'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Harvey Weinstein (The Weinstein Co.)

Harvey Weinstein Oscars - H - 2014
Associated Press

"We did not think it was a Francois Truffaut movie about adolescence," Harvey Weinstein, the co-chief of The Weinstein Co., says of the 1959 film The 400 Blows, the first art house picture he ever saw, with his brother Bob and other friends, back when he was a kid growing up in the projects of Flushing, New York. "We thought it was about something else completely, something we were lacking in a huge way," he adds with a laugh. Harvey and Bob's friends, who were accustomed to popular movies like Hercules, left after French subtitles appeared, but Harvey, now 63, and Bob, now 61, stuck around — and have been associated with art house movies ever since.

(Click below to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and Lily Tomlin.)

Harvey, one of the most interesting, influential and controversial people in the film industry, co-founded, with Bob, Miramax Films in 1979 and subsequently The Weinstein Co. in 2005. At the helm of these independent companies, he took on the big studios in a way that no indie ever had before — not only at the box-office, but also at the Oscars on a regular basis. If Harvey — as he is universally referred to, even by people who don't know him — did not exist, there's a strong possibility the indie boom of the 1990s would not have happened; it certainly wouldn't have been what it was. Quentin Tarantino might still be working in a video store. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon might still be scraping out a living in Boston. Kate Winslet might still be a regionally-known actress. Judi Dench might never have had a film career. And a hell of a lot of mantelpieces would be missing some gold decoration.

This year, for the first time since 2008, and one of the few times in the last 25 years, none of Harvey's films are nominated for best picture at the Oscars — Carol and The Hateful Eight came up short — but he's still going to the show; hoping for a best original score win for Hateful composer Ennio Morricone, among others associated with Weinstein Co. films, as well as a best actor win for "my buddy Leo" [DiCaprio] for The Revenant; and bracing himself for host Chris Rock's monologue which, in this year of #OscarsSoWhite, he expects will "annihilate" Hollywood power-players like himself.

Everyone knows of Harvey's successes (his films have received nearly 400 Oscar nominations, roughly 90 of which have resulted in wins) and failures (his failed attempt to create a Weinstein empire beyond the movies), not to mention his assets (his great taste, persuasive negotiating skills, unequaled marketing savvy and undeniable charm) and shortcomings (his occasional temper with subordinates). But few know the story of what preceded him becoming one of the few heads of a studio or distribution company whose name is known to virtually everyone inside or outside of Hollywood.

The son of working-class parents Miriam and Max, Harvey suffered a gruesome injury when he was just 12 that left him "incapacitated for six months" and partially blind in his left eye. It proved to be a mixed blessing, in the long run, as it forced him to get serious about his studies and also left him with time to learn new things. At the urging of a retired librarian who lived next-door, and with whom he would spend time when his parents were at work, he "began a love affair with reading" — he recalls consuming War and Peace just months into this new hobby — that would serve him well when he entered show business. The 400 Blows experience opened his mind to all sorts of offerings at the movies — "I went every week," he says, "and I saw Fellini, Bergman, de Broca, you name it" — and piqued his curiosity about the people who made them. He remembers reading Bosley Crowther's Hollywood Rajah, Bob Thomas' biographies of film moguls, books about Truffaut and the New Wave and many others. "I said, 'This is for me.'"

In 1976, Harvey and Bob's "amazing" father, with whom they were "so close," died of a heart attack at the age of 52. By that time, Harvey had already graduated from the University of Buffalo — he was an English major in the class of 1973 who had worked on the side for the late TV newsman Tim Russert, then a bigwig in the New York State Democratic Party — and had become a successful concert promoter. (That all began when the U of B, as a result of budget troubles, canceled concerts for students. Spotting an opportunity, Harvey and a classmate started Harvey and Corky Productions, and before long they were independently producing concerts not only on campus but all over America.) Harvey was making money, but he had not yet realized his dream of making it in the film business. "Dad never saw us create Miramax [the company Harvey and Bob established three years later and named after their parents]," he laments, "so that was a blow."

Harvey later found work as an assistant to execs at Apple Records and to Julian Schlossberg, the VP of production at Paramount Pictures, and he and Bob also found mentors in two marketing execs: Tom Sherak, then the head of the nation's largest exhibitor, General Cinemas, who would go on to become president of the Academy; and Arthur Manson, then the head of marketing for Warner Bros., and "a genius and a mensch" who Harvey later hired to work for him and Bob. Harvey says he experienced "tough love" from people like these and believes it works, which is why he's applied it to his subordinates. "Look at the guys I've graduated," he says, referring to people who have worked for him and Bob — among them Paramount's chairman and CEO Brad Grey, New Regency's president and CEO Brad Weston, TriStar Pictures' president Hannah Minghella, the Academy's marketing chief Christina Kounelias and many others.)

