Miramax Film Corporation - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Miramax Film Corporation

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History of Miramax Film Corporation

Miramax Film Corporation is one of the top independent motion picture studios in the world, with a long list of hits that includes sex, lies, and videotape, Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, Shakespeare In Love, and Chicago. The company also operates Dimension Films to release genre pictures such as Scary Movie and Scream, as well as family fare such as the Spy Kids series. Other divisions include Miramax Television, which produces such programs as Project Greenlight, and Talk Miramax Books. Purchased in 1993 by the Walt Disney Company, the firm is run by founders and co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein.


Miramax was founded in 1979 by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the sons of a New York City diamond cutter. Harvey, born in 1952, and Bob, born in 1954, became fans of foreign films in their teens after seeing Francois Truffaut's French New Wave classic The 400 Blows, and for Harvey in particular the experience stirred a lifelong passion for the uncompromising movies of independent filmmakers who worked outside the Hollywood system.

After graduating from high school in 1969, Harvey entered the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he and a friend, Corky Burger, formed Harvey & Corky Presents, a rock concert promotion firm. In 1973, he dropped out of school to focus on the business, and not long afterwards he and his brother Bob took over the run-down Century theater in Buffalo, where they presented concerts by the likes of The Grateful Dead and showed triple bills of offbeat movies.

In 1979, Harvey sold his stake in the concert business, and he and Bob moved back to New York City with plans to start a movie distribution company. Taking the names of their mother, Miriam, and late father, Max, they christened the new endeavor Miramax Films. The company started out by releasing low-budget titles that played at fringe theaters in big cities or at drive-ins but not in mainstream movie houses. The Weinsteins would typically pay a fee to get exclusive U.S. distribution rights for a foreign-produced title, then would do what they could to promote it and get it into theaters. Miramax took a percentage of the gross ticket sales, with the copyright owners later receiving royalties after the firm's expenses had been met. Early releases included Goodbye, Emmanuelle, a French pornographic movie, British concert documentaries featuring Paul McCartney and the rock band Genesis, and a cheaply made horror film, The Burning, which Harvey produced and Bob co-scripted.

During the first several years, the Weinsteins lived mostly hand-to-mouth, operating the business out of Harvey's Broadway apartment, but 1982 saw Miramax have its first hit with a film called The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. Based on more than four hours of Amnesty International benefit concert footage, which they had purchased for $180,000, it included performances by Sting, Phil Collins, and the Monty Python troupe. To promote it, a TV ad campaign was concocted that featured Monty Python's Graham Chapman in women's underwear, decrying the film's "lewd, lascivious" content. When one station refused to air it, primarily because of an American flag in the background, the Weinsteins capitalized on the "banned" ad to stir up a healthy dose of publicity for the film, and it went on to gross $6 million in the United States. Though not much by Hollywood standards, this was tremendous business for a film that generally played at "midnight movie" screenings or on college campuses, and the brothers earned a tidy profit.

Over the next several years, Miramax began to shift its focus to the art-film category with more sophisticated releases such as the Brazilian import Erendira. In 1984, the Weinsteins returned to production, co-writing and co-directing Playing For Keeps, a teen comedy with a mostly unknown cast. Its production was fraught with difficulties, and it made little impact when released two years later, losing the brothers and their outside backers a considerable sum.

Breakthrough in 1988-89

Miramax's fortunes improved again in 1988 when the company released the Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line. The film, which helped free a man wrongly convicted of murder in Texas, proved a major success on the art-film circuit. The following March the company celebrated an important milestone when its release Pelle the Conqueror won the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the Academy Awards. Taking advantage of their firm's higher visibility, the Weinsteins sold a $3.5 million stake in Miramax to British bank Midland Montague and also secured a $10 million loan from Chase Manhattan. The money was quickly put to use to buy distribution rights to three new films, a British drama called My Left Foot, a sentimental Italian film called Cinema Paradisio, and the Sundance Film Festival hit sex, lies and videotape. All three did well, with sex, lies proving the company's biggest success to date, grossing $25 million and playing dates in both art-house and general-audience multiplex theaters.

Miramax was now again involved with an original production, this time in partnership with British firm Palace Pictures. The film, Scandal, was rated X by the Motion Picture Association of America's Classification and Rating Administration, but after cuts this was lowered to an R rating. Subsequent releases The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! were also rated X, but were released unrated to strong art-house business. For the latter title, Miramax had appealed the X rating and then sued the movie ratings board, after which the case went all the way to New York's Supreme Court, where the company lost. The controversy helped sell tickets, and Harvey Weinstein reportedly joked that he considered his legal bills to be advertising costs.

