Harvey Weinstein on Jay Z, Trump and His Dream to Produce the Oscars (With Spielberg)
"If we could survive each other, we'd do a great job," says indie king and Weinstein Co. co-chairman as he dishes on wooing Trayvon Martin's family and championing LGBT and women's rights in the Trump era.
Ask Harvey Weinstein if he's mellowed with age, and the famously brash mogul acknowledges "mellow" may not be the most apt descriptor. "Sometimes I wake up in the morning and just have to be tenacious," says the Queens-born co-chairman of The Weinstein Co. "That's what the job calls for."
Weinstein, 65, once churned out Oscar bait (Shakespeare in Love, The Artist) like an unrivaled heavyweight, but as the industry has become dominated by $200 million studio films, and deep-pocketed streaming services stalk the festival circuit, he has shifted his attention and enthusiasm elsewhere: His TV division, which he tried and failed to sell to ITV in 2015, is responsible for forthcoming projects with David O. Russell, Matthew Weiner and Jay Z.
On the film side, where the roughly 120-employee company has suffered significant turnover and has made a habit of pushing back release dates, TWC is readying The Current War with Benedict Cumberbatch and Mary Magdalene, directed by Garth Davis, to follow 2017 best picture nominee Lion.
The father of five (ages 4 to 21) and husband of fashion designer Georgina Chapman invited THR to his Tribeca offices, where seemingly every inch of wall or shelf space is lined with letters and photographs designed to impress and intimidate in equal measure. There are notes from past presidents and first ladies and shots of Weinstein with Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah Winfrey and Ari Emanuel, to name just a few. In a wide-ranging conversation, he addressed the financial health of his company and his plan to combat Trump.
With Netflix and Amazon now dominating the film festivals, where does that leave traditional indies?
Honestly, it's very difficult to navigate. You hope you make movies that are good, that's all you can do. You can't compete on acquisitions. It's impossible.
What does the future of TWC look like? Is it mostly TV? A few awards movies? The kind of genre movies from Dimension that used to power your bottom line?
Right now, the television company on a profitability basis is much stronger than the movie company. New technology — the Netflix, Hulus, Amazons — has changed the business. Now, if you make a movie for $200 million, you're not going to premiere it on Netflix. You do a Beauty and the Beast or a Marvel movie in the theater, and the theater becomes this domain where it's so big that everybody goes and it becomes an event. The smaller movies are tougher to handle. They have to be extraordinary. I'm happy that our movie, Lion, did so well but it's still few and far between and it's only Oscar season that that seems to work.
There's been a lot of shuffle in the executive suites at the studios of late. Would a big studio executive job appeal to you?
I never thought so, but now it [might] because you get to do $200 million movies, and we can't do that here. I love TV, so I'm excited about that, but I wonder if we drove those comic books to a higher quality, would they do even better? God, I hate to think they'd do worse. So yeah, I'd like to have two years and say, "OK, guys, I'm gonna create a Star Wars franchise." Seriously.
How has the Oscar campaigning process changed recently?
The Academy's done a good job of reining it in. The only reason we did it was because the studios dominated the industry, so we said, "OK, how do you be a maverick?" I'm sure I'm not loved by the Academy establishment, but so be it. Those movies that win, like Moonlight, are a result of some of the work that we did. I'm thrilled that it won, and I want to see movies like that. I just want to see more people watch the Oscars.
What would you recommend?
Steven Spielberg and I once talked about producing it together. If we could survive each other, we'd do a great job. (Laughs.) They're not using technology properly. It still feels like a variety show. Jimmy Kimmel was brilliant, but give him a couple of things to do that are so mind-blowingly cool so people will go, "Oh my God." [Virtual reality] is just the start. Mike [De Luca] and Jen [Todd] did the most beautiful-looking Oscars I've ever seen. I would just take it way further, which is why I'll never get the job. I'd probably bring Billy Crystal back to host, too.
What about Warren Beatty?
Oh, Warren would have to announce best picture. The suspense would be incredible. (Laughs.)
Unlike in film, you can't hit a festival circuit and acquire the next batch of Emmy winners. What's your TV development process?
Here's how it happens: I saw a movie about the raid on Osama bin Laden, I turned it into Seal Team Six, and it was one of the highest-rated TV movies [for Nat Geo], and then I said, "OK, let me take that same idea and turn it into Six [for History]." The same thing happened with Project Runway. It was my idea to do the show, I created the idea and then the Magical Elves, Heidi Klum and everybody stirred the pot. Or I wanted to do War and Peace [with the BBC] because I wanted to honor a librarian who taught me to read when I was a kid. After that, we decided we'd do Les Miserables with Andrew Davies [at the BBC] and my friends who are actors all called and said, "You know I sing." And I go, "It's clear you don't read since I'm doing Victor Hugo's Les Miserables."
You have an anthology series with Matthew Weiner and a David O. Russell Mafia drama at Amazon. Who else are you courting?
