Claudia Leisinger

Hooray for ‘Indiewood’?

October 2004

Sundance went butch. Harvey Weinstein frequently went ballistic. Disney found themselves representing Quentin Tarantino and Michael Moore. What really happened to the state of US independent film? By Leigh Singer

When Steven Soderbergh pitched up at the ailing US Film Festival in Park City, Utah in 1989, holding the print of his new film in his hand, no one could have predicted that his low-budget, intimate little drama would provide the catalyst to an epic melodrama played out across the American film industry itself. sex, lies, and videotape was the film that put the Sundance Film Festival (as it was later retitled) on the map, jumpstarted its US distributor Miramax and, a few months later, won Soderbergh the Palme d’Or at Cannes. As the dazed director murmured in his acceptance speech, ‘I guess it’s all downhill from here.’

If he meant launching the snowball of US independent cinema down the industry mountain, gathering pace, momentum and success in its wake, Soderbergh was spot on. Robert Redford’s Sundance festival turned from sleepy snowbound winter retreat to Hollywood’s winter holiday home, a media scrum where future hits like The Usual Suspects and The Blair Witch Project were fought over in aggressive bidding wars; As for Miramax, founded by brothers and former rock promoters Harvey and Bob Weinstein, just four years after Soderbergh, the Walt Disney Corporation bought their company for $80 million. The small underdog outfit (named, bless, after their parents, Miriam and Max) that had hustled and hassled niche films like Cinema Paradiso and The Crying Game towards numerous awards and unprecedented box-office was tethered to an entertainment behemoth.

Journalist and critic Peter Biskind’s new book Down and Dirty Pictures is a provisional history of Miramax, Sundance and indie cinema post 1989’s ‘big bang’. His previous tome, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, centred on the flamboyant directors who emerged in 70s US cinema – Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg et al. This time out he has a different focus. ‘I realized I couldn’t do a director’s book in the way I’d done the 70s book,’ Biskind explains, ‘I really felt thought that the story of the 90s was the revolution in distribution and marketing.’

Stifle those yawns. True, the average moviegoer doesn’t know or much care who releases or hypes a film – why should they? What’s more intriguing is to follow Biskind’s notion that the DNA of independent film – and therefore the types of film audiences are exposed to - was mutated throughout the 90s, in no small part to the Weinstein Brothers and, to a lesser extent, Redford. Sundance is disparaged for no longer catering to real low-budget films, paid with credit cards (Kevin Smith’s Clerks) or bodily fluids (Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi). And as Ethan Hawke is quoted, ‘Miramax has been a blessing and a curse for the film industry. You have to give them credit because they made indie movies sexy. They showed you could make money off them. The curse is that they commercialized them.’ Suddenly Soderbergh’s ‘downhill’ comment takes on bleaker connotations.

Following the Miramax-Disney marriage, virtually every other major studio arranged its own indie arm or ‘mini-major’ (see box-out), in an attempt to repeat the break out hits that Miramax had conjured up: smart, star-driven yet relatively low-budget movies that were potential goldmines, the way the $8 million Pulp Fiction garnered over $100 million in the US alone plus multiple Oscar nods. But in Biskind’s view this represents a fundamental betrayal: ‘Miramax became, as it were, the Trojan horse through which studio values came to permeate much of the indie scene.’ Independents becoming dependent on the very thing they should oppose.

Biskind also argues that the cash-flush Weinsteins marked up the acquisition rates as they moved into producing prestige films, resulting in a new breed of Oscar-friendly – Miramax’s thirteen consecutive Best Picture nominations in eleven years is a record - middlebrow confections, from Chocolat to Cold Mountain. As Soderbergh claims in the book, ‘the independent film movement, as we knew it, just doesn’t exist anymore…It’s over.’

