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Finding a Niche in the 1990s
The major studios are the big American Army… . If we went straight up against them, they would nuke us. We're the guerillas. We snipe and we hit and we win a few battles, then we retreat. We're good at being niche players. We don't want to grow up and be another Walt Disney.
—Bob Weinstein, 1989
As moguls and minions awoke and rubbed the Oscar-party grit out of their eyes, the talk was about how Miramax had pulled it off. Talk, that is, and a whole lot of sniping.
—Los Angeles Times, March 1999
In 1989, Miramax cochair Bob Weinstein employed military imagery to underscore his company's marginal position relative to the Hollywood studios. In 1999, the press mobilized similar imagery to present the company as an oppressive force in the film business. Nowhere was the dramatic shift in Miramax's image and industrial position more evident than on the morning after the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony. It was on this occasion that Amy Wallace of the Los Angeles Times reported on Miramax's surprising Best Picture Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love (1998). From the perspective of Wallace, along with many others in the industry and press, Miramax had effectively deployed its marketing acuity and the extensive resources of its parent company, Disney, to secure this award. In the process, however, Miramax had further fueled the growing antipathy toward its business practices. Wallace was not the only one to ask whether Miramax had "cynically shanghaied the academy, forever changing the way studios will have to play the game of Oscar pursuit."
If anyone was feeling "shanghaied" on the day after the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, it was DreamWorks SKG cofounders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. Initially everything seemed to be going in their young company's favor. It was only DreamWorks's second year distributing films, and the company had managed to garner a number of Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director nods for Saving Private Ryan (1998). To many, the film looked to be a shoo-in for the awards; to Katzenberg and Spielberg, these awards would confer legitimacy on their nascent company. Yet, on the eve of the Oscars, DreamWorks faced the unpleasant possibility of Miramax's Shakespeare in Love taking home Best Picture honors. This could not help but sting Katzenberg in particular, since earlier in the decade he had been instrumental in his role as chairman of Walt Disney Studios in negotiating the acquisition of Miramax. This deal enabled the small independent film distributor to attain the resources it needed to produce, distribute, and market such Oscar-worthy fare as Shakespeare in Love.
Though brothers Bob and Harvey established Miramax in 1979, their company did not become an attractive acquisition target for Disney and other media conglomerates until more than a decade later. In fact, Miramax began its rapid ascent only after most other 1980s-era independent distributors declared bankruptcy. Following a string of critical and financial hits that included Scandal (1989), sex, lies, and videotape (1989), My Left Foot (1989), and Cinema Paradiso (1990), the company drew the interest of the press and industry. During the early 1990s, Miramax continued to build on its reputation and differentiate its product from that of the major studios through its North American distribution of such acclaimed films as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1990), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), and The Grifters (1990). Katzenberg was among those who took an interest in the company at this time. In the wake of Miramax's widely heralded marketing of the $62 million–earner The Crying Game (1992), he aggressively sought to make it part of the Magic Kingdom. Katzenberg convinced the Weinsteins to bring the company into the Disney fold, buying Miramax for what came to be considered a bargain-basement price of approximately $60 million.
Over the next several years, Katzenberg's foresight was borne out, as Miramax distributed one hit after another with a release slate that included a range of edgy American indies, low-budget genre franchises, English-language imports, and foreign-language films. The company reaped hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office while also attracting critical acclaim, top awards, and creative talent. Films such as Pulp Fiction (1994), Clerks (1994), Il Postino (1995), Scream (1996), The English Patient (1996), Good Will Hunting (1997), and Life Is Beautiful (1998) were among the company's most profitable and high-profile investments. By the end of the 1990s, the Miramax-Disney relationship had helped alter the structure of the industry, the marketing of low-budget films, and motion picture aesthetics. Miramax peaked with Shakespeare in Love . This film's 1999 Oscar victory both reaffirmed Miramax's status as one of the key distributors of niche-targeted films in the 1990s and confirmed that the company had effectively honed its marketing skills. Indeed, that film's Best Picture nod reinforced Miramax's central role in reshaping the film industry and redefining production, distribution, and marketing practices throughout the decade.
