Niche players stage a comeback

Miramax, Vantage cap turnarounds

For the two companies with the most Oscar wins, Sunday capped a remarkable transformation that would have been hard to anticipate when it began only two years ago.

Miramax and Paramount Vantage were the biggest winners among studios for "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." The specialty divisions took home a total of six prizes apiece for the two films, including best picture, director, adapted screenplay and supporting actor for "No Country" and best actor and cinematography for "Blood." (Miramax and Vantage shared production and distribution on both films, with Miramax releasing "No Country" stateside while Vantage handled international; for "Blood," it was reversed.)

In accepting the best picture prize, producer Scott Rudin, who had a hand in both movies, thanked "everyone at Vantage and Miramax who financed this movie" and "the entire team at Miramax, who did a brilliant job selling it."

For both companies, the wins were validation that not that long ago would have been difficult to imagine.

After misfires with pricey pickups like "Hustle & Flow" in 2005, the former Paramount Classics was refashioned under new Paramount topper Brad Grey. He cleaned house and brought in talent agent John Lesher to run the unit. Lesher in turn hired such specialty vets as Lionsgate's Nick Meyer and Miramax's Amy Israel.

By 2006, the group had turned the division around, garnering awards and boxoffice dollars for such movies as "Babel" and "An Inconvenient Truth," continuing their run with "Blood" and "No Country" this year (though several other 2007 awards hopefuls, such as "Into the Wild," "A Mighty Heart" and Paramount Classics' "The Kite Runner," failed to score much kudos gold).

At Miramax, the evolution also happened quickly and in the face of huge uncertainty.

In the wake of the acrimonious split between the Weinstein brothers and Disney, there were questions over how much Disney wanted to be in the awards game. But the company was carefully rebuilt. It was re-assembled in late 2005 with remnants from the Weinstein era, some key hires as well as execs from other parts of Disney (president Daniel Battsek was head of Buena Vista International in London).

The company won an Oscar out of the gate with its first pickup, the 2005 foreign-language winner "Tsotsi," continued the momentum with Oscar wins and noms for "The Queen" and "Venus" last year and then went on a hot streak this year that also saw multiple Oscar noms for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

Of course, such success comes at a price. Competitors sometimes grumble that the company spends a lot of money to win its awards, pointing to large-scale campaigns for such movies as "Queen" and "No Country." But both Miramax and parent company Disney seem content with the marketing spends if it brings home the statues.

There is a separation — literally, given Miramax's headquarters in New York, as well as figuratively, in Disney's hands-off approach to Miramax. That latitude perhaps has come more easily with Disney essentially exiting the business of serious adult pictures last year. Still, cultures are occasionally merged, as they were Saturday, when Disney studio chief Dick Cook and Elton John mingled with the more art house crew from Miramax at a party thrown by the division at Luckman Plaza in West Hollywood.

If Vantage and Miramax are similar in their recent pasts, their futures might diverge.

With Disney clearly out of the awards game and Miramax enjoying a solid fall ("No Country" earned $64 million domestically, and the foreign-language "Diving Bell" $5 million), Miramax is likely to continue releasing relatively few movies and being driven primarily by what it deems to be quality pictures, or at least pictures that target a prestige audience.

Vantage is in a more dynamic place. The company is facing its own evolution with the departure of Lesher to the No. 2 slot at Paramount under Grey. After several years of serious art house fare such as "Babel" and "Blood," it also is seeking to expand its range with categories like comedies and urban films, as well as such awards plays as Sam Mendes' suburban drama "Revolutionary Road" and "Mary Queen of Scots."

The specialty business is funny that way. Just when it seems like everything is set, things change. Just ask the execs at Miramax and Vantage.