Harsh words, and unsurprisingly, strongly refuted by Miramax themselves. ‘This idea that the company sold out along the way or is not dedicated anymore is just not substantiated in fact,’ insists Matthew Hiltzik, Head of Corporate Communications. ‘I don’t think that the independent spirit of the company has changed. What Bob and Harvey were always about was sharing the films with audiences that they typically would not have seen.’ Hiltzik points to some of this year’s Miramax crop of Oscar nominees and, sure enough, it’s hard to classify The Barbarian Invasions, Dirty Pretty Things or City of God in the same bracket as Shakespeare in Love.

Since so many seem het up about declarations of independence, what exactly are we talking about? ‘Miramax are owned by Disney. So does that make City of God, funded by Disney, a Disney movie?’ asks British producer Stephen Woolley, whose diverse slate at Palace Pictures in the 80s – from Mike Leigh to The Evil Dead – was very much a template for Miramax’s strategy. ‘Well, no it doesn’t because essentially for me independence means a movie that is defined in a creative and aesthetic level, as well as in subject matter, as well as in the way that it’s actually been funded. Hollywood doesn’t fund independent films, it funds companies to make what is called independent films.’

So what about those companies that exist separate from the major studios? ‘In my view everything we do is true independent in both in spirit and finance because we’re not studio-affiliated,’ observes Nick Meyer, president of genuine indie Lions Gate. ‘At Sundance this year that we didn’t have to second screen Open Water for the CEO, he said go do it and we could close [the deal] and that works to our advantage, which is tough for a lot of the mini-majors I think.’

The facile assumption then is that companies like Lions Gate, IFC Films and Newmarket have different priorities. ‘We’re still a publicly traded company with responsibility to our shareholders - not sexy for a piece on indie cinema,’ laughs Meyer. ‘We’re committed to making horror movies, foreign-language movies and bigger genre pieces like The Punisher or Godsend that are star-driven vehicles because we have a business to run.’

These are muddied waters that don’t part into easy art vs. commerce divisions. Earlier eras seemed to offer a neater dichotomy, with John Cassavetes’ edgy dramas, Roger Corman’s gleeful B-movies – crash courses that allowed Coppola (Dementia 13), Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha) or Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat) to graduate into the studio system – or John Waters’ censor-baiters oceans apart from the mainstream. Even into the 80s, directors like Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles and Spike Lee hardly blended into the background.

Only after Miramax forced sex, lies, and videotape into multiplexes was there a shift. ‘Harvey molded art film into smart film,’ acknowledges Biskind. Little wrong in getting your film to its widest possible audience you might think but this is where the Weinsteins really come under attack. Biskind recounts tale upon tale of ‘Harvey Scissorhands’ and his penchant for test screenings followed by recutting, detailing working practices seemingly more suitable for the mob than the movie industry. ‘Harvey behaves badly a lot of the time,’ Biskind says simply, ‘and that’s a big part of the story.’

That’s no exaggeration. Page after page documents Harvey’s wall-banging and tantrums: using Miramax’s heft to strong-arm other indie distributors out of multiplex screens; or buying, then shelving films; writing his own scenes for CopLand that Robert DeNiro point blank refuses to shoot; reducing people from Uma Thurman to M. Night Shymalan to tears. Sample conversation to director Todd Haynes: ‘You fucking little motherfucker, you’re just a spoiled brat, you think you’re such a fucking genius you wouldn’t, like, listen – you fucking prima donna, you fucking arrogant prima donna.’

Not even Miramax or Weinstein himself denies his volcanic temperament (see boxout) but are annoyed that equal emphasis hasn’t been placed on the positives. ‘Plenty of people out there will say that working with Miramax is the independent filmmaker’s dream,’ asserts Matthew Hiltzik. ‘Quentin got to film 220 pages of [Kill Bill’s] script, Harvey said, “We’ll figure it out later, just go do what you do best.” Martin Scorsese wanted to make Gangs of New York for 15-20 years; nobody else would step up to do it. Ararat – nobody else is going to fund a $2 million movie about the Armenian genocide but Harvey believed it was important, so we financed it. That’s the independent spirit.’

