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Movie Biz Blows Hot, Cold for Weinsteins, Universal, DreamWorks, Disney, Miramax

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 18, 2009 at 8:12AM

Hollywood is like one big science experiment, with constantly shifting transfers of heat and power and pockets of freezing cold.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Hollywood is like one big science experiment, with constantly shifting transfers of heat and power and pockets of freezing cold.

Truth is, what goes up must come down, and no run lasts forever. Look at Universal, in the midst of a frigid spell (and trying to make the best of it in the LAT) while DreamWorks announces it has raised $825 million during the worst recession most of us can remember.

DreamWorks' new distribution deal (not Universal or Paramount) is with Disney, which is in a cold spot and looking to rejigger its future. (If motion picture production chief Oren Aviv isn't nervous, he should be.) Going forward, how do you handle big spenders like Jerry Bruckheimer in a world where DVDs don't pay for everything?

Funny thing about Hollywood: spending money is sometimes the best way to stay alive---as long as you don't put too much of it in the wrong place. Look at Bob Berney at Apparition, buying up a storm. He's jump-starting a company. You get your funding, you move fast and keep running, hoping your luck stays with you.

Look at the beleaguered Weinsteins, though, and I see no obvious logic to their decisions. The distribution deal with MGM was a disaster from in front, pay-TV slots be damned. The Genius homevideo investment blew up. With Goldman Sachs, French TV's TF1, ad giant WPP Group and Mark Cuban demanding a return on their investment, why were the Weinsteins investing in website aSmallWorld, Cablevision, Blockbuster, cable channel Ovation and couturier Halston?

Over the last four years many of their choices made no sense. They indulged some filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, letting them make the two-part Grindhouse for way too much money. Where was the business sense in a movie like that with a teeny market niche?

TWC spent heavily in some areas--Rob Marshall's musical Nine cost $90 million--while cheaping out in others. They took Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a commercial comedy starring Seth Rogen--arguably Kevin Smith's best movie to date--and cheaped out and mishandled the marketing and release plan. Rogen and Smith are both furious with them. TWC plunked down $5 million for the Catherine Zeta Jones Death Defying Acts from Gillian Armstrong, then dumped it.

The Weinsteins didn’t think, when they started their new entertainment empire back in 2005, that their fate would be determined by two movies in the last half of 2009. The first is Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a delightful alternate fantasy scenario of what might have happened in German-occupied Paris with Hitler’s movie-loving Gestapo. Tarantino, who felt badly that his half of Grindhouse lost money for his long-generous and loyal patrons, delivered his picture on time and well within the final cut length perameters in time for Cannes, where it played well.

Partners Universal and Weinstein Co. will probably eke out some earnings on Basterds, which cost $70 million and should do well overseas. But it won't bail out the Weinsteins.

Nor will Nine. The lavish musical looks fabulous. And could be as well received as the Weinsteins and Marshall's last collaboration, the Oscar-winning Chicago. But it will have to be a blockbuster to get into the black.

Yes, the Weinsteins turned the marginal specialty film business into something large and lucrative, and inspired the studios to jump into that sector. Truth is, though, having transformed the film industry, they failed to adapt to changing times.

They got used to having a studio behind them, complete with output deals and homevideo packages. At Disney, as the brothers continued to spend large on $100 million movies like Gangs of New York and The Aviator, they chafed at the constraints that parent put upon them.

And as the Weinsteins moved into their new indie status, they continued to pursue their globe-trotting lifestyle. One exec saw it coming as she decided to leave the Weinsteins behind. She knew they’d still charter jets and over-reach going forward. She was right. If they don't make these two films work, whatever they have for 2010 may not make a difference.

At Fox Searchlight, Peter Rice was inspired by the Weinsteins, but no matter how well his company scored, kept a $15 million cap on budgets. Rice did so well he got a big promotion, to running Fox TV. The Sony Pictures Classics team has kept their ambitions ruthlessly limited for three decades, and they’re still standing. Other specialty divisions that did not know how to function were shuttered.

Ironically, though, spending too little doesn't work either. There's a magic balance of risk-taking and constraint. The pattern tends to be: too much success leads to over-reaching. But too little spending (see Paramount Classics) leads to atrophy. At their best, the Weinsteins performed their high wire act with zest and brio. But now it is all feeling a tad forced and tired.

At Disney's Miramax, after three solid years and a slow fourth, Daniel Battsek runs the risk of not even getting into the ring. He's playing things safe, cutting back, trying not to lose too much money. Unfortunately, you have to spend money to make money in Hollywood. And now Tiffany producer DreamWorks is coming in with new financing. While these two companies do not occupy the same niche, it may be too close for comfort for Miramax, as others perceive two boutique divisions at one studio.

At a Christmas party last year, Mandate exec Joe Drake and I were talking about a guy who had just lost his studio job. "He didn't spend enough money," he said.

Here's an old post on TWC; the NYT's latest detailed tome; and David Poland's response.

[Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times]


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