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From Major to Minor 

Why the best films of 2004 look like indies but aren't

Wednesday, Dec 22 2004
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To understand this most tumultuous year in film, over which loomed the ghost of a blessed messiah and the shadow of an accursed pariah, turn your eyes from the movie screen and look to the bookshelf. There you will find a copy of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, which became available just 12 days into 2004 -- long before Jesus Christ was resurrected by Mel Gibson, George W. Bush was crucified by Michael Moore, and a roiling private battle between Mickey Mouse and Harvey Weinstein went public. In it, Biskind said aloud what had been whispered among cinephiles for years: Miramax Films, the first distributor to prove you could make millions on films made for pennies, had corrupted the "independent" movie, holding the gun while its accomplices at the Sundance Film Festival pulled the trigger.

Biskind tried to grab hold of the wisp of smoke that is, and was, independent film -- those things that "existed in the space between the shots of Hollywood movies," works that "concerned themselves with what Hollywood left out." He opened his book in the 1970s, just as the major studios were ditching bold pictures for blockbusters, and he ended it in 2003, with the co-opting of acclaimed auteurs by major studios. Steven Soderbergh had gone from sex, lies, and videotape to making Ocean's Eleven; Bryan Singer from The Usual Suspects to the X-Men franchise; Christopher Nolan from Memento to the new Batman; Doug Lyman from Swingers to The Bourne Identity. "The independent film movement, as we knew it, just doesn't exist anymore, and maybe it can't exist anymore," Soderbergh told Biskind. "It's over." To which Biskind added: And Miramax killed it.

Of course, no single man -- Miramax's heavy, Harvey Weinstein -- or single company can kill a business. But the influence of Miramax, which long ago bought in and sold out to the system Weinstein claimed to loathe, permeates the cineplex. The studio, which now exists to win Oscars and give boss Michael Eisner of Disney an ulcer by trying to sneak Fahrenheit 9/11 into the Magic Kingdom, once ruled Indieland with an iron fist that's begun to rust. Today, there are many bosses gathered around the table, and they take orders from no one.

When Disney purchased Miramax for some $100 million in 1993, the other majors were as skeptical as they were envious. Disney had in its possession a machine that could crank out movies guaranteed to win award nominations and critical approbation. But now, nearly every major studio has its own specialty, artsy-fartsy division that cranks out highbrow fare for the art-house crowd: Warner Bros. has Warner Independent; 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight; Universal, Focus Features; Sony, Sony Pictures Classics; and Paramount, Paramount Classics.

"Hollywood, as you know, is nothing if not imitative, and it's the same on the business side as it is when it comes to particular kinds of films," Biskind says. "If a film is a blockbuster, you tend to see five or six of the same kind of films in a row. The same is true of the Miramax business plan."

The Miramax influence is evident in the cultured biopics parading into theaters this year, including Bill Condon's Kinsey from Fox Searchlight, Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside from Fine Line, and Kevin Spacey's one-man show Beyond the Sea, distributed by Lions Gate but financed with European money (coming out Dec. 29). It's evident in the (relatively) star-studded, (relatively) low-budget auteur projects topping critics' year-end lists, among them Alexander Payne's Sideways (Searchlight), Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (Warner Independent), David O. Russell's I * Huckabees (Searchlight again), Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus), Mike Nichols' Closer (Sony), and even István Szabó's Being Julia (ThinkFilm). It's evident in Newmarket's decision to distribute Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ when no one else would touch it.

And it's evident in the small fortunes paid to small movies at the Sundance Film Festival in January, when Fox Searchlight handed over $3 million for director/co-writer Jared Hess' revenge-of-the-nerd comedy Napoleon Dynamite (which has made more than $40 million) and $5 million for the rights to distribute Zach Braff's debut as writer/director, Garden State, which has raked in $25 million. Miramax joined in the bidding for the latter, acquiring distribution rights outside of the United States.

"There has been a vacuum left by Miramax," Biskind says. "I always like to think of it as the big tree whose canopy throws everything under it into shadow, and that tree has been cut down and has allowed everything else to bloom and grow. As long as Miramax was buying up everything in sight, and as long as people had to compete with them and spend the money to compete with them, it meant opening a film was frighteningly expensive. It's still expensive, but you don't have to go up against Miramax anymore."

Fifteen years ago, Miramax birthed the indie industry by paying the then-unheard-of amount of $2 million ($1 mil for the movie, another mil guaranteed for advertising) for Steven Soderbergh's debut, sex, lies, and videotape, which was made for half that. In the blink of a projector, small films were big business, and there were no bigger businessmen than Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the vulgarians who would spend the 1990s reinventing the art house in their slovenly images by spending small fortunes to make larger ones -- first for themselves, then for Disney, which is now at war with Miramax over, among other things, Michael Moore's Bush-bashing doc, which Disney refused to release and which ultimately fell into Lions Gate's lap.

Miramax now is essentially out of the indie biz: At year's end it released two lavish biopics in which famous living people (Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio) portrayed famous dead people (Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie and Howard Hughes, respectively) in expensive movies aimed as much toward garnering awards as audiences. The combined budgets for Marc Forster's Finding Neverland and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator would have paid for 200 sex, lies, and videotapes; their casts, including Depp and Kate Winslet in Neverland and Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Jude Law, and Gwen Stefani in The Aviator, would fill a year's worth of Entertainment Weekly.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky

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