[Writer-producer] John Fusco and I did a good first season of Marco Polo [at Netflix] and not a good second season because the writers got bad reviews and wanted to do something artsy and intelligent [for season two], and that's not what our audience was expecting. My guys told me, "I want to do House of Cards in Mongolia" and I go, "Nobody wants to watch House of Cards in Mongolia." Everybody talked themselves into it against my better wishes, and I have the emails to prove it. So John and I are going to go back to Asia; whether we explore Genghis Khan or something else in that world, we know how to make it big and fun.
How did you get into business with Jay Z?
We've been New Yorkers together for years. We've know each other socially and we've always talked about doing something together. I think we understand each other. People look at Jay Z and they don't say, "That's a well-read guy," and people look at me and think the same thing, but we're both extremely well-read. That's the surprise of the whole thing, and it's what makes it work. He's one of the most brilliant men I know.
You and Jay met with Trayvon Martin's family on Oscar weekend in February and ultimately won the bidding war for their story. How?
Jay Z looked at the parents and said: "I'm responsible if this is no good. I will do whatever it takes because they're gonna hold me up on this. I'm not gonna let you down, and I'm not gonna let me down." End of conversation.
As recently as last summer, you were very publicly trying to sell the TV unit. Is that still the goal?
It keeps changing because we keep getting more successful. The movie company, it's holding its own this year. We had a tough year the year before, but Lion did [$130 million] worldwide on an $11 million film, so that's certainly enough to regenerate profits and get things going.
So, are you still shopping it?
I don't know. There are a lot of alternatives. The EBITDA blew up in a good way. We have to monetize [the business], but by doing as well as we did, there's less pressure on us.
You had a deal with ITV in 2015 that fell apart. What happened?
We couldn't get to an agreement with what they valued the company at and what we valued the company at. It was $300 million against $1 billion. It would cost them double to do the same deal now. We had a very hungry board at that moment to monetize but, in the end, we would have sold cheap.
When and why do you make decisions to push back release dates? Alicia Vikander's Tulip Fever may be the most egregious example.
I try to do what's best for the movie, and try to find the slot that works. And a lot of it today is Alicia Vikander is in South Africa. She loves the movie and she's doing Lara Croft, what am I gonna do? I don't have her to promote the movie. Unfortunately, my movies are not dependent on 30 second TV spots. I wish they were. It would make it a lot easier to schedule them. I have to schedule around the talent, and sometimes the talent says, "I've got another movie," "I have another priority," "I just took a job. Surprise!" It's not Machiavellian, it's just practical. It's embarrassing but we seem to do OK. We've done this for a long time and we've juggled the schedule enough over the years, but I don't think it's to anybody's detriment.
You're a larger-than-life character in this industry. What do people get wrong about you?
People underestimate the fact that I read three books a week, that I read 10 scripts a week, that I'm passionate about the theater. I don't go as much as I should but I read a lot of plays. When I was at Miramax I bought the play Little Voice. Ten companies were bidding and everybody went to the theater to watch it because they were all going to come back to the hotel to do [the deal]; I stayed in the hotel, I read the script, and then I called the guys up and said I love it. They said, "You can tell from the script?" I said, "I always read plays. So, I'm going to buy it. What do you want?" They said, "This," I said "Great," and everybody walked out [of the theater] and it was all done. So, I'm a reader; that's where the sauce comes from.
What's the last thing you read that excited you?
I read a book called August Snow. I love crime fiction. My son is named Dashiell after [author of detective novels] Dashiell Hammett, so you can tell my predilection. So I read a blurb in some magazine or newspaper and it talked about a black ex-cop who's now a private detective and his name is August Snow. He's in Detroit and he's half Hispanic, half black, and a woman asks him to do her case and then she's killed. It's a quintessential setup, like a black Raymond Chandler [story]. It's the most literary crime novel that I've read in years …
Presumably you've already optioned it?
Oh yeah, I did it in, like, minutes. For TV. I called the author, and sometimes they're a fan of my work, and so it was easy in this situation to do it. There were, like, four other offers, but I could feel him on the phone and I knew he was gonna go with us — and rightfully so because I'm going to do it right.
There are a lot of projects about the election and the aftermath in the works. Is the subject matter of interest to you?
No, not in television. I think MSNBC and CNN are doing a much better job than I can do. There's no TV that can out-do Mika Brzezinski [of Morning Joe]. She is my all-time idol. I'm watching Joe Scarborough step up to the plate, but Mika kills it. She's just laying the law down in a way I've never seen. I get up at 6 in the morning for her. I always used to stay up late watching old movies; Now I say, "All right, I'd better not stay up that late, I've got to watch Mika."
You had said that you were going to give President Trump a chance. Is that still the case?
The less said, the better. Among the things I'm doing: a private foundation. I just named it the Miriam Foundation after my mom [who died in November], and I'm raising all the money. We're going to support [everything] from LGBT to women's rights, more women directors, the National Endowment of the Arts. I'm going to finance a lot of it privately.
Malia Obama is working for you. What conversations with her parents led up to her internship?
(Shakes his head no.)
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.