Bob Weinstein's Love Letter to Brother Harvey: "Some Would Say I Deserve a Lifetime Achievement Award"
Harvey and his little sib shared a Queens bedroom for 18 years. Inseparable since, with 75 Oscars for their films, Bob writes for The Hollywood Reporter about their bond and career born out of simple conversations.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
My brother, Harvey, and I have run Miramax Films and The Weinstein Co. for more than 35 years. I'm 60 years old, Harvey is 62, and I could describe our relationship as one long, unending conversation between two brothers. Some people would say I deserve a lifetime achievement award just for talking to Harvey for that amount of time. Knowing Harvey, of course, he would probably find some way to accept the award on my behalf. Oh, brother …
Our father was instrumental in bonding the two of us not just as brothers but as partners, confidantes, allies and eventually co-chairmen. Over the years, we've seriously spoken for thousands of hours. In these conversations, many of them have been about our families, wives, ex-wives, the kids, grandkids and, yes, the state of the Mets, Yankees, Knicks, Jets and Giants. But an overwhelmingly large amount of these conversations were about — yes, you guessed it — business. We'd spend countless hours on the phone and in person plotting, planning, imagining and conceiving deals and movies. Everything that goes into the story of Miramax. While the finished products were always the movies or the deals, and that is what ultimately matters, I can say that the overwhelming majority of them started with a conversation between two brothers.
I have to say that over the last five years the conversations at times have waned and, sadder to report, at times they've even come to a complete halt. Perhaps with age and success, the feeling that we both need them is not as strong as it once was. That said, a few months ago I did notice the change and reached out to my 87-year-old mother and said that while nothing was really wrong, Harvey and I had stopped talking as much as we'd been doing and that I was missing the connection. To my utter amazement, she swore to me that Harvey had called her and expressed the same feelings. I don't want anyone to think we've gone into couples' therapy, but my mom did send an article I wrote years ago about our dad forging an alliance between his two sons for both of us to read. I am happy to report that the conversations have once again become a daily occurrence. What follows is just a selection of several of those dialogs that depict a few of the more memorable moments in our earlier years, both in our youth and our careers.
A bedroom conversation
Harvey and I grew up in Queens, N.Y. My brother and I shared a room for 18 years, until we went away to college. When we were kids, after our father said, "Lights out," he also exclaimed, "No more talking. Time for sleep." But we'd stay up late, arguing over statistics, who the best center fielder was — Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. On one such night, when we finally did doze off to sleep, I was awakened by Harvey, who had a plan. "Hey, Bob. There is a lot of ice cream cake and candy in the fridge left over from Mom and Dad having company this past weekend. Why don't you sneak in there, get it and we'll have a little party?" I asked: "Why am I the one going?" To which he replied: "You're smaller than me. There is less of a chance of you getting caught. And if you do, I promise I'll take the blame." So off I went to the kitchen, amassing all the candy and ice cream I could. Boy, did we have a party. Our first partnership and adventure had been a success. We started giggling — big mistake. It woke up our dad, who caught us red-handed. I explained it was Harvey's idea. Harvey feigned ignorance — a big double cross — and said he didn't know what I was talking about. My father knew the score and punished only Harvey with an admonishment that if he was going to do something together with his brother, even if it's wrong, that he better always share the blame. I have to say that Harvey took that early lesson to heart. We had quite a dad — someone who could impart a punishment and a lifelong lesson at the same time.