Reassessing Miramax, Rethinking the Hollywood-Independent Relationship
Most prior examinations of Miramax have focused primarily on the company's role in distributing a certain strand of edgy, low-budget, "quality" American films, such as sex, lies, and videotape, Clerks, Pulp Fiction, Sling Blade (1996), and Good Will Hunting. This book takes a different approach. It is certainly the case that throughout the 1990s, Miramax was the most publicized and profitable distributor of low-budget, critically acclaimed indie films originating from the United States. It is also the case that the company was the most consistent in acquiring and releasing films that expanded beyond a core art-house crowd to attract a wider audience. But such conceptualizations of Miramax prove far too limited. This book explores Miramax's economic, cultural, and creative impact on the film industry more broadly. Rather than seeing the company as simply making a narrow strand of "artier" movies accessible to a wider audience, Indie, Inc. illustrates how Miramax, under the ownership of Disney, played a major role in transforming Hollywood during the 1990s.
Though it began as an independent distribution company, Miramax quickly evolved to be far more than that. With the support of Disney, it developed into the preeminent contemporary specialty or indie division, involved in distributing niche-oriented films that appealed to demographic groups ranging from teenagers to baby boomers, African Americans to Latinos. When appropriate, Miramax certainly exploited discourses of independence that appealed to those possessing greater cultural capital. Indeed, employing such strategies aided the company as it cultivated one of the most recognizable brand identities in contemporary film. Though its roots may have been in the independent film world, and it readily tapped into those discourses as needed, the company should not be seen solely in terms of how it "made independent film mainstream." To do so is to minimize the company's more wide-ranging impact on film festivals, acquisitions, production budgets, distribution, marketing, exhibition, talent development, and multimedia exploitation, along with its influence on critical and cultural discourses about "independence" and the "mainstream." Through its business practices and press relations, Miramax contributed to ever-shifting notions about terms such as independence, indie, and Indiewood. These notions, in turn, fed into broader critical, journalistic, and scholarly discussions about the boundaries of both independent and Hollywood film.
As the first independent distributor to be acquired by a global media conglomerate in the 1990s, Miramax gained a head start on other companies. Disney's deep pockets, combined with the Weinsteins' aggressive behavior, enabled Miramax to play a dominant part in shaping the rapidly expanding specialty film business. Subsequently, every other major media conglomerate emulated—and responded to—Miramax's practices by launching their own specialty division or acquiring an existing independent distribution company. By the start of the new millennium, each major studio had developed at least one division modeled largely on Miramax's production and distribution strategies. This move signaled a major structural transformation, as indie divisions became the primary means through which conglomerates financed, produced, and distributed a diverse range of niche-oriented films. By 2000, News Corp. had Fox Searchlight, Vivendi Universal had Universal Focus, Time Warner had New Line and Fine Line, Viacom had Paramount Vantage, and Sony had Sony Pictures Classics and Screen Gems. Though the names and scope of these divisions shifted over time, all the major media corporations continued to allocate substantial resources to indie subsidiaries through most of the first decade of the 2000s. This investment indicated the conglomerates' recognition of the potential economic and cultural value of niche films. During this specific historical moment, such divisions came to be seen as vital sites in which to develop fresh talent, take creative risks, and experiment with new business models—much more so than the conglomerates' mass-market distribution arms.
To study the rise and fall of Miramax, then, is to study Hollywood in transition. Such an approach demands balancing an examination of Miramax with a discussion of developments taking place with both media conglomerates' motion picture divisions and with those distributors that remained unaffiliated with major corporations. Such an approach also necessitates blending an analysis of one company's business strategies and marketing practices with journalistic and critical discourses about that company and its films. Further, such an approach requires that one remain attentive to the most notable formal-aesthetic attributes of the films released both by Miramax and by its main competitors. In integrating industrial, discourse, and aesthetic analysis, my study can be situated within the emerging field of media industry studies. This field blends political economy's critical approach to the production and distribution of culture with cultural studies' concern with the power struggles that occur over the value of and meanings within specific texts. Media industry studies' call for historical specificity and its emphasis on empirical research make it a productive means through which to conduct an analysis of Miramax and its practices. The use of a media industry studies framework differentiates this book from others that have examined either contemporary Hollywood or independent film.
