The State of the Movies

Hollywood 1996: Things are changing, and it's all the same.

If the problem was just that Hollywood primarily makes and markets bad movies, our moviegoing situation wouldn't necessarily be so bad--because there might come to be more competition at movie theaters from foreign and independent films. But no. Thanks to the deregulation that began in the Reagan administration, studios and/or their parent companies are back in the game of owning everything related to filmmaking: movie theaters (Loews, Cineplex Odeon and Mann Theaters), the magazines and TV shows that promote them (Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, Entertainment Tonight), the distribution companies that release the films in theaters and on video, and even the cable and network television stations that later show them. The moviemaking conglomerates increasingly control what we see and where we see it, and make money every step of the way. And they are now threatening the relatively few options we have left with their next line of conquest: the assimilation of the independents.

Studios have always been interested in independent filmmakers. Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Ed Burns--they all made a big splash with their first independent (that is, non-studio-financed) feature film. And all were quickly and completely incorporated into the studio system. What's changed with deregulation is the scale and composition of the major studios' independent acquisitions. For now it's not just the filmmakers they're buying, but the independent production companies and mini-major studios. Smaller companies like Miramax and New Line Cinema/Fine Line Features have steadily expanded and become hugely profitable by two principal means: buying independent films from their makers, and producing a relatively modest number of works for far less than the major studios can. Primarily they keep costs down by generally not being union signators and by keeping salaries low. Therefore, when they hit, they hit big. And when low-budget films like sex, lies & videotape, The Wedding Banquet, or A Room With A View start passing the $40 million mark, it does not go unnoticed by the major studios.

Miramax, founded 16 years ago by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, is a good example of how independent film has grown into a powerhouse industry. Miramax is perhaps best known for producing and/or distributing films like The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction. And through their combination of acquiring and producing, they've slowly amassed a film library of over 200 titles, including several films which have grossed over $100 million.

So hand-in-hand with Big News mergers like Disney's purchase of ABC Television come relatively quieter deals like Disney's 1993 acquisition of Miramax and its exclusive three-year deal with Merchant-Ivory Productions (Howards End, The Remains of the Day)--deals that promise to have a significant and potentially troubling impact on the films we'll get to see in the future.

First, just look at some numbers. In 1992 Disney released 21 films and received 5 Academy Award nominations (mostly for Aladdin). Meanwhile, Miramax released 17 films that garnered 11 nominations. It doesn't take a genius to see that Disney's buying prestige. They don't make many lavishly praised films, so they buy a company that does, inking a deal with the Weinstein brothers that promises them creative autonomy and secures their positions with the company for the next five years.

On the surface, it may seem that the Disney deal hasn't affected Miramax's offerings. After all, this new partnership found a way to release two controversial films, Priest and Kids. But not without some fallout. Priest attracted a lot of negative press for both the title character's homosexuality and the Weinsteins' original plan to release the film on Easter Sunday. There was a boycott of Disney films by Catholic groups and others who claimed to represent "family values." Disney ate it. Not because they wanted to, but because they didn't have a choice; Priest came with Miramax as a completed film, with a release date already set.

Now add to this headache Larry Clark's Kids, a parent's nightmare. Bound by their pact with family-oriented Disney not to release NC-17 or unrated films, Miramax found itself at a crisis point. Committed to standing behind the film (and not wanting to see it go to a competing distributor), Miramax did some nifty legal contortions and wound up creating a separate company to distribute the unrated Kids. But now that Miramax is within the Disney fold, what of their future projects? Will Disney continue to give Miramax the autonomy it promised? And will Disney allow Miramax to greenlight or acquire an independent film that's unrated or especially controversial? Not likely. And what happens to Miramax after the Weinstein brothers' contract expires in 1998? What direction will "cutting-edge" Miramax take then? Will they keep doing riskier prestige projects, or will Disney--and the other majors who have invested in boutique divisions--simply turn to their traditional formulae and bank on the mini-majors' reputations until they're bled dry?

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