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“Harvey Always Wanted More”: Weinstein, Spielberg and the Oral History of the Nastiest Oscar Campaign Ever

It's considered by many the greatest upset in Academy Awards history, a heist in which rom-com 'Shakespeare in Love' shocked Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan.' Now, 20 years later (with Harvey Weinstein awaiting trial), the key players open up about the nastiest campaign ever staged.

Twenty years ago, DreamWorks, the hit-hungry Hollywood studio founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, finally had something to be excited about in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The war film, a critical and commercial smash, was preordained to be that year’s best picture Oscar winner. But Harvey Weinstein had other plans. The Miramax co-chief had high hopes for a still-in-production Elizabethan dramedy called Shakespeare in Love, directed by John Madden. Weinstein ran an aggressive and deeply controversial campaign, and ended up snatching away Spielberg’s sure thing in what many regard as the biggest best picture upset in history.

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This THR oral history — drawn from dozens of new interviews with people who battled behind the scenes, several speaking for the first time since Weinstein’s downfall, plus two 2016 THR interviews with Weinstein and Spielberg — chronicles that unforgettable showdown.

With a greater financial stake for Miramax in a film than ever before — $40 million — Weinstein took a personal producing credit on Shakespeare in Love.

HARVEY WEINSTEIN (MIRAMAX CO-CHIEF/SHAKESPEARE PRODUCER) I was producing the movie, basically on a semi leave of absence. Meryl Poster was running the studio.

MERYL POSTER (MIRAMAX PRODUCTION CHIEF) That was never told to me. If that was actually spoken about, then I should have been making five times what I was making.

MARK GILL (MIRAMAX L.A. PRESIDENT) The “I took a leave of absence” is, of course, complete bullshit.

DONNA GIGLIOTTI (SHAKESPEARE PRODUCER) He visited the set occasionally.

Because Shakespeare wasn’t going to be completed until the end of the year, but would require press coverage to compete for Oscars, Miramax had to figure out a way to get it on the media’s radar. As early as possible, they invited press to view what footage they had — a bold strategy that had contributed to a best picture win two years before.

POSTER For The English Patient, we’d had a reel to show long-lead press while Anthony [Minghella] was editing, and that had been highly successful, so why not do the same for Shakespeare in Love? Teri [Kane, a Miramax publicity vp] said, “Why don’t we do what we did, but with a series of clips?”

TONY ANGELLOTTI (MIRAMAX CONSULTANT) The film was shown to press on VHS at the Raleigh Studios — 45 minutes of it was all we had — in November, to say, “We’ve got this film coming out.”

POSTER We did that and people were like, “Oh, my God. Yeah, we’re going to hold space.”

When Shakespeare was finished, Weinstein saw a path to awards and wanted to give it a high-profile launch. He recruited first lady Hillary Clinton to host its Dec. 3 world premiere in New York. Then it was on to L.A.

TERRY PRESS (DREAMWORKS MARKETING CHIEF) What I was saying was, “I wonder how much Harvey donated to the campaign to get this. This didn’t come for free.”

ANGELLOTTI He had been instrumental in the Clinton campaign as a donor.

POSTER They had a relationship with Harvey from the Vineyard.

GILL I remember vividly the Los Angeles premiere, which was at the Motion Picture Academy. It was just crazy how good the reaction was — every bit as good as The English Patient, if not a little better.

PRESS I went to the Academy screening of Shakespeare in Love, and literally I turned to my husband at the end and said, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Academy Awards bring films not only prestige, but also increased box office (Shakespeare was still in theaters at the time of the noms, and its domestic gross surged from $36.2 million to more than $100 million) and ancillary sales. Weinstein wanted Oscars for all these reasons.

GILL There was the desire to win for the company. But he also would say to people from time to time, me included, that he wanted to be one of the great moguls, and that he had to win an Academy Award — personally — to be one of those. So, for Shakespeare in Love, we used the playbook for The English Patient — turbocharged, on steroids. It was just absolutely murderous the whole way through. I mean, the hours were ridiculous and the demands were insane, just unbelievably crazy stuff. Eight times out of 10 you had no chance — but the other two, something unexpected and theretofore unachievable would happen, and he would say, “See? I was right.” Like, “Call The New York Times and tell them I want free ads for the next month,” you know? Well, we didn’t get that, but they actually did give us about five or six pages of advertising. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” That was partly because we were an enormous advertiser in The New York Times, but a lot of the time you’d just be begging and saying, “You know who I work for. You know how hard this is. Is there anything you can do to help me? Please!” Sometimes it worked.