Most recent scholarship on Hollywood has taken a political economic approach; scholars such as Janet Wasko, Thomas Schatz, Paul McDonald, and Jennifer Holt have effectively mapped out broad changes in ownership and control in the media industries during the conglomerate era, especially in the film sector. Such work helps to place Miramax's activities within a broader context, reinforcing that the Weinsteins were not "visionaries" who, through sheer force of will and a belief in the power of cinema, created new markets where none had existed before. As attractive as such romantic notions may be, political economists remind us that we must bear in mind that Miramax emerged out of specific industrial conditions. The company and its executives exploited these conditions quite effectively for a time. But the belief that they were immune to larger economic, technological, cultural, and institutional shifts contributed to the Weinsteins' departure from Miramax in 2005 and to the division's subsequent downsizing by Disney.
Research on the political economy of Hollywood reminds us that, even at its peak profitability in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Miramax remained a relatively small division within one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. For example, in 1998, the year that Miramax released such box office hits as Halloween H20 and Rounders, and the year that Good Will Hunting and Scream 2 completed their theatrical runs, the company grossed $393 million domestically and earned a 5.81 percent market share. In comparison, Disney films such as Armageddon, A Bug's Life, Mulan, and Enemy of the State helped it gross more than $1.1 billion and lead the industry with a 16.37 percent market share that same year. Miramax's income may never have come close to that generated by Disney's primary film distribution arm, but this does not diminish the value of a case study of the subsidiary. Miramax, along with other indie divisions, had a substantive financial impact on both niche-oriented filmmaking specifically and Hollywood's business practices more generally. At the same time that conglomerates invested more heavily in indie divisions, their primary motion picture arms increasingly focused their efforts on releasing big-budget event films such as Batman (1989), Jurassic Park (1993), Twister (1996), and Godzilla (1998). Thus the development and expansion of separate indie divisions, with their own distinct production, distribution, marketing, and exhibition practices, signaled the conglomerates' reassessment of their corporate structures and allocation of resources.
Though on the surface it might seem paradoxical, the rise of Miramax and other indie subsidiaries can be seen as intersecting with the global media conglomerates’ increasing focus on producing and distributing niche products to specific demographic groups. This places Miramax's growth and expansion within the context of a shift from a model of mass production and consumption that dominated until the 1970s, and toward a late twentieth-century model of specialization and "just-in-time" production and consumption. The shift in emphasis should not suggest that conglomerates ceased developing films for a mass audience—in fact, as the examples above show, quite the opposite is the case. Instead, the key point here is that these conglomerates restructured their operations in a way that shifted the production and distribution of a large number of niche-oriented films to separate subsidiaries. Significantly, a heightened emphasis on niche targeting was evident not only in conglomerates' investment in indie subsidiaries, but also in their acquisition and creation of niche-oriented cable and broadcast networks (e.g., Fox, UPN, IFC, Sundance Channel).
Political economic approaches to Hollywood have skillfully provided broad surveys of industry practices and patterns. One limitation of this approach, however, is that at times it downplays the contributions that individuals—or specific films—can have. Through providing a case study of a single division of one media conglomerate, especially one discussed as frequently in the media as Miramax, we are able to balance the "top-down" concerns of political economy with the "bottom-up" perspective of cultural studies. By focusing primarily on Miramax, it is easier to see the complexity involved in cultural production. The notion circulated in cruder forms of political economy that media conglomerates are monolithic entities in their operations or output quickly gets disproven.