Driven by the company's new growth, a satellite office was opened in Los Angeles in 1989, and in early 1990 Miramax's headquarters were moved to Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Film Center in the south end of Manhattan. The firm now had 50 employees. During 1991, Miramax put more films in theaters than any major studio, nearly 40, though few reached the multiplexes. The year's biggest title was the Madonna documentary Truth or Dare, which took in $15 million, and revenues hit $74 million, with profits of $4.35 million.

In early 1992, Miramax launched international sales and home video units, with a new theatrical film division called Dimension Films formed in the summer. It would be run by Bob Weinstein, whose taste ran more toward horror and science fiction films than the imports and independents favored by Harvey.

At this time, Miramax was experiencing an extended dry spell at the box office, and reports began to surface that the company was missing payments to filmmakers, at least one of whom took their case to court. Strapped for cash, the Weinsteins made preparations for a public stock offering, but then called it off at the last minute. Miramax was now the subject of a small wave of negative media coverage, some of which centered on the Weinstein brothers' reputations for uncontrolled outbursts of temper. Other stories focused on Harvey Weinstein's propensity for cutting films to appeal to American audiences, which had earned him the nickname "Harvey Scissorhands" among some filmmakers.

Rumored to be approaching bankruptcy, the firm's luck turned around with a film that most of its competitors had passed on. The Crying Game, about a British soldier kidnapped by the IRA in Northern Ireland, was sold with an advertising tagline as old as the hills--"don't reveal the ending." Miramax had spent just $4 million for the American rights, but the film went on to take in $63 million at the box office. In early 1993, it was nominated for 6 Oscars out of a total of 12 for the studio--more nominations than any other company except giant Warner Brothers--and won two. The company had for some time been aggressively courting Oscar nominations with such methods as sending "screener" videotapes to all eligible Motion Picture Academy voters.

Sale to Walt Disney in 1993

With the difficulties of the previous year still fresh in their minds, the Weinsteins continued to look for the greater stability that outside funding would bring. After sitting down for talks with Paramount, they surprised industry observers by selling Miramax to the Walt Disney Company in 1993 for a figure estimated at $60 million plus assumption of the company's debt. The brothers would continue to have almost full autonomy, as well as receiving a share of the firm's profits. Though many felt that the family-oriented Disney would not be supportive of the Weinsteins' brand of film fare, the brothers were apparently comfortable with top brass Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Disney itself had already formed the adult imprints Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures. After the sale, the firm would continue to be based in New York, and its films would be distributed by Disney's powerful Buena Vista subsidiary.

With Disney's backing, Miramax went on a buying spree, purchasing a larger number of films than it had ever done before, though not all would see release to theaters. The company also signed production deals with several leading actors and directors and soon struck box office paydirt with an $8 million title that had been shelved by Columbia Tri-Star. Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, which featured stars-in-decline John Travolta and Bruce Willis, along with relative unknowns Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, became one of the "must-see" titles of the year and grossed $108 million, the highest ever for an independent film. At the same time, Dimension was finding success with The Crow, a modestly budgeted martial arts film that grossed more than $51 million. Miramax had also recently formed book and record divisions and released its first Woody Allen title, Bullets Over Broadway.

In 1995, the company found itself in the midst of controversy with Priest, the story of a gay member of the Catholic clergy, as well as the NC-17 rated Kids, about sexually active, drug-abusing teenagers. When Disney balked at releasing the latter, the Weinsteins bought back the $3.5 million film and released it unrated via a separate company they had formed. Box office gross for the year hit $185 million, with successful titles including Muriel's Wedding, Smoke, and the sentimental Italian import Il Postino (The Postman).

Although the Kids controversy had caused a rift between the Weinsteins and parent Disney, in May of 1996 the brothers signed a new, enhanced seven-year agreement to stay on at Miramax. The deal gave them significant profit incentives, and Disney pledged to invest heavily in the Dimension operation. In 1996, the company released 37 films, with its biggest successes including Dimension's Scream, which raked in a division record $100 million and later spawned several sequels, and The English Patient, which won Miramax its first Best Picture Academy Award in the spring of 1997, along with eight additional Oscars. The year 1996 had also seen the successful releases of Trainspotting and Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, among others.

In May 1997, Miramax bought the rights to make sequels to the Total Recall and Rambo films for $3.6 million from bankrupt studio Carolco Pictures. The company was taking on more and more of the attributes of a major studio and released two $30 million movies during the year, Cop Land with Sylvester Stallone and Mimic, a Dimension horror entry. The firm was now producing approximately a third of its releases, up from just 10 percent when Disney first acquired it.