When we were growing up, our two greatest passions were sports and movies. Our father took us to the movies every Saturday, and we watched our fair share of movies on the boob tube growing up in the '50s and '60s. As kids, we weren't film critics obsessing over the details of the cinematography, writing, directing, acting, etc. We just argued with each other over which ones we liked better. When it came to Westerns, it was a tossup between Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Cat Ballou also made the cut because of the scene with a drunk Lee Marvin leaning against a wall on an equally drunk horse. Some movies scenes stay in your head forever. Other conversational battles between my brother and me included war movies — Sink the Bismarck! or The Longest Day? — and which was the better sports movie: It Happens Every Spring, The Pride of the Yankees or, my vote, Damn Yankees. One thing in our discussions that we actually agreed on was why the hell did Spartacus have to die at the end of the movie? That scene of Kirk Douglas on the cross, looking down on the most beautiful woman we'd ever seen (sorry, Mom), Jean Simmons, with Spartacus' son in her arms, exclaiming, "He is free, Spartacus!" didn't cut the mustard with the Weinstein brothers at the time. We felt supremely pissed off that the ships never arrived to take Spartacus and the other slaves to freedom. Years later we would actually have that conversation with Kirk Douglas himself, who was nice enough to invite two budding entrepreneurs to lunch at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York. He laughed and explained that the movie wouldn't have touched us like it did if Spartacus had lived. Of course he was right, but at the time we were only kids.
Bob, 3 (left), and Harvey, 5, in 1957.
A turning point conversation
By 1988 Miramax had been in existence for nine years, distributing mostly foreign-language gems such as Pelle the Conqueror and Erendira as well as documentaries like The Thin Blue Line. We were a boutique company, and in our biggest year we had distributed a total of four films (a number Harvey thought we could never exceed). We had eight employees, including Robert Newman (now a partner at WME), my mom answering phones part-time and Brad Grey (the current chairman of Paramount) who, we were both certain even then, believed we worked for him. We had dreams of making our mark in the motion picture industry, but in reality we were just grinding out a living. I was married, had two daughters and was making $35,000 a year. Harvey, being single, was taking even less. One day I received an offer of $60,000 to book theaters for UA Cinemas. I asked Harvey to take a walk, explained the situation with the offer, and to my surprise he was just as frustrated as I was that we'd not yet realized our dream of becoming "real players" in the movie business. We both decided that we were going to give it one more year, give it everything we had, and if nothing extraordinary happened, we would give up the dream. That next year, 1989, Miramax was 10 years old, the same year we distributed Cinema Paradiso; Scandal; My Left Foot; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; and, oh yes, our fifth film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I promise you, since that time, we have never, ever looked back.
Cinema Paradiso and the birth of Miramax
I think our greatest achievement together came from a conversation we had that would change art house distribution forever. Miramax is fondly named after our mom and dad, Miriam and Max. But Miramax also became a concept that we devised and started with a movie called Cinema Paradiso. Harvey bought the film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. It was a crowd-pleaser that inexplicably got a bad review in The New York Times and a slow start at the box office. But to our amazement, week after week, it held in at the Lincoln Plaza in New York City. During a late-night conversation, we had this leap of imagination. In reviewing suburban grosses, we saw that big studio films would have huge first-week numbers, fall off precipitously the second week and be gone by the third. Film studios usually took the lion's share of the first three weeks' gross. Exhibitors would make more money the longer a picture ran, but most pictures rarely had legs. So we hatched a plan. If we could give the theaters a film like Cinema Paradiso and bring it to cinemas in the suburbs throughout the country, it might not gross a lot of money the first few weeks, but it would hold steady through word of mouth and make exhibitors more money in the long run. We sold it to every major theater chain, which played it for at least 20 to 30 weeks. We took art house movies out of the 50-cinema ghetto they'd been occupying for years and successfully brought them into the mainstream theatrical distribution network. We believed that, if given the chance, audiences were willing to watch intelligent, foreign-language and independent films. It was an achievement that changed our generation and made art house cinema a commercial proposition.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape
