With the closing of its New York and Burbank offices today, Miramax Films, the pioneering distributor (and sometimes producer) of American independent film, has officially been laid to rest after 30 years in the business. Founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein—the famously pugnacious brothers who left the company in 2005 to launch another (now struggling) label, The Weinstein Company—Miramax proved single-handedly that arthouse movies could yield lucrative business if handled with savvy. (And, in the Weinsteins’ case, with a bit of muscle, too.) When the studio shepherded Steven Soderbergh’s Palme D’Or-winning sex, lies and videotape to runaway crossover success in 1989, it opened the commercial floodgates for independent filmmakers—and eventually, other distributors—to get in on the gold rush. Establishing long-term relationships with directors like Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Anthony Minghella, Miramax enjoyed an unparalleled hot streak in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, with films like My Left Foot, Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, The Crying Game, The Piano, Trainspotting, Swingers, The English Patient, and Shakespeare In Love.
When the Weinsteins brought Miramax under the Disney umbrella in 1993, it was a lucrative and highly influential move, but it also sowed the seeds for the end. Though the Weinsteins enjoyed many great successes under Disney—and had to the capital to buy some Oscars, as they did when Shakespeare In Love upended Saving Private Ryan—it was never that great a fit for a company that was fiercely protectively of its squeaky-clean image. (In fact, the Weinsteins had to create a new label just to release the controversial Kids in 1995.) The brothers were also given to excess and bloat, and when the high-priced failures started to outpace the winners, the rift between Miramax and its parent company only widened.
In the years since the Weinsteins departed, the Miramax name stayed with Disney, but its identity was gone and its fortunes didn’t take a turn for the better. There were some modest successes over the last few years (The Queen, Doubt, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly), but many more flops, including Eagle Vs. Shark, Smart People, Blindness, Adventureland, Cheri, Everybody’s Fine, and Extract. After slashing Miramax’s output to just three films a year in October 2009—and losing its president, Daniel Battsek, later that month—it was only a matter of time until Disney pull the plug altogether. The lingering question: With Miramax gone—and the likes of Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent kaput, too—how much longer will the studio “indie” model be viable at all? Will the market be pre-1989 all over again? And will that be better or worse for the art of independent filmmaking? Stay tuned…
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