Tom Fleming

Who Needs Hollywood?

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film


Bloomsbury 546pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

HARVEY WEINSTEIN WAS not entirely happy about this book being written; he even offered the author, Peter Biskind, a contract with Miramax Books to write something else. Biskind declined, thankfully, and, as one might expect, Weinstein’s antics as co-chairman of Miramax provide the most entertaining and informative parts of own and Dirty Pictures; it is worth reading the book for him alone.

In 1979, Harvey and Bobby Weinstein, two brothers from Queens, took their tiny film company down from Buffalo to New York City, Miramax – named after their parents, Miriam and Max – began by honing in on the stuff that no one else would touch: foreign-language films, usually with a pornographic element to attract audiences (Goodbye Emmanuelle, for instance) and concert films. The brothers had an eye for talent, a love of profit not entirely distinct from avarice, and outstanding negotiating acumen.

It was also in 1979 that Robert Redford set up the Sundance Institute (named after his character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Major studios at the time were enraptured with profit margins, and young film-makers had little or no chance of gaining a footing in an industry overly reliant on sequels and high-concept trash (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Rocky II, Hurricane and Meteor had all done good business that year). Redford’s idea was that the Institute would nurture new talent and become a haven for independent films: the Sundance Film Festival would be its annual showcase.

When sex, lies, and videotape emerged from Sundance in 1988, Harvey Weinstein loved what he saw and thought he could make it sell (especially with the word ‘sex’ in the title). He elbowed aside his competitors (paying one million dollars for the film, an unheard-of amount for an independent at that time), spent massive amounts on publicity, and subsequently reaped the rewards: sex, lies won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was the first independent film to reach a wide audience and make a substantial profit.

It was a pattern Harvey would repeat with varying success over the next five years: the aggressive acquisition and marketing of such daring films as The Crying Game, My Left Foot and The Cook, the Thief; His Wife & Her Lover gave him a reputation for being an underdog who was on the side of the film-makers – a reputation he encouraged. Disney bought Miramax in 1993, saving it from financial straits; the result – for a while – was a golden age for Miramax, with films such as Pulp Fiction, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love earning the money and respect the Weinstein’s sought.

Biskind is best when dealing with the gossip, the profit margins, and Harvey Weinstein. The only thing that seems to match Harvey’s success is his massive, and well-documented, unpleasantness (and the only thing to match his ability to nurture some film-makers is the ease with which he buries others); but he is always a compelling character. When he wanted to freeze producer Ed Zwick out of the opening titles of Shakespeare in Love, for instance (Zwick had actually put a lot into the film before Harvey touched it), his lawyers told him he couldn’t. So Harvey ensured that when ‘Bedford Falls’, the name of Zwick’s production company, appears on screen, Geoffrey Rush’s character (wandering around London in the opening sequence, looking for Shakespeare) steps in a pile of horse shit

For Biskind, ‘the 1980s was the great primordial swamp out of which the indies crawled’, and Quentin Tarantino, another irresistible character, led the way. Nourished by the access video gave him to thousands of forgettable B-movies and Tony Scott films (about which he could talk for hours to anyone who was there), he became the video-store auteur and a man for his time. Pulp Fiction (1994) was, and still is, his finest film, and Harvey Weinstein would sometimes refer to Miramax as ‘the house that Quentin built’. (Short shrift, incidentally, is given here to The Blair Witch Project and the impact digital technology has had on independent film.)

The passages of the book which deal with Sundance are less appealing; Redford refused to cooperate with Biskind, who (like others, it seems) is not too fond of the man anyway, and, since the author does not go into the artistic side of the Sundance process, the politics of the Institute can seem a little dry. The film festival is more commercial now than puritans would like, but Redford deserves credit for the good he has done, even if, as Biskind suggests, much of it was cynically motivated. Credit should also go to Bingham Ray (co-founder of October Films, which produced Breaking the Waves and Secrets G Lies), who stands out throughout the book as a man of integrity, someone genuinely interested in art rather than money.

Peter Biskind’s prose grates when he employs sub- Tarantino fast talk (of John Schmidt’s move to October Films he says, ‘He came with no baggage. He was like Switzerland’); and, although the author frequently takes Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ to task for cutting down films to suit commercial ends, his own book could, in fact, have been shortened without sacrificing its integrity. But his research is staggering (and fair to all parties), and as an insight into the business of American film over the last twenty years, and a peek into the fascinating world of Miramax, Down and Dirty Pictures is superb.

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