Weinsteins aim for awards glory, comeback

'King's Speech' might kick-start embattled company

Hollywood loves nothing better than a tale of triumph over adversity.

So, after standing ovations at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Tom Hooper's "The King Speech" has shot to the front of the pack as an early Oscar favorite for Colin Firth's stirring portrayal of England's King George VI overcoming a speech impediment to rally his country on the eve of World War II.

Now the question is whether the embattled Weinstein Co., which is distributing the film stateside, can execute a similarly triumphant moment, turning the film into an awards juggernaut and the type of commercial success that could mark the beginning of the company's own comeback.

As awards season gets under way, there are plenty of skeptics who doubt whether TWC has the financial resources on hand for several simultaneous, full-scale Oscar campaigns as well as the release of the four movies it will bring to theaters this fall.

But having undergone a major financial restructuring in the summer, TWC senior executive David Glasser said: "What the restructuring has done is given the company the ability to finance and distribute its slate. It's given the company a fresh start in going forward. We have a very smart, fixed budgets for the releases -- three or four pictures from Harvey [Weinstein] and three or four pictures from Bob [Weinstein]. It's a very focused slate going forward."

"Speech" producers admitted they had heard all the naysayers when they were seeking partners for their movie, but when Harvey Weinstein pursued them, they were convinced he'd be a supportive partner -- and so far, he has more than lived up to his commitments.

"We obviously looked at that; we were assessing the best partners for the film," Emile Sherman said. "But at the end of the day, Harvey has proven himself as someone who champions movies like ours year in and year out. And we have faith he'll do that here."

TWC has released four movies this year, with just more than $24 million in its domestic till. "Piranha 3D" is its biggest grosser to date.

But with "Speech" leading the charge, the company is heading into awards season with four titles: John Wells' corporate-downsizing drama "The Company Men" and "Blue Valentine," Derek Cianfrance's portrait of a marriage gone bad, both of which are Sundance pickups and will come out Oct. 22 and Dec. 31, respectively. TWC also has acquired Julian Schnabel's Israel-set drama "Miral," which is down for a Dec. 3 release. It also will be promoting Amir Bar-Lev's documentary "The Tillman Story" and, though critically applauded, has grossed a mere $428,000.

Meanwhile, the company is using Toronto to signal new signs of life. As the fest got under way, TWC announced it had scooped up U.S. rights to Gilles Paquet-Brenner's "Sarah's Key," starring Kristin Scott Thomas. The deal, which Harvey Weinstein had been chasing since seeing a promo reel in Cannes, substantially was completed before Labor Day weekend's Telluride festival. "Key," which plays at TIFF on Thursday, is down for a release next year.

Harvey Weinstein also was on hand to toast the "Speech" team Friday at a media dinner, including lots of members of the Golden Globe-awarding Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., at Toronto's Windsor Arms Hotel. Tonight, he'll join with Alliance Films to toast "Miral" at a cocktailer at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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Behind the scenes, TWC has a phalanx of 20 acquisitions and international sales executives on hand. It is offering presales on "Scream 4" and "Spy Kids 4" as well as "My Week With Marilyn," a movie based on Marilyn Monroe's experience filming "The Prince and the Showgirl," with Michelle Williams playing Monroe opposite Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier.

"We probably have some of the best presale titles out there right now," Glasser said.



Before fest's end, the company also could pick up one or two titles for domestic distribution -- it is fielding several offers. But unlike in the past, when Harvey Weinstein grabbed up a film then tried to figure out when to release it, the company is approaching any purchases more strategically, only looking to buy when it has an open date to fill. If it does walk away with Toronto titles, they'll be for the 2011 slate because the company's year-end dance card already is full.

Industry observers have, of course, predicted the demise of the Weinstein Co. for months, if not years. Last week, company critics pointed to the departure of publicity executives Dani Weinstein [no relation to the company's founders] and Sara Serlen, who left to head a New York film department for publicity firm ID, as further evidence.

But TWC has had publicity teams out in force at Toronto; it's contracted with five outside agencies, including ID, to handle various aspects of its business, including corporate PR, Oscar and Golden Globe campaigning.

Said one source who's followed the restructuring closely: "What Harvey has been saying is true: They redid the deals with investors and are re-armed and ready to make and buy movies."

In an agreement with Goldman Sachs and Assured Guaranty, TWC was able to eliminate $450 million in debt by turning over ownership of about 200 of its roughly 350-film library.

As part of the deal, the Weinstein brothers were required to refocus on film production and distribution and put behind them investments in fashion, cable TV and other areas outside their core business. With what is left of the initial $1.2 billion they raised to start the company in 2007, cash flow from the remaining 150 movies in the library and revenue from ongoing distribution, they are adequately funded to carry out the new business plan, according to another insider.

Both Weinsteins have trimmed their sails. Bob is spending his time on Dimension movies like "Scream 4," and Harvey has returned to his roots making prestige and art movies on a tight budget, and masterminding plans for award season.

Instead of gambling on such big-ticket items as "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator," "Chicago" and "Nine" that have consumed his attention in the past, Harvey is making modest bets. Since so many indie distributors have left the playing field, he's able to find movies at bargain prices.

Some competitors speculated that he probably put down less than $1 million to get rights to "Key," though others believe it was a seven-figure deal. And while TWC is the largest investor in the $15 million "Speech," it's not a majority investor.

If "Speech" ultimately does go the distance, it will prove the Weinsteins still know how to play their hunches shrewdly.

Sherman and partner Iain Canning at See Saw Films were in the early stages of putting together the movie with Bedlam producer Gareth Unwin when TWC first came calling.

"The Weinsteins, when they read the script, to their absolute credit they saw the film's potential, and they relentlessly pursued us," Sherman said. "We weren't even happy with the script at the time, but we were getting phone calls from them three times a day because they could see what the film was going to be. They flew over their business-affairs head, and he said he wasn't leaving the country until they had a deal."

Gregg Kilday reported from Toronto; Alex Ben Block reported from Los Angeles. Matthew Belloni in Toronto contributed to this report.
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