In 1989, we had the chance to screen a little gem of a movie called Sex, Lies, and Videotape. It was the darling of the Sundance festival. All the independents, including us, were after it. The agent and producers decided that they would sell it to the highest bidder in a blind auction. At that point in our history, we'd not had a major hit and both felt this could put us on the map. But the dilemma was what to bid — $250K, $500K, maybe even an unthinkable (at the time) $750K. While the film was certainly special, nothing is guaranteed in this business. The night before we put in our bid, Harvey and I talked about every permutation, every possible deal — adding marketing dollars, all sorts of ideas. In our conversation, we agreed that we were going to bet the farm on this one and came up with a plan. We were prepared to make the following bid: In writing, we offered $100K higher than the highest bid they would receive, no matter what that number was. So the bids came in and, to the producers' credit, they showed us the highest bid and said they were blown away by our confidence. They told us that, if we were true to our word, the film was ours. Several months later, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which we bought for $1 million, opened to $100K exclusively at the Lincoln Plaza and went on to gross $20 million domestically. Miramax was now officially on the map.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
In September 1989, I got a late-night call from Harvey, who was in Paris, to "get my ass up" (he has such a subtle touch) to the Toronto festival immediately that night to screen a movie he'd heard about called The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. He'd heard there was something special about this one and wanted to make sure I saw it. I rushed to the airport straight from our New York office and barely made the flight. When I got to the theater, the doors were closed and they wouldn't let me in because the screening was sold out. I protested vehemently, told them I was a potential buyer, not a spectator, and pleaded with them to let me in. Eventually, they relented. The theater was packed with at least 500 people. Peter Greenaway, known for his stylish cinema, directed the film, which starred Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon. As the film unspooled, I could clearly see it was beautifully written, acted and directed. I was truly enthralled. But at some point in the movie, things started to get odd, to say the least. The film took one of the loudest and grandest turns into Grand Guignol cinema as all sorts of atrocities and perversions played out, culminating in the most fascinating fine-dining gourmet scene of cannibalism ever witnessed. During that scene, I promise you that at least 150 people stood up, as if levitated by Ricky Jay, and exited the theater en masse, booing. The rest of the audience, including myself, stayed for the duration of the film. I immediately called Harvey after the screening and explained exactly what I'd seen. Harvey asked the greatest question ever: He said, "When the people were speaking outside the theater waiting for the next showing, they must have known 150 people walked out booing and seemingly offended, right?" I said yes, but asked him what his point was. Harvey responded, "If they saw all that and still decided to wait outside the theater to see the movie, then we might have something special." I cracked up laughing. I loved the movie for the movie's sake, but Harvey already had a bead on the marketing campaign. He met with the producer in France, we got the film and it became a big success for the company.
In January 1992, my brother and I screened Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs at the Charles Aidikoff screening room in Los Angeles. The buzz for the film from Sundance was enormous. Tales emerged that a major new filmmaking voice had appeared on the scene. We hear that kind of thing all the time in this business, so you sometimes get a little jaded. But then the movie comes on, and all that hype still feels small in comparison to what we watched on the screen. We had about 30 executives in the room, and there was a lot of controversy as to whether the film actually worked, would do business, whether it was too over-the-top. Harvey and I had our own thoughts. We quietly moved to the back of the screening room, and it was a very simple conversation. Harvey asked me, "What did you think?" I said, "Great, how about you?" He said, "Yeah, I thought it was great also. But what about the ear scene?" To which I replied, "Didn't bother me at all." Many people have vied to become the third Weinstein brother, and I'm not sure why, but that distinction only goes to one person — Quentin Tarantino. We acquired Reservoir Dogs and have been in business with Quentin on every movie of his ever since.
The birth of Dimension
If the concept of Miramax came during a late-night conversation, then the birth of the Dimension label came during an afternoon conversation. Harvey and I used to have lunch almost every day at a diner called Socrates, near the Tribeca Film Center. One afternoon we were having lunch, I'm reading The Hollywood Reporter and on the front page it announces that New Line Cinema has created a new label called Fine Line Features. It became apparent that our competition was coming after our beloved Miramax to take us on our own turf. The conversation took on battle-plan proportions. We decided we would ramp up, buy more movies, offer their executives more money to come join us, and after all these ideas, lightning finally struck. Harvey said: "Screw all that. If they're coming after us, let's just go after them. Bob, you like genre movies more than art house fare, why don't you start a genre division and you can run it." An afternoon lunch, a one-hour conversation, and Dimension Films was hatched, representing a new career for me. Scream, in 1996, was our first major success directed by none other than New Line's premier horror director, Wes Craven. Five hundred million of profits came in over the next several years and, for me, a chance to flex my own production muscles.