Harvey envisioned Miramax as a successor to earlier New York art house operations like those led by Don Rugoff ("his taste was so impeccable") and Dan Talbot (who ran the New Yorker Theatre and New Yorker Films), and was spurred on by other indie distributors that began to make inroads, at the box-office and at the Oscars, in the mid-1980s. By the late 1980s, the company was regularly acquiring films with controversial titles and/or subject matter at film festivals and, through creative and aggressive marketing and publicity efforts, garnered disproportionate returns on them — titles like Cinema Paradiso, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, My Left Foot and Sex, Lies and Videotape (all 1989), as well as The Crying Game (1992) and, most famously, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), which cost less than $9 million and grossed more than $200 million worldwide. (Harvey soon began calling Miramax "the House That Quentin Built" and has distributed every one of Tarantino's movies since.)

Harvey became synonymous with ballyhoo — not because he craves attention, he insists, but because it serves his films. "At the end of the day, word-of-mouth [buzz] is what really carries movies," he says. "Sometimes you have to get attention for a film." This explains why he insists on making films as tight as possible — his occasional entry into editing rooms earned him the moniker "Harvey Scissorhands," although his cuts appear to have helped many films, most of the affected filmmakers now acknowledge — and why he never leaves an opportunity for visibility on the table. He is notorious for getting famous people to endorse a film, feigning outrage at — and filing appeals with — the MPAA over ratings and even, he volunteers, "getting movies banned."

Harvey realized early on that for a company as small as Miramax — which gained a big-studio parent when it was purchased for $60 million by Disney in 1993, but was largely left to its own devices thereafter — award nominations and wins might be the best marketing and publicity vehicle of all, driving people to theaters and to purchase films on DVD or Blu-Ray thereafter. "With [1987's] Pelle the Conqueror we couldn't get people into the theater if we drove them and gave them free admission," he recalls. "Nobody wanted to see it. But it wins the Oscar [for best foreign language film] and all of a sudden, bang!" He adds, "The Oscar, to an audience, is a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

Samuel Goldwyn, one of Harvey's heroes, was one of the few successful independent distributors in the era of the Hollywood studio system. Goldwyn's 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives was the first film from a non-major to win the best picture Oscar, an award that films distributed by Harvey's Miramax and The Weinstein Co. would win five times — for 1996's The English Patient; 1998's Shakespeare in Love, following "a crazy campaign" that "became political" with DreamWorks, which was pushing Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (the win "showed that we could compete" with the studios, he says); 2002's Chicago; 2010's The King's Speech; and 2011's The Artist. This didn't happen by accident. He learned who the Academy members were, what they liked and how he could convince them to pay attention to his contenders. "I'm not a glutton for awards," he says. "Marketing is expensive, but it has its results and it takes movies that should be seen, that very often are ignored, and does that." He adds, "Do I think it's easier to make Marvel comic book movies? I think I could do [that] if I said I'm not gonna do the kind of movies that I love."

Since parting ways with Disney a little over a decade ago, the Weinsteins' new operation has experienced something of a rollercoaster ride. Things got off to a rocky start, partly because Harvey, by his own admission, took his eye off the ball and got into things outside his area of expertise, like fashion and creating a social network. As he puts it, "After the Disney divorce — over Fahrenheit 9/11 and a lot of factors — there was a lot of antagonism and I just felt I needed time away from movies, so I kind of delegated and I tried to explore different things. And you know what? I found I wasn't good at those other things." The company rebounded with the back-to-back best picture Oscars, but since then it has had a bumpy go of things, with art house films like those in which it specializes increasingly endangered by the crash of the DVD market, a dearth of financing options and the rise of cable and streaming television. In recent months, numerous high-level Weinstein Co. employees have left the company, including president of production Dylan Sellers, marketing chief Stephen Bruno, president of TV Meryl Poster, VP of national publicity Emmy Chang and TWC-Radius chiefs Tom Quinn and Jason Janego. Some have speculated that it wouldn't survive much longer. But Harvey remains bullish about its future.

As the last of the old-school moguls approaches his 64th birthday in less than a month, does retirement ever cross his mind? Isn't he tempted to stay home, relax and spend more time with his wife, fashion designer Georgina Chapman, and his four daughters and one son — three with first wife Eve Chilton and two with Chapman — who range in age from two to 21? What could he possibly have left to prove? He dodges the question, but responds by paraphrasing a passage from the novel-turned-film Zorba the Greek: "I live each day like it's my last."