A case study of Miramax also proves valuable because many critics and scholars have viewed its films as important not only economically, but also culturally and creatively. As the analysis of the media coverage offered throughout this book illustrates, the attention paid to the indie film sector was disproportionate to its economic impact. Certainly the growing profitability of indie film contributed to heightened media attention, but this was not the only reason Miramax and its films generated so much press. As it developed, expanded, and diversified, Miramax figured prominently in broader debates and struggles over cultural power. From the time of its purchase by Disney through its release of such films as Kids (1995), Priest (1995), and Dogma (1999), Miramax was central to discussions about authenticity, autonomy, and creative freedom. When convenient, the company exploited such discourses for the purposes of marketing and product differentiation. When inconvenient, Miramax downplayed its involvement with certain films (e.g., genre films such as The Crow  and Don't Be a Menace … , released by its Dimension label). Often in response to activities by Miramax, a range of stakeholders—including journalists, critics, festival planners, executives, representatives of award-granting organizations, and filmmakers—engaged in debates about what constituted "independent" or "indie" film. As Michael Newman notes, these discourses were highly ideological in nature. The need to demarcate boundaries over what constituted independent film became connected to particular taste cultures linked by background and education. Those participating in such conversations often had very personal investments in what criteria were—or were not—used to identify a film as independent or indie.
Recent scholarship on contemporary low-budget film has integrated economic, cultural, and aesthetic analyses productively. In fact, a significant body of work has developed on what variably has been labeled independent or indie film. There is no agreed-on definition of what constitutes either; indeed, how each of these terms is used depends on a given writer's focus or objectives. In the last two decades, both the popular press and scholars frequently have used independent and indie interchangeably. Of course, this has only contributed to the confusion about the meaning of each label—a confusion that has often served the desires of media companies in promoting their films to particular groups as "hip," "edgy" and "cool." As Newman observes, "indie" gained increasing cachet from the 1980s onward. The word's appeal expanded as it became more closely linked to a particular subculture of white, male, upper-middle-class tastes in music and fashion.
Despite the lack of agreement and consistency in scholars' and journalists' use of these terms, as I have noted elsewhere, among the most common criteria used to define a film as independent include the following: its source of financing; the industrial affiliations of its distributor; the sites in which it is exhibited; the status of its talent in relation to Hollywood; and the "spirit" of the film (usually interpreted to mean its aesthetic or generic ties to commercial or alternative media traditions). In American Independent Cinema, Geoff King surveys a variety of different ways that films can be perceived to be independent, identifying a range of industrial, narrative, formal, genre-based, and ideological-political criteria. Given Indie, Inc.'s industrial emphasis, a film or company will be described by me as independent it if is unaffiliated with a major media conglomerate. If a conglomerate has an investment in it, I label it an indie. Thus, following its purchase by Disney, the formerly independent distributor Miramax became an indie division. This book focuses primarily on Miramax during its time under Disney's control. As will be explored in the following pages, though Miramax began as an independent distributor, it always operated quite differently from most of its 1980s-era competitors. In fact, it functioned as a de facto indie division even before Disney acquired it. Conglomerate resources simply enabled it to realize its objectives more fully.
Although it is important to make the distinction between "indie" and "independent" to clarify my own analytical framework, a key focus of this book involves following the varied ways that the press, critics, and industry employed these and other labels to discuss niche-oriented films throughout the 1990s. In this manner, I adhere to the approach taken by Yannis Tzioumakis, who examines independent cinema "as a discourse that expands and contracts when socially authorized institutions (filmmakers, industry practitioners, trade publications, academics, film critics, and so on) contribute toward its definition at different periods in the history of American cinema." In American Independent Cinema: An Introduction, Tzioumakis traces the different ways that discourses of independence have been activated throughout U.S. film history. He provides a corrective for those who believe that independent film is a relatively recent development. As his book functions largely as a survey of the fluid independent-Hollywood relationship during the twentieth century, Tzioumakis offers only a cursory examination of the evolution and expansion of indie film during the 1990s.
Tzioumakis is one of many individuals writing about American independent cinema who argue that a series of institutional, economic, and cultural shifts begun during the 1970s laid the foundation for the rise of 1990s-era indie divisions. Others, including Geoff King, Emanuel Levy, John Pierson, and John Berra, similarly see 1990s-era indie films as direct descendants of earlier independents. In particular, each draws a relