Oscars: Harvey Weinstein's Days as an Awards-Season Power Player Appear Over

THR's awards columnist assesses the damage to The Weinstein Co.'s awards slate caused by the recent New York Times exposé about TWC's co-chief — and reflects on Weinstein's rise to and fall from the Oscar-season throne.
Associated Press
Harvey Weinstein

In the wake of Thursday's explosive New York Times article describing three decades of alleged sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood power player has taken an indefinite leave of absence from his role as co-chairman of The Weinstein Co., and his future with the company, as well as the future of the company itself, is now very much in question. Regardless of how things play out for him in the long run, it's already clear that this year, for the first time in 30 years, Weinstein will be on the sidelines of the playing field he once dominated: the Oscar season.

Up until three or four years ago, the thought of an Oscar season without Weinstein was akin to the thought of the New York skyline without the World Trade Center prior to 9/11. The companies that he ran with his brother Bob — first Miramax, then TWC — had at least one best picture nominee and at least one major win almost every year since 1990. Some years, his little independent operation garnered more Oscar noms than any of the major studios, topping out at 40 (including three of the five for best picture) in 2003, more than any company had garnered since 1940. And five of his films won best picture: The English Patient in 1997, Shakespeare in Love in 1999, Chicago in 2003, The King's Speech in 2011 and The Artist in 2012.

But TWC has been hemorrhaging money and staff since the box-office failure of 2015's The Hateful Eight, which was directed by Quentin Tarantino, ironically the same filmmaker who had cemented Miramax's place on the map with Pulp Fiction 21 years earlier. And this year, even before the publication of the Times article, the prospects for TWC's slate of Oscar hopefuls looked painfully bleak.

TWC's best and, perhaps, only truly plausible prospect is Wind River, the directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan that stars Jeremy Renner. The film, which was released in August, is at 86 percent on RottenTomatoes.com and has grossed three times its $11 million budget. TWC's plan had been for The Current War, a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch (who was Oscar-nominated for TWC's 2014 contender The Imitation Game) and on which Weinstein is personally credited as a producer, to be the company's primary horse in this year's Oscar race, but it was decimated by critics at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and now seems to have been shunted aside. At various points, there were rumblings that awards-qualifying 2017 releases could be given to The Upside, a remake of the 2011 French dramedy The Intouchables; Mary Magdalene, which reunites Garth Davis and Rooney Mara (the respective director and star of TWC's 2016 contender Lion); and Paddington 2, a sequel to a 2014 family comedy. But their releases are now all scheduled for 2018.

Last season, TWC struggled to deliver robust campaigns for its awards hopefuls, to the consternation of those associated with the films, who expected the usual Weinstein push and felt stung when it didn't materialize. In the end, The Founder, Sing Street and Gold were essentially thrown overboard so that the company could focus its increasingly limited resources on Lion. It was a true testament to the tireless efforts of TWC's publicity team — which was and remains comprised primarily of young women — that the film wound up with six Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. This year, even before the Times piece, TWC, with even fewer financial resources available and even more key staff having departed the company, was facing a huge uphill climb. Now, it faces a nearly impossible task: If Weinstein remains associated with the company in any way, one can expect a massive movement to punish his films, both at the box office and on Oscar ballots; but without him, those films' awards prospects may be equally doomed, since it's hard to imagine anyone being able to quickly step in and devise a better Oscar season game plan for them than Weinstein, who understands, as well as anyone, "the whole equation" of the awards game, to borrow a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon.

Weinstein was often credited as having invented the Oscar campaign. He did not — it was around before he was even born, dating back to orchestrated pushes for Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford and Marty, to cite only a few examples. But what Weinstein does deserve credit for is knowing his history and bringing together, to great effect, all of the techniques that had previously been employed effectively by others.

