Miramax a product of its time

Division hit by specialty world's ups and downs

Four years ago, a company that was a curious hybrid of old and new made a statement of sorts when it picked up a buzz drama about South African gangsters that had just played the Toronto Film Festival.

"Tsotsi," one of the company's first movies, went on to win a foreign-language Oscar and become one of the highest-earning non-English movies for the year (while its director went on to helm "X-Men" tentpoles). For its acquirer and distributor, a reconfigured Miramax run by Daniel Battsek, an exec imported from Disney's Buena Vista office in London, the release portended what the division would come to excel at: filmmaking chops, tastemaker appeal and surprising boxoffice muscle, though muscle with sometimes limited range.

Gavin Hood's movie also hung on in theaters for nearly five months, a far longer run than many anticipated.

Whether the same could be said of Miramax is a matter for debate. On Friday Disney said it plans to significantly contract the division, cutting about two-thirds of its staff and relieving it of marketing, distribution and other key responsibilities.

It remains unclear how much Miramax can still breathe on as a glorified production label. Disney has by most accounts lost its stomach for the specialized world -- preferring, when it goes outside its core realm of the family-friendly, to aim for the tentpole stylings of Marvel and the commercial, if quality-minded, comedies and thrillers of DreamWorks.

While there's a remote chance Miramax could thrive sheltered from the high expectations that come with being a standalone, it's more likely that the absorbed division gets Vantage-ized, the current talk of centralization little more than a speed bump on the road to dissolution.

But no matter what becomes of Miramax, the company will have left a deep footprint on the prestige world. In just four years of existence, it remains one of the most unusual stories in modern specialty film.

Being formed from the ashes of the old Weinstein Bros.-run Miramax served two disparate purposes, one inspired by noble aims and the other by corporate ego: to show that Disney still believed in the specialty business, and, maybe more important at the time of its launch, to show Disney could succeed without the Weinsteins.

Perhaps because of the latter, Dick Cook and his team brought on Battsek, an exec as refined and above-the-line as Harvey and Bob were brash and street-tough (though, interestingly, both had a knack for getting voters and audiences to pay attention to difficult movies).

The company became a petri dish for dissimilar film cultures: Its staff was formed by Buena Vista execs Battsek brought with him, Weinstein holdovers who hadn't gone with Bob and Harvey and the odd new hire. More immediately, it faced branding issues. Since the Weinsteins were simultaneously forming their own company, people often used the Miramax name when they really meant the new Weinstein Co., a particularly thorny issue given how temperamentally opposite Battsek and the company he was creating were. (The division was known colloquially as "the new Miramax," a coinage true in more ways than one.)

But the company also had a clear sense of purpose, one tailor-made for the specialty division-crazed era in which it was formed, when a quirky Sundance pickup like "Little Miss Sunshine" could earn $60 million without batting an eye.

Miramax offered a mission that was not unlike Billy Beane's "Moneyball" style of baseball management. Perhaps even more than its slightly older counterpart, Focus Features, Miramax would look for the alleys that others overlooked or had written off as viable. Only instead of doing it with the shoestring budget that Beane (and many indie companies) were known for, Miramax, as a Disney-hosted entity, could spend. It was more like Theo Epstein and the Boston Red Sox: "Moneyball" with mula.

Over the next three years Miramax followed a clear pattern -- about eight films per year, usually concentrated in the fourth quarter, and headlined with one big bet that had both Academy and boxoffice potential.

Those big bets tended to pay off, especially in its first two years. Its three highest-profile releases -- "The Queen," "No Country for Old Men" and "Doubt," from 2006 to 2008 -- had domestic cumes of $56 million, $74 million and $33 million (incidentally, also a neat bell curve of audience interest in prestige or dark dramas over the past few years).

There would also be a fair number of movies that bubbled up "Tsotsi"-style -- a quadruple-Oscar nom in the French-language "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and a $20 million-earning thriller in "Gone Baby Gone."

And with Scott Rudin's deal based there (Miramax also went halfsies with Vantage on "There Will Be Blood") it became a go-to venue for quality.

At the boxoffice and especially at the awards podium, Miramax enjoyed a fairly high batting average of success -- though that success was tempered, rivals would often say, by the heavy spending the company made to market those awards movies. ("Blood" and "Men" were particular targets, with the former reportedly commanding an eye-popping $75 million marketing spend.)

And Miramax didn't always knock it to the opposite field; the company certainly had its share of classic specialty titles -- "Smart People," "Brideshead Revisited" and "Venus," to name a few -- that didn't cross over the way it hoped. Still, it was a pretty happy tale -- a company with a relatively small staff that managed to be a fixture every fall. It certainly more than showed up TWC, which with its chaos and frequent direction change sometimes seemed to be flailing.

But with audience tastes changing, and with Disney growing restless (the division was under the gun from Wall Street), Miramax began to change too. It attempted to go more comedic in the manner of its specialty competitor Fox Searchlight.

In the past year it tried to put a Judd Apatow stamp on things with a movie from "Superbad" director Greg Mottola, "Adventureland," and then followed it up last month with the Mike Judge comedy "Extract." Neither caught on at the boxoffice.

Last week, Disney, realizing Miramax wasn't Searchlight (and realizing, too, that it couldn't find a buyer), resolved to make some drastic changes. It simply didn't want to fund a boutique company anymore, and the fact that it wasn't having a knockout year made it easy to act on that decision.

For the execs who worked there, who were not only really good at what they do but really good people, the future will sort itself out; even in a contracted environment, there's always room for talent.

As for the company, the new Miramax may belong in some ways to a now-bygone, even old, era. But it leaves behind a legacy of good and successful films, an achievement that always remains on the cutting edge.