DreamWorks and Miramax began trading barbs in the press about the number of ads they bought for their films.

PRESS Saving Private Ryan came out in July, so we had to run a reminder campaign. They were coming out in December.

ANGELLOTTI Harvey believed in frequency versus really smart-looking ads, so he would take out a lot of black-and-white trade ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. And he did L.A. Times and New York Times ads — double-trucks.

GILL We may well have outspent them — I never actually bothered to check — but so what? It’s a free country. You can do whatever you want. There’s nothing illegal about that. There’s nothing immoral about that. That’s called supporting your filmmakers.

MARCY GRANATA (MIRAMAX EXECUTIVE VP MARKETING) David Brooks [Miramax executive vp new ventures and marketing] kept every single trade and counted, at the end, every single ad. I remember putting my hand across my forehead and saying, “Phew.” We did not take out more [than DreamWorks].

WEINSTEIN I had Warren Beatty do the counting. We didn’t. He was the neutral guy, because he’s good friends with Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and he’s good friends with me.

PRESS I’ve never heard that. And by the way, I really don’t believe it. Warren Beatty was at my wedding. [Beatty did not respond to a request for comment.]

ANGELLOTTI Terry’s mantra was we were “forcing” her to spend money. How can anybody force somebody else to spend more money?

GILL Shakespeare was still in theaters. Part of our whole design is that you’re spending money on something — a Los Angeles Times ad or a television advertisement or whatever it was — that is both selling tickets and appealing to Academy members.

Weinstein had a terrible temper, but he also knew how to turn on the charm — he was literally thanked more times at the Oscars than God. And each awards season, he convinced talent to drop what they were doing to campaign for his movie full-time.

GILL Harvey always believed, going back to the days of Daniel Day-Lewis and My Left Foot, that there was nothing better than having in-person meetings between Oscar nominees and Academy members. All this Oscar party stuff that’s so much a part of our lives these days? That obviously predated Harvey by a lot, but the volume at which he did it was unprecedented. He didn’t pay talent extra to do all that; he just told them, “This is what’s required to win. I know how to win. I’ve caused other people to win. This is how I got” fill-in-the-blank “their Oscar. Don’t you want one, too?”

GRANATA Gwyneth [Paltrow] had been in Emma two years earlier. It was a major performance, it wasn’t nominated, and there was a feeling that she could have been and should have been if Emma had crossed over into a bigger movie. And one year earlier, with Titanic and Good Will Hunting, young stars had made a lot of money at the box office by making themselves available for media once the movie started to take off.

CYNTHIA SWARTZ (MIRAMAX VP SPECIAL PROJECTS) Harvey always went around the personal publicists and went right to the talent.

PEGGY SIEGAL (INDEPENDENT PUBLICIST) He convinced them — and everybody else drank the Kool-Aid — that the greatest thing in the world was to win an Oscar. To win an Oscar would put you in the cinematic history books of our country. If you win an Oscar, you are part of American history, and it doesn’t get better than that. The American Nobel Peace Prize is the Oscar.

POSTER He would tell them that the success of the movie was their success and would make them more valuable for the next one.

Weinstein — and some who worked for him — lived on the edge of the rules.

BOBBY ZAREM (INDEPENDENT PUBLICIST) We were giving a dinner in honor of John Madden at Elaine’s for New York Oscar voters — just for them — and the night before the dinner, the head of marketing at Miramax called me and said we were being accused of having a dinner just for Oscar voters. [The Academy had implemented a rule in 1997 to curb wining and dining.] I mean, they’ve been doing it since the 1930s, but anyhow. I got Keith Hernandez, Betsy and Walter Cronkite, and Blaine Trump to come to the dinner so it couldn’t be said that it was just Oscar voters.

Miramax also hired for the season a host of semi-retired or retired publicists — all Academy members themselves.

SWARTZ They would help me do my job. They would tell me what people were talking about, because I didn’t live in L.A. These old guys, I felt bad for them — they didn’t have a lot of sources of income.

GILL Part of it was to work with older Academy members. Part of it was to do the parties. Part of it was to get more press. It was about having lots of extra help — seasonal help — to deal with the holiday crisis, just like running the first floor at Macy’s.

The company highlighted its association with British theater royalty Judi Dench, playing Elizabeth I, and Tom Stoppard as one of its screenwriters, and aggressively targeted European voters.