Tarantino, flanked by Bob (left) and Harvey in 2003. Says Bob of Tarantino's status as "the third Weinstein": "He's as crazy as we are and just as loyal."
The power of the gut
Harvey and I always stuck to the agreement that if one of us felt passionate about a film, then the other couldn't override it. I remember walking down the street one day with Harvey in New York and him asking me if I ever saw the play Chicago. I replied that it had an OK score but didn't have much of a plot. Harvey said he was thinking about making it into a movie, and I replied, "Very bad idea." I now have a house in Connecticut that I bought with my share of the profits from that movie. I also remember when Harvey read the script of Scream and asked me if I was going to buy it. I told him I already had. Harvey paused, said he just wasn't sure of its commercial potential but that it was my call, even though he didn't understand what I saw in it. He now owns a house in London and one in Southport, Conn., because of that decision. Conversations like that one are embedded in my brain, and while it's so much fun to share in each other's successes even when one of us is wrong, I learned the importance of sticking to your gut.
Cider House Rules
About 15 years ago, my brother got very sick with a bacterial infection. He had to stay in the hospital for a period of four to six weeks to get it under control. Of course, the rumors started flying that he'd had a heart attack, was near death, all obviously not true. During that time, I visited him at New York Hospital nearly every day and took over running the company, rather successfully (a fact I remind him of as often as I can). When you visit a hospital, you start to see so much disease, discomfort, death and wings devoted to such horrible titles as "pediatric oncology." You start to develop a profound gratitude that you and your kids wake up each morning healthy. Knowing that the outcomes in these kinds of situations are not always good and that life is truly a precious thing started to have a profound effect on me.
I recall a conversation I had with Harvey two weeks after he was released from the hospital and recuperating at home. I called him at 11:00 p.m. and asked him how he was doing, and he replied, "Better." And then I told him about my observations while at the hospital over the previous six weeks and the disturbing things I'd seen. I asked him, "Harvey, we've been through so much, been so blessed, but when you think about it, what's it all for? I mean, in the end, it's going to end badly. How do you live with that knowledge?" Now, I'm truly the more sensitive of the brothers, prone to thoughts and questions like this, but I was astonished to hear a deep silence on the other end of the phone. Harvey was truly thinking it over. 20 seconds, 30 seconds, finally he responded: "Did you get the grosses on Cider House Rules?" I burst out laughing. It wasn't that Harvey was cold of heart. He did think about the question. In the minute he used to reflect on it, he realized there is no real answer other than understanding the meaning you give each moment. And at that moment we had Cider House Rules in wide release. So I gave him the answer: "Harvey, the grosses are really good." And the conversation went on from there.
That Cider House Rules conversation happened in 1999. During the ensuing 15 years, many more events, pictures and deals would happen, including our leaving the Miramax and forming The Weinstein Company. And over those years, countless conversations have followed, mostly on a daily basis and usually at least five or six times a day. Our wives would complain when they heard the phone ring late at night, "It's him. I know it. It's him — don't pick it up." But we never listened. The conversations became a ritual, an exploration and a catharsis of both our personal and business lives. Some of our talks have changed. We talk more about family than we do about business. We talk about new adventures and even though we're not prone to it, sometimes we do reminisce. And of course we occasionally speak about business, as we still have some wrinkles up our sleeves in the hopes of shaking up the movie business one more time. But the most important thing to me is that we talk about the big and the small, knowing that the small things are what connected us and made us happy most of all.