. Harvey Weinstein expressed interest in the latter. “There isn’t much in the world that would make our 83-year-old mother happier,” he said in a statement.