Harvey Weinstein Blasts 'Finding Neverland' Critics: 'They Have No Clout Whatsoever'

Harvey Weinstein was born, raised and lives in New York, but it seems like the New York theater press still needs to learn something that the Hollywood film press learned long ago: namely, that one should think twice about picking a fight with Harvey.

This week, The Weinstein Co. announced that Finding Neverland, a stage adaptation of the 2003 Oscar-nominated film that Harvey and his brother Bob Weinstein released under their former banner of Miramax, will debut at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on April 8, 2015, just in time to qualify for the next Tony Awards. (You may recall that a musical number from the show was performed at the last Tony Awards, in June, by Jennifer Hudson, who has nothing to do with the show.)

Weinstein has been an investor on numerous other Broadway shows dating back to 2000 — most recently All the Way, the Bryan Cranston vehicle that won this year's best play and best actor in a play Tonys — but Finding Neverland marks the first time that he has been lead producer, meaning not only financial participation but creative involvement. And, as should be surprising to no one, Weinstein has been intimately involved with the production — and the response to early targeting of it by members of the media.

Read more 'Finding Neverland' Landing on Broadway in March

Weinstein spent millions developing a version of Finding Neverland that premiered in England in 2012, but response was lukewarm and, at great additional cost, he replaced the score, script, songwriters, book writer and director. This summer, a revamped version debuted at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where it played to sold-out audiences for months and received rave reviews from local critics. But in August, a couple of New York-based theater critics — including The New York Times' Ben Brantley — went out of town to review the A.R.T. version of the show.

At the time, no Broadway plans had been confirmed for it, partly because Weinstein did not yet feel that it was ready for primetime and was still investing money in making it better. But the critics still posted so-so reviews, which were amplified by the New York Post's infamously catty theater columnist Michael Riedel — who had not yet seen the show himself — declaring that "the reviews are in" and the show is "dead in the water."

Weinstein, never one to take criticism — particularly of an unjust nature — lying down, sprung into action. In the latest demonstration that he is the clear heir to marketing geniuses like P.T. Barnum, Cecil B. DeMille and, well, Florenz Ziegfeld — he challenged Riedel to join him at last Saturday's A.R.T. performance, after which audience members would be polled about whether they "Loved it" or "Didn't love it." Dubbing it "The Riedel Challenge," Weinstein said that if 80 percent or more did not love the show, then Riedel could dump ice water on his head — but if 80 percent or more loved it, then Weinstein would dump it on Riedel. In the end, 96 percent backed the show, so Riedel got wet. (See footage above.)

This week, THR caught up with Weinstein about the early reviews, his interactions with Riedel, his decision to become more heavily involved in theater, the status of Jeremy Jordan's involvement with the show (Jordan starred in the A.R.T. version of Neverland and stars in the new movie musical The Last 5 Years, which Radius, a branch of The Weinstein Co., just acquired) and the thought-process behind the selection of Neverland's Broadway theater and debut date. Not surprisingly, Weinstein didn't mince his words.

How did you feel when Brantley and others reviewed Finding Neverland out of town. That's not something New York theater critics always do.

Yeah. They had some nice things to say and some constructive criticisms. But Brantley [dismissively] comparing the show to Matilda and to Wicked and saying it was that kind of a show? Please, let it be that! Let it be a tenth of that and we'll be thrilled! And every review in Boston — the Globe, the radio stations, the other newspapers, everything — was a rave. What I didn't like was Riedel writing kind of an idea of a review based on him not being there. The other guys were there. So I said to him, "Mike, if you're not gonna come then you can't write that stuff! You can't write hearsay and do that kind of bitchy thing that you do where you just make up what the last person told you in a hallway."

I challenged him on behalf of ALS to "The Riedel Challenge," which was this: I would make the stakes unbearably high for the show. Eighty percent of the audience had to say they loved it. The cards were "Love it" and "Don't love it." Ernst & Young, who do the Tonys, managed the entire process. Mike was there to meet the people. And at the end, Ernst & Young counted up the ballots. 344 said they loved it and 16 said they did not love it — a 96 percent ratio — and then I introduced Mike to the audience and they started talking to him and telling him how moving it was; some people had been there a third time. And at the end of the day, it was his turn to take a bath.

We put a T-shirt on him that said "Believe" [the show's tagline] and he promised not to write bitchy columns anymore — I don't think that'll happen, but we'll see. I could have doused him over the head, but it was cold outside so I doused his shoulder and he got soaked. We promised that we would look at the show's ticket pricing and make sure that people aren't getting ripped off with obscene, crazy ticket prices — which is a whole thing on Broadway that needs to be looked at, investigated and worked on.

Mike Riedel was a complete gentleman, so charming, so wonderful. But, like the scorpion, he'll probably bite again, I'm quite sure of it; I don't think he can help himself, like "The Scorpion and the Frog," or Jessica Rabbit — he's drawn that way. We couldn't believe it — he could actually put words together and speak in full sentences. We just thought he lived in Dante's inferno somewhere, you know, munching on former theater producers.

Is it your sense that people are coming at this show with knives out because of your involvement with it?

