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Sundance Stories of Yore: "Shine"

by Christopher Campbell
January 14, 2009 11:33 AM
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Shine Still
Each day this week, Christopher Campbell will take a look back at a “classic” film that played the Sundance Film Festival. Today’s installment: Scott Hicks’ Shine (1996).

1996 was a monumental year for independent film. It began with a Sundance Film Festival that, according to Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures “would go down as Ten Days That Shook the Indie World,” because of the tremendous buying frenzy that occurred, including the infamous acquisition of The Spitfire Grill by Castle Rock for $10 million. The year then transpired with a slew of popular specialty titles that boosted business at many arthouse multiplexes while also exposing them as being unsuited for large crowds (the boom in indie film attendance was something I experienced first hand, having that year begun my first career at NYC’s Angelika Film Center). And the year ended (in 14-month Hollywood terms) with an unprecedented number of specialty films receiving nominations for Academy Awards.

Most astonishing, certainly, was the fact that four of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture were specialty titles, one of which had been discovered at Sundance. The film, Shine, might not have had a chance at such an honor, however, if Miramax and Harvey Weinstein had gotten their way.

As much as the 1996 Sundance Film Festival was remarkable for its number of films sold, it was also noteworthy for producing negative stories, too. Before The Spitfire Grill opened to empty theaters that summer to become the greatest embarrassment of that year’s festival, Harvey Weinstein and Miramax had a particularly humiliating experience during the fest involving their unsuccessful bid for Shine.

The full details of the story can be found in Down and Dirty Pictures, but basically Weinstein thought Miramax had picked up the film until he heard official word stating otherwise, that Shine had in fact been bought by Fine Line. The incident was defended as a miscommunication but treated by Weinstein as a boldface lie and resulted in a nasty fight between him and Shine producer Jonathan Taplin. Miramax’s Tony Safford, who ended up getting fired as a result, was hardly at fault, despite it being his task to seal the deal on the film. There was never any way that Miramax was going to get Shine, because its director, Scott Hicks, had had a bad experience with the distributor and had no intention of working with them. As Biskind puts it, “the Shine folks would rather have taken less money than go with Miramax.”

And there was great reason why Shine was better off anywhere else but at Harvey’s house — well, besides the fact that Weinstein was known for being a jerk with scissors for hands. Miramax had the Oscar-bait epic The English Patient (not to mention fellow eventual Oscar nominees Sling Blade, Kolya, Ridicule, Emma, Marvin’s Room and Trainspotting), and although Shine likely would have still picked up at least a Best Actor nod (and win) for Geoffrey Rush, it probably wouldn’t have received all of its six other nominations, especially not the one for Best Picture, with Weinstein’s attention primarily on that other, more costly film.

Of course, The English Patient won the top award and earned more than twice the box office gross of Shine. But the film’s reputation and esteem were still positively affected by the controversial sell to Fine Line over Miramax. And hopefully it taught subsequent Sundance filmmakers about the need to sell to the distributor that’ll give the best attention to the film, instead of the distributor that’ll pay the most.

Below is a clip from Shine featuring Rush’s Oscar-winning portrayal of pianist David Helfgott.

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