GILL We were a much more internationally oriented company. We were based in New York. We had a London office. We made and bought a lot of movies from France, Italy and a variety of countries. So we had much deeper networks in that part of the world and were much more adept at it. Also, Shakespeare in Love: English movie shot in the U.K., you know?

And it left no stone unturned, whether at the motion picture retirement home …

GILL Of course! There were screenings there.

SWARTZ It’s a fallacy that there are a lot of Academy members there.

ANGELLOTTI There were seven Academy members there.

PRESS If they had, like, one voter in Palm Springs, they would set up a screening for them. I mean, these are old people no one’s paying any attention to, so it’s like the sun is shining on them.

On TV …

GRANATA DreamWorks got pissed because we took an ad during Monica Lewinsky’s interview with Barbara Walters. Who wouldn’t?!

Or even at local coffee shops …

GILL Basically, the idea was to print a brochure or booklet or glossy color thing to highlight the movie, the performances, the nominees, etc. Normally, you would bind that into a trade paper, which we did — but then we “accidentally” had an overrun of about 100,000 copies and spread them all over every Starbucks in West L.A.

Were rules being broken? Rumors persisted that, despite a 1997 rule banning phone lobbying, Miramax continued to ring up voters.

SWARTZ We never used a phone bank.

ANGELLOTTI I don’t know that Harvey had “banks.” My understanding was he would tell people on his staff — he wouldn’t hire a bunch of new people, he would literally assign the interns or whoever — to make these phone calls. But they were very ineffective because those young kids didn’t know what they were doing. I heard a story that he heard the way they were doing it and said, “That’s not the way you do it! Let me show you!” And he called some retired guy in Florida who they had the phone number for, and he said, “Hi, this is Harvey Weinstein from Miramax. I just wanted to make sure you got the VHS? Oh, you liked it? OK. Good talking to you.” Then he hung up and went, “That’s the way you do it!”

GILL We would sit in a room with our list of Academy members and say, “Who knows who?” The goal would be to call people you know; you didn’t want cold calls happening, it wasn’t like, “Operators are standing by.” It was people from the company calling. Basically, you’d call and say, “Did you get your copy of the movie?” “Did you have a chance to watch it?” If so, “What did you think?” And, “Well, hey, it’s really important to us. We’re really proud of it. Would you consider voting for it?”

PRESS It doesn’t surprise me one bit.

RIC ROBERTSON (ACADEMY EXECUTIVE ADMINISTRATOR) We heard rumors that those were in existence, but we never got any confirmation.

Between the December 1998 rollout of Shakespeare and final Oscar voting a few months later, rumblings of a Miramax “whisper campaign” grew and nearly sparked war.

PRESS I started to get all these calls from press saying, “Harvey Weinstein has hired publicists, including Murray Weissman, and, just so you know, they’re trying to get us to write stories saying that the only thing amazing about Ryan is the first 20 minutes, and then after that it’s just a regular genre movie.” I mean, I knew Harvey was spending a ton of money, but that was the first time I was exposed to the idea of a “whisper campaign” against another movie. I heard that Harvey had basically gone around hiring people who were old-timey publicists, who were just thrilled to be thought of and to get the work, and sent them out with this idea. So I went to Steven and I said, “Listen, just so you know, this is getting ugly.” And Steven said to me — I’ll never forget this — “No matter what, I do not want you to get down in the mud with Harvey Weinstein.” That was the exact quote. I said, “Are you sure?” And he said, “I don’t want any negative campaigning.” I said, “OK.”

GILL It wouldn’t surprise me, but I didn’t see it.

GRANATA I told Terry that my staff was always informed to speak about their movie and not speak about someone else’s movie.

ANGELLOTTI I’d heard Harvey told agents that. Harvey was not so stupid as to tell press that. But he really, truly liked Saving Private Ryan — he told me in private.

SWARTZ Harvey would always call me and yell at me and say, “Why are people saying this?!”

PRESS Steven is so trusting. I remember saying to him, “Harvey is saying all this shit about your movie,” and he took out the letter Harvey had written him when he had seen the movie saying that it was “a masterpiece.” It was like, “No, look at this letter he sent me.” I was like, “OK …” Harvey would call Steven and say, “It’s the greatest movie of the year!” And while he was telling Steven he made the best picture of the year, he had people out there saying, “It’s really only the first 20 minutes.”

