STARBURST MEMORIES: Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind (2004)

“We don’t want to grow up and be another Walt Disney.”

– Bob Weinstein, 1989


In the April 2013 edition of Sight and Sound, Mark Cousins extends a metaphor of a bell-jar used by John Sayles to describe the limited boundaries of cinema and the inherent restrictions caused by the market distributing ‘known’ quantities rather than taking risks on films from different corners of the world. Sayles imagines that the bell-jar is the repertoire of films available to us as an audience. There’s a point in the life of a film-lover that you crave for something out of the ordinary, outside of the normal sphere of availability. There is a perception that a whole raft of material is being produced, all over the world, that is just not been seen. Cousins suggests that the bell jar is filled with irresistible sweets that we can’t help but keep returning to and they are preventing us as an audience from challenging the constraints of the bell jar.

One of the conditions of film as an art form is its commercial imperative and the best chronicler of the cut and thrust of the business of show business must be Peter Biskind. His EASY RIDERS AND RAGING BULLS (1998) is the seminal chronicle of New Hollywood and the sniping between the back-biting, emergent auteurs. DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES is the same format as this earlier master-work; a patchwork quilt of gossip, interviews and clippings that are cleverly sewn together into a visceral, no-holds-barred narrative that really brings the story alive. The emergence of independent American cinema in the 1990s is a key moment in post-Star Wars cinema history because it was more than a factor of an industry; it became a sensibility, an aesthetic in its own right.

Biskind paints a caricature of the state of the art at the end of cash-rich period of the 1980s. There was a return to vertical integration of the industry, much the same as in the 1930s, where the studios owned the production, distribution and the exhibition of cinema. Unlike the 1930s, the output from Hollywood studios was low volume, pitched at a narrow demographic film-goer who liked to see films at the multiplex and eat pop corn. A risk aversion pervaded in this time of marquee names and the high concept, high budget spectaculars of Don Simpson etc.

From this emerged a desire for something different. In the mid-1980s Robert Redford began the Sundance Film Festival, on the back of The Sundance Institute. This was a side-project for Redford who was looking to maximise the investment in a fading ski-resort. He also had a more altruistic desire to discover talent and protect it from the harsh realities of the market place so it could develop their skills and discover their voices. Throughout the time of Sundance there was talk of expansion into film exhibition in bohemian areas like Portland Oregon.

The story begins with SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989) that got a ‘green light’ due to its salacious title and the promise of extended life in the growing home-video market. Steven Soderberg’s personal film of amoral obsession became emblematic of the age and hit a nerve with Generation-X audiences. It was the start of a boom in American Independent cinema; which would end, according to Biskind, at the beginning of the new Millennium when the Independents came to dominate the mainstream with oscar wins for films such as CRASH (2004).

The assimilation of Independent film into the mainstream would not have been possible without the effort of MIRAMAX, who were tremendously influential in reshaping the industry and its mode of distribution. Harvey Weinstein’s voice really booms from the pages of this book as he bullies, cajoles, squeezes the deals with the biggest stars to the minnows swimming in the Sundance pool. In partnership with this brother Bob, they brought the hard-nosed approach of rock music to the film industry to drive the best deals and elevate some of the best-known stars of the new independent cinema. They began as a strict acquisitions business, scouting out films in production or trapped in development hell where they would plant ‘seed money’. In exchange for their commitment to finance and passionately market the film, they would attach strings to the contract so that the film-maker didn’t have the last cut. Throughout the industry he became known as Harvey ‘Scissor-hands’ due to his ability to cut and recut a film to extend its reach, while Bob was the hard-nosed business brain with an eye on the bottom line.

MIRAMAX realised that there was profit potential in purchasing many small films at a good price, marketing them aggressively and ensuring that most of the people involved in the film ‘deferred’ their fee until the film made a profit. They had some early success with foreign language films (CINEMA PARADISO (1988), for example), but it was THE CRYING GAME (1992) that really brought them huge profits. Walt Disney acquired them shortly afterwards and that’s when things in American cinema began to get interesting again. Shortly after the take over, the Weinsteins threw their weight behind Kevin Smith’s CLERKS as a kind of emblematic statement; we haven’t changed, we’re still here for the little guy, even if that little guy would become huge, as in the case with Tarrantino who was nurtured at the Sundance academy, but bank rolled by Harvey and Bob.

Their belief in Tarrantino came good with PULP FICTION (1994). RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) did well in the UK, but was less well received in the US, but the 8 million budget for PULP FICTION was converted into 200 million in the US box office alone. MIRAMAX became the ‘House that Quentin Built’ and he would become the only film maker on their payroll who remains woefully immune to the scissor-hands treatment.

The latter half of the book explores the normalisation of independents into the mainstream. I am not sure whether the narrative of rise and fall is completely accurate, but there is plenty of evidence that the model adopted by MIRAMAX became the norm for studios who still have their ‘independent’ divisions (Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage and Universal’s Focus Pictures).

At this point there was a division of labour between the Weinsteins: Harvey developed the MIRAMAX brand in the aggressive trophy hunt of Academy Awards, while Bob headed up Dimension who had a windfall thanks to SCREAM (1996) and its parody of parody SCARY MOVIE (2000), which proves that pop will eat itself.

There’s a prolonged piece on GOODWILL HUNTING (1997) telling the story of the ruthless dedication that Affleck and Damon gave to ensuring that the film was produced on their terms. It is admirable that they were relentless in their desire to maintain the integrity of the project despite the powers attempting to tear them apart. The shower of awards gave Harvey an appetite for more, and in exchange for their autonomy, Affleck and Damon were tied into making future films for the company. By this time, MIRAMAX was moving way distribution towards production and were indistinguishable from the major studios. Their earlier model of high-volume output, low production costs and heavy marketing was turning on its head as actors such as Affleck resisted the idea of minimum fees plus deferment. However, Harvey attracted loyalty because of his ability to get Academy Award recognition, which is presumably why Martin Scorsese was attracted to working with him on the troubled GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) despite the warnings from his fellow film-makers:

“I told Marty, to make Gangs of New York, “You really sold your soul to the devil on this one. The devil himself. Satan! Lucifer!”

Due to a combination of bad casting and narrative incoherence and Daniel Day Lewis stealing every scene the film was a financial-flop and did not get Scorsese his coveted Best Director Oscar, to his palpable disappointment. He lost out to Roman Polanski and the film lost to another MIRAMAX film CHICAGO (2002).

It is a fascinating story and told with such electric verve by Biskind who cranks up the gossip and the manipulation that it is possible to lose sight of the achievements of the Weinsteins. It is striking when considering post-Star Wars cinema how they are responsible for extending the bell-jar for audiences. Without them, would world cinema have found audiences beyond the parochial crowds? Would there have been the growth of interesting, grown-up films? Despite the sordid business of the business, its how films get distributed that ensures that there is variety and difference in cinemas. Biskind gives the final word to Bigham Ray, the founder of October films, who shared Harvey’s passion and ruthlessness:

“I bring out the best and the worse in some of these people…I still believe that there are decisions that you make that aren’t motivated by financial gain. The independent world is not like the Hollywood world. The motives are different, the goals are different, people are not necessarily trying to get rich and powerful, they are trying to push the art first while thinking that everything else will take care of itself… And I will always believe that.”

6 responses to “STARBURST MEMORIES: Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind (2004)

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