In the 1990s, Weinstein created within his publicity department, which was run by Marcy Granata, the first awards-specific publicity post ever created, "vp of special projects," which was held by Cynthia Swartz. Those two women, and colleagues including Lisa Taback and Tony Angellotti, were pushed to the limit to deliver Oscar noms and wins, which, particularly in the era of the DVD boom, could make the difference between a film's commercial success or failure. The fire and fury that they endured on the road to tirelessly fulfilling those demands equipped them with the tools to handle almost anything. It's not a coincidence that Swartz, Taback and Angellotti remain among the top awards-season strategists in the game all these years later — or that none of them have had anything to do with Weinstein for years.

Together with his advisors, Weinstein figured out how to game the system — mostly without breaking any rules. From the very beginning, he took part in, or at least authorized, no-holds-barred campaigning, from spending outrageous amounts of money in support of his contenders to shamelessly smearing others'.

Weinstein made an art form out of cultivating Academy members. He put retired publicists who were members of the Academy on his payroll, with the expectation that they would spread positive buzz about his films to their contemporaries. He flattered other Academy members by arranging lunches and dinners at fancy restaurants in New York and Los Angeles with his contending talent (Life Is Beautiful's Roberto Benigni dined with Elizabeth Taylor, for example), and then making sure the press covered those meetings as tacit endorsements. He courted Academy members in places that hadn't received much courting before, particularly throughout Europe. Weinstein's team, and sometimes he himself, rang up Academy members on the telephone, ostensibly to confirm that they had received their screeners, but really to lobby them — at least until the Academy banned the practice, at which point it occurred somewhat less frequently. And he arranged screenings of his films at popular vacation destinations — Vail, Aspen and the like — so that Academy members had no excuse not to have seen them over the holidays.

Weinstein also developed relationships with influential journalists and tastemakers, providing them with great copy (he was the most quotable guy in town since Samuel Goldwyn) and, when that wasn't enough, offering enticements like book deals. He had a knack for generating media attention for a film by doing things like picking fights (that he never expected to win) with the MPAA over ratings. And he knew better than anyone how to push an angle that would frame his film as being so socially important that it would be irresponsible not to vote for it.

Weinstein convinced talent that it would be worth it for them to give up their lives for several months and devote themselves full-time to glad-handing, and he generally was proven correct (even by people previously in town, like The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum, and many others). And, in many cases, although clearly not all, he took care of his talent: Gwyneth Paltrow, who he put on the map with the best picture-winning Shakespeare in Love, for which she was awarded the best actress Oscar, once told a journalist, "Working for Harvey is like working for the mafia. There are all these favors." In short, there's a reason — or, rather, many reasons — why he was thanked at the Oscars more times than God, literally.

Through it all, though, Weinstein, who now is being described as the ultimate Hollywood insider, was in fact the ultimate Hollywood outsider. He never ran a major studio; he ran small independent companies, one of which, it is true, existed uncomfortably under the auspices of Disney for a few years, but ultimately was pushed out because the two operations' ways of doing business were so incompatible. He never lived or worked in Los Angeles; he always was based in New York. And he never looked or acted like the other power players; he was an unapologetically overweight, slovenly, rumpled guy who was just as foul-mouthed, boorish and rage-prone with journalists as with subordinates.

During an interview with Weinstein that I moderated in 2014 at the PGA's Produced By Conference in New York, I asked him if the day might ever come when he would retire and focus on something other than movies. He certainly had the money to do so and, with a wife and young kids, why not? In response, Weinstein cracked a joke that got a big laugh: "I would like to run a small Caribbean nation, something with a military. I'll take care of that guy who called me 'Harvey Scissorhands.'" I suspect that today, Weinstein wishes he had retired at that very moment, if not a few years earlier, perhaps after he had proven his Oscar-season mastery beyond any doubt by delivering best picture, best director and best actor Oscars for The Artist, a small black-and-white silent love letter to the movies that was written and directed by and starred a bunch of French people who few Academy members had ever heard of before Weinstein promoted them. If he had walked away then, he would have gone out a winner. Now, however, he will leave the scene on terms other than his own and, it would certainly appear, the days of him being thanked at the Oscars are over.