ROBERT REHME (ACADEMY PRESIDENT) I’ll give you a personal view, not the official Academy one. When somebody got very aggressive, as long as they’d adhere to the rules and regulations, I thought it was great. I was concerned about TV ratings, and I thought that would help improve ratings. If they spend a ton of money and people become more and more aware and think it’s more of a race, it’s good for the Academy ratings.

PRESS Steven respects the Academy and has a sort of childlike awe of the Academy Awards.

STEVEN SPIELBERG (RYAN PRODUCER/DIRECTOR) I love the history of it and I love the longevity of it. It’s exciting to be a part of.

The Oscar nominations confirmed what many suspected: Shakespeare, with 13, and Ryan, with 11, were the top two contenders. But ahead of the March 21 ceremony, few believed Shakespeare would actually win best picture.

GILL I was in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We were absolutely certain that we were going to lose. Nobody I know, including Harvey, thought we were going to win.

PRESS That is a total lie. I don’t believe that at all.

DAVID PARFITT (SHAKESPEARE PRODUCER) We were all placed in our seats, and the very first thing that happened when we were coming in to the ceremony was Harvey moved us because he wasn’t sitting on the end.

Prior to the final award, Shakespeare won six Oscars, including best actress for Paltrow; Ryan won five, including best director for Spielberg, who received a standing ovation and began his speech, “Am I allowed to say I really wanted this?” Then Harrison Ford was introduced as the presenter of best picture.

PARFITT When we didn’t get director, we were all sitting in a row, and Donna actually [crumpled] her speech and said, “That’s it, we’re done.”

When Ford opened the envelope, he looked stricken and said grimly, “Shakespeare in Love,” to audible gasps. The stunned Shakespeare team leapt to its feet and all five credited producers — the most for a best picture winner in decades — headed onstage. Weinstein spoke after Gigliotti and Parfitt, placing his Oscar on the floor to read from notes. He first thanked Disney chief Michael Eisner; later, his “loving wife” and “rotten kids.” The music began before Marc Norman or Ed Zwick could speak, and the show ended. Spielberg skipped the press room. It was on to the Governors Ball.

WEINSTEIN They said we’d never win. You think about it: They had Harrison Ford up there announcing the award! I mean, was that a symbol it was supposed to go the other way? He’s such a great guy, but when you’re competing with Private Ryan and you see Harrison Ford, you go, “Whoops, okey-dokey.”

ANGELLOTTI Harrison Ford stepped up to the podium and all it did for me was confirm that we were going to lose — he’s Steven’s really close friend from all the Raiders movies. So when he read, “Shakespeare in Love,” I lost my footing and fell backwards against the wall. A publicist for DreamWorks who knew me looked at me and said, “Never talk to me again,” and stormed off.

GRANATA The only feeling I had, from the moment the movie won, was, “The town doesn’t want to hear this.”

PRESS I was in the mezzanine. He read it and I felt like my face was on fire, which was probably blood rushing to my face. Then I remember walking down the stairs with my husband and just wanting to get out, but the way it was set up, you fed from the Chandler into the Governors Ball, and standing there was Harvey. He said something like, “Oh, Terry, congratulations” that Steven had won — some fake thing — and I said to him, “This will never happen again.” I went and found Jeffrey [Katzenberg, DreamWorks’ co-chief], and I said, “I will never take the high road with these people again. The next time” — which turned out to be the following year [with DreamWorks’ eventual best picture winner American Beauty] — “you’ll find me in the mud.” He got it. I was devastated, and Steven was no longer naive about what Harvey was capable of.

TOM STOPPARD (SHAKESPEARE WRITER) At the Governors Ball, there was a big Ryan table, and I wandered over assuming everybody was having a happy night. Then I realized that I’d walked into what was, at the moment, quite a cold atmosphere.

SIEGAL Harvey went over to his table to congratulate him, and I remember Spielberg turning away.

SWARTZ Sadly, none of Harvey’s successes ever made him a nicer person to work for. My therapist explained to me that somebody with the psychology or pathology of Harvey always wanted more, always wanted affirmation, so a success only made him have a bigger craving.

SPIELBERG It’s not that I got “turned off” by it. I didn’t. There was fierce competition before 1998-99. There’s always been competition. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, there was bloc voting — the Academy members at Fox were voting against the members at Warner Bros. and they were all being trounced by the voters at MGM. I mean, this is not foreign to anyone who has had experience growing up in this town. It’s just a reality, something we live with.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.