Talk Media Formed in 1998

The year 1998 saw the company unveil a new venture called Miramax/Talk Media. It would be headed by former New Yorker Magazine editor Tina Brown, who would coordinate a variety of film, television, and book projects and publish a monthly magazine called Talk in conjunction with Hearst Magazines. The company was now riding a wave of film hits, including the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck vehicle Good Will Hunting, which took in $138 million, Robert Begnini's Holocaust "comedy" Life Is Beautiful, and the $24 million Shakespeare In Love, co-financed with Universal, which grossed $100 million and won the Best Picture Oscar. The firm released 42 films for the year, including Dimension's Halloween: H20, which was the unit's first-ever summer hit. By now, Miramax's staff had grown to 300.

In the fall of 1999, Tina Brown's Talk magazine debuted. It was not an instant success, and after the first few issues several top editors left and changes were made to its layout. The company's recently formed television division was also having troubles, with its debut program, Wasteland, cancelled after three episodes. Meanwhile, the Dimension unit, which was now pulling in 40 percent of Miramax's box office take, was expanded to encompass family-oriented titles. Also in 1999, Miramax entered the live theater business, co-producing Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing on Broadway. Estimated profits, reflecting the absence of a big hit, dropped by half from a year earlier to $67 million.

In May 2000, the Weinstein brothers signed a new seven-year contract extension with Disney, which reportedly boosted the budget level at which they could "greenlight" films, while guaranteeing them a percentage of the profits from Miramax's film library. They were now making more co-production deals with outside studios, including Columbia, Universal, and MGM. In the summer of 2000, Dimension scored its biggest success to date with Scary Movie, which did $157 million at the box office, while Miramax hit with the romantic Chocolat to the tune of $71 million.

During 2001, Miramax had success with titles like Bridget Jones' Diary, The Others, and French import The Closet, but almost two-thirds of the firm's profits came from Dimension, via hits like Scary Movie 2 and Spy Kids. The company was also having success with its direct-to-video releases, which equaled in number those put into theaters. Titles like The Crow: Salvation and Mimic 2 were among the top five films in the category in 2001, with combined revenues of more than $9 million.

In January 2002, with advertising sales in decline following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Miramax and Hearst suspended publication of Tina Brown's Talk magazine after reportedly losing upwards of $27 million. The company later bought out her contract for an estimated $1 million. Though the firm was having art-house success with the drama In The Bedroom, the $35 million Shipping News got poor reviews and bombed, and in March the company announced it was laying off 75 of its workforce of 500.

December 2002 saw the release of several major titles, including Martin Scorsese's epic Gangs of New York and a star-studded film adaptation of Broadway musical hit Chicago. Gangs, which Miramax claimed had cost just under $100 million and others estimated at $120 million, had been long in coming, with its scheduled December 2001 opening postponed first seven months, then twelve. Its cast included teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, and when Steven Spielberg's upbeat Catch Me If You Can, in which DiCaprio also starred, came out a week later, it effectively stole the long, violent Gangs' thunder. The Scorsese film went on to gross just $77 million at the U.S. box office, but its failure was tempered by the overwhelming success of Chicago, which took in $170 million domestically and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

In 2003, Dimension hit with Spy Kids 3-D, which grossed more than $111 million, while Miramax's Kill Bill Volume 1 sold $69 million worth of tickets. The latter, Quentin Tarantino's fourth film for the company, had been cut into two parts at Harvey Weinstein's insistence. At year's end, the $80 million Civil War epic Cold Mountain proved a relative disappointment with a gross of $95 million.

Early 2004 saw Miramax without a Best Picture Oscar contender for the first time in several years, though its 15 nominations were still the most of any studio. In the spring Kill Bill Volume 2 did strong business, but the firm found itself once again in the midst of controversy over Michael Moore's summer release Fahrenheit 9/11. Citing the film's anti-Bush administration stance, Disney announced it would not distribute the title.

After a quarter-century in business, Miramax Film Corporation had evolved from a small independent distributor into a "mini-major," producing films whose budgets occasionally approached or even, allegedly, exceeded $100 million. At the same time, it continued to release a wide range of smaller films, including many independently produced and foreign art-house titles like those with which it had first found success.

Principal Subsidiaries: Dimension Films; Miramax International; Miramax Television; Talk Miramax Books.

Principal Competitors: Sony Pictures Classics; United Artists Corporation; Paramount Classics; Fine Line Features; Lions Gate Entertainment; Newmarket Films.


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