Obsessing on Harvey’s mood swings also ignores the wider picture. Are independent voices still able to be heard over corporate dictates? The various indie arms showed they weren’t afraid to flex their own muscles, challenging the major studios’ recent collusion in a ban on the VHS screeners the mini-majors frequently depend on. And the Weinsteins controversially bought Fahrenheit 9/11 back from Disney to distribute it (along with IFC and Lions Gate) when the studio wanted to drop Michael Moore’s political hot potato. ‘They actually risked the life of their company for a movie they believed in,’ Hiltzik points out. ‘Who else would do that?’ Ironically, Fahrenheit 9/11 has now earned more than any other Disney film this year.

On a more fundamental level the studio money may have produced the infrastructure so their indie arms can secure homes for more challenging fare, ‘these “Indiewood” hybrids,’ says Biskind, ‘from Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, the films with the big Hollywood stars, the Bill Murrays, the Adam Sandlers, that no Hollywood studio in their right mind would make.’ When pushed even he admits that the legacy of Miramax and Sundance overall has had ‘a positive effect’. ‘You’re left with this vague thing of the “independent spirit”’, Biskind surmises, ‘but I do actually think it exists.’

Down and Dirty Pictures is out September 2nd


Sydney Pollack: ‘The English Patient was falling apart. Nobody wanted it. Harvey stepped up, spent the money and promoted the hell out of it.’

Kevin Smith: ‘a man I respect, love and would gladly take a bullet for’

Ben Affleck: ‘I’ve only seen then human side of him. He supported me and Matt, and he’s been a pretty good friend to me.’

Richard Gere: ‘a kindly, lovable, gentle man who we all love, a little rough around the edges but with a heart of gold.’

Harvey Weinstein: ‘Me? I’m happy to be in the race, The point of it is, when I lose, I’m not a sore loser. I’ve spent my entire life coming up from nowhere, winning, losing, whatever. We never malign somebody else’s movie.’


Bernardo Bertolucci: ‘He’s a snob. I wouldn’t offer a cup of coffee to Miramax… I was watching The Sopranos and I recognised certain mannerisms of Harvey.’

Daniel Day-Lewis: ‘What he doesn’t understand is that I did Gangs in spite of Harvey, not because of Harvey.’

Nathan Lane: ‘Up to now I thought Monsters Inc. was a documentary on the Weinsteins.’

Spike Lee: ‘The fucked-up shit he’s done over his career, that’s just gonna come ‘round and bite ‘im. He’s a lyin’ cocksucker! A fat bastard. A fat rat bastard.’

Harvey Weinstein: ‘We gotta deal with my anger management. All my movies got screwed up because of [my] personality. I have too bad a temper; this has to stop, now. God, what an asshole I’ve been.’


20th Century Fox Fox Searchlight Pictures
The Full Monty, 28 Days Later, Bend It Like Beckham

Paramount Pictures Paramount Classics
You Can Count On Me, The Virgin Suicides, The Machinist

Sony (Columbia) Pictures Sony Picture Classics
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Talk to Her, The Fog of War

Vivendi / Universal Focus Features
The Pianist, 21 Grams, Lost in Translation,

Warner Brothers New Line Cinema
The Lord of the Rings, Elf, About Schmidt
Fine Line Features
The Player, Elephant, American Splendor,

Walt Disney Pictures Miramax Films
sex, lies, and videotape, Pulp Fiction, Chicago
Dimension Films
Scream, Scary Movie, Spy Kids


Lion’s Gate Entertainment
Dogma, Monster’s Ball, Open Water

IFC Films
Memento, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Y Tu Mama Tambien,

Newmarket Films
Monster, Whale Rider, The Passion of the Christ (co-distributor with Icon Pictures)

'© Highbury Entertainment 2004. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'