The editor of The New York Times' entertainment section Scott Heller — spell his name correctly, he's probably not used to seeing his name in print — assigned Brantley and said to Rick Miramontez [the show's publicist], "Normally we don't do this, but it's Harvey Weinstein doing the show." So you know what? It's gotta be a two-way street. And Brantley? I met him, I said hello to him, he seemed like a perfectly nice guy — but everybody was like holding their breath: "Oh, my God! Harvey's talking to Ben Brantley?! Jesus Christ! That's not allowed to happen!" From now on, whenever I see Ben Brantley there's gonna be a big hello!

These guys have gotta get out more often, you know what I mean? I've got five kids — kids who see family shows — and the theater is for families, too. It's not just the province of critics. William Butler Yeats built the Abbey Theatre based on the idea of it being populist. That's where I come from. These Broadway guys are so insulated, you know?

Finding Neverland was the biggest hit in the 34-year history of A.R.T. [American Repertory Theatre]. It was sold out every night. It was unbelievable. I think the show's beyond criticism at this point. The word-of-mouth out of Boston is incredible. People have Twittered all over the country. The social media that we've seen is amazing. We're doing a special cast album that's songs from the show but with Jessie J. And there's gonna be huge stars on the Universal Music Group concept album.

Ben and Mike don't mean anything in this situation, they really don't. People love the movie. People love the idea of the show. People know [songwriter] Gary Barlow's music. Diane Paulus is a great director. I think people trust me when it comes to certain kinds of entertainment — they know what our brand means. It doesn't matter what they write; it's inconsequential on a show like this. Plus Mike Riedel said that Bullets Over Broadway was gonna win the Tony last year, you know? It closed in four or five months. And Ben Brantley hated Wicked. So they don't mean anything in this kind of a situation. These guys, they have no clout whatsoever on a family musical.

Before The King's Speech, The Artist and The Weinstein Co.'s many other recent successes, the company was in a bit of a funk and you yourself attributed that to the fact that you guys had branched into areas outside of your primary area of expertise, movies. So why, after coming through that period, did you want to get into something other than movies again?

Well, Finding Neverland is a movie that I made years ago. I think I have an understanding of why the movie means so much to so many people. It's my kids' favorite movie — that's my biggest impetus, that they love it; my daughters haven't united on anything except how good and how special this movie made them feel. And they're teenage girls — we saw a lot of that in Boston, too. There's something about this show that touches young kids, and that's why we're getting the Jessie J's and people to do a song.

So it's not that much branching, you know what I'm saying? It's not like I'm running an Internet company or doing that many things. We've done a bunch of movies and we've done some very innovative distribution with great success, and I think we're well looked after, so I think I have a little time to moonlight — but I know what my day job is, you know, and I will continue to "stick to the knitting" and just get a couple hours off to do the show. But with Diane Paulus, Gary Barlow, [songwriter] Eliot Kennedy and [playwright] James Graham, there's not much that I have to do anyhow.

A branch of The Weinstein Co., RADiUS, recently picked up for U.S. distribution the new movie musical The Last 5 Years, which, like Finding Neverland, stars the up-and-coming actor Jeremy Jordan and will open in the spring. Is that purely a coincidence?

Well, I can't comment about the Broadway cast right now, but I can tell you that, as far as our relationship with Jeremy Jordan, not only did we get involved in 5 Years, but The Weinstein Co. also nominated him at the Napa Valley Film Festival [Jordan will receive the fest's Rising Star Award] and we also have a television show that is on offer to him and other things. The guy is a phenomenal talent. So one way or another, on Finding Neverland or not, we're gonna be in business with Jeremy.

You know, getting to know Jeremy Jordan, [actor] Michael McGrath and some of the other performers on the show— It's amazing how we only look, in the movie business, to our own pool. I've been, honestly, not as aware of theater actors as I should be. There seems to be such a categorization — you know, what's film, what's theater — and these guys are fabulous actors, they have amazing discipline and, for me, as a bonus, I've discovered a vast reservoir of talent.

I put Matthew Morrison in [the forthcoming film] Tulip Fever and he is so charismatic. In a cast of Christoph Waltz, Zach Galifianakis, Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Judi Dench and Jack O'Connell from Unbroken, Matthew not only holds his own but he steals a number of the scenes he's in. So this has been very interesting to me with some of the movies I'm doing, looking to different talent.

This week we learned that Finding Neverland will open on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on April 8, 2015. Is there any rhyme or reason to why you picked that theater and that date?

Well, we were very lucky, in that we got an offer from Jujamcyn, we got an offer from the Shuberts and we got an offer from the Nederlanders, and it really was just a great opportunity for Diane to choose the theater that she felt most comfortable in. And when we heard that Motown was gonna move and then reopen, it left the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre open. She and our production designer Scott Pask went and saw all of the theaters that we got offered, and this was the one that she felt was the right fit for this show 'cause she wants things to feel a little more intimate. It was amazing to get a choice like that! We are thrilled to be at the Lunt with the Nederlanders, and we love the Shuberts and we love [Jujamcyn Theatres president] Jordan Roth — they have been incredible, all of them, and so hospitable and welcoming to me, in particular. As far as the date, Motown moves out in January, so that's the earliest we can get in, between them moving out and us doing a set amount of previews, according to Diane's schedule.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg