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When the independents took over

Author chronicles '90s movie scene in 'Down and Dirty Pictures'

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Weinstein
Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein (right) with "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson. Weinstein and Miramax helped change the way independent films were marketed, and had great success.

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(CNN) -- Love him or hate him, Harvey Weinstein is bigger than life.

In fact, he's so big, the Miramax Films co-founder and co-chairman often seems to embody the souls of studio moguls past.

As described in Peter Biskind's new book, "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film" (Simon & Schuster), one minute he's as thuggishly uncouth as former Columbia head Harry Cohn, screaming at subordinates and turning over tables; the next he's warm and we're-all-in-this-together friendly, such as MGM paterfamilias Louis B. Mayer. And he's always watching the bottom line, such as the Samuel Goldwyn who wondered what his writers were doing when he didn't hear them typing.

Indeed, as Biskind found when he decided to write about the independent-film boom of the 1990s in "Pictures," not only was Weinstein unavoidable, he overtook the book with scene-stealing chutzpah.

In every chapter -- sometimes on every page -- Weinstein is cutting a deal, cutting off competitors' legs, uttering cutting comments or simply cutting -- film, that is, a personality trait that earned Weinstein the unflattering sobriquet "Harvey Scissorhands."

But Biskind -- a former Premiere magazine editor and author of two other books on film, including "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" -- has no regrets about the book's larger focus, which includes the Sundance Film Festival, other independent studios and several notable filmmakers, including Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino.

"I did consider doing the whole book on Miramax and decided not to for several reasons," he said in an e-mail interview.

At the time he began in 1998 and 1999, he notes, "there was very little substantive reporting" on the company, and he was worried he wouldn't get the whole story -- or whether a story about one company would still be topical by the time the book was finished.

Moreover, "the story of the indies in the 1990s seemed bigger than Miramax. ... It seemed impossible to slight Sundance, and then at the time I thought there were filmmakers I might want to deal with who had nothing to do with Miramax."

Finding a vision

Certainly, the rise of independent film preceded Miramax's entry into the market.

Schlockmeisters American International Pictures made a mint outside the studio system in the '50s and '60s, and in the late '70s and '80s, independent films -- most playing art-house movie theaters in large cities and college towns -- were among filmdom's most groundbreaking work, focusing on character-oriented work while Hollywood churned out action-adventure cotton candy or pompous epics.

Biskind
Peter Biskind

It was the revolutionary aesthetic that inspired Robert Redford to create the Sundance Film Institute and its accompanying festival. The institute was invented to foster young filmmakers; the festival was a showplace for their wares as well as the work of other independents.

But the latter soon took over the former in importance. By the early '90s -- particularly after the 1989 success of Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape" and, more notably, the 1994 commotion of Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" -- it had become a gold rush of Hollywood types looking for the next big thing.

In the book, Biskind observes that the deal-making Sundance wasn't Redford's intention, but the inscrutable actor-director often hurt himself with his passive-aggressive management style.

"[Sundance] could have had much more impact than it has now if some of Redford's initiatives ... were better managed," Biskind says. "He's got the vision; he just seems to shoot himself in the foot when it comes to putting the vision into practice."

It was the Weinsteins, Harvey and his brother Bob, who saw that independent film could also be a big money-making business, particularly if it were marketed like Hollywood blockbusters.

Soderbergh's "sex" was the buzz film of its time; Tarantino's "Fiction," with its free-wheeling style, colorful dialogue and Hollywood-style box office, became the template for countless would-be artistes.

And both were carried by the Miramax banner.

Upbeat view of indies' future

Upbeat view of indies' future

But "Fiction" marks a turning point in "Pictures." Miramax saw it could make big money and, thanks to a buyout by Walt Disney Co., upped the budgets on its films. Meanwhile, other Hollywood studios started their own "independent" divisions, such as Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight, to emulate Miramax. Soon independent and studio filmmaking were practically one and the same.

In the last five years, Miramax, which still likes to see itself as "the little guy," has funded two best pictures ("Shakespeare in Love" and "Chicago") and at least two big-budgeted, old-fashioned Hollywood-style epics ("Gangs of New York" and "Cold Mountain").

As it's grown, so has the attention to Weinstein's behavior; some pundits postulated that "Cold Mountain's" lack of best picture or best actress nominations were slaps at Weinstein.

Though Biskind said writing about Weinstein's behavior got to be a "bore" ("Yet another explosion at a filmmaker -- what else is new?"), he stands up for the Miramax boss.

"He does have terrific taste ... and also a strong contrarian streak that pays off for him," he said. "He'll do things that no one else will -- kookie ideas like 'Four Rooms' and 'Smoke' and 'Full Frontal.'

"And he has guts," Biskind continued. "Most companies would have pulled the plug on 'Cold Mountain' after MGM pulled out, but he went ahead."

As for the fate of the independent film, Biskind said he is, on the whole, optimistic.

"The '90s bequeathed three things: the Miramax marketing model, the so-called 'indiewood' film [a studio/indie hybrid such as 'Lost in Translation'] and the infrastructure to support indies," he said. "Indies can now have careers; it's no longer a one-shot business."

The independent studios and divisions are thriving, he added -- and then there's computer technology, which continues to democratize filmmaking.

"[There's] the next generation coming up from the bottom, waving their DV [digital video] cameras, not to mention all the new distribution pipelines on the horizon," he said. "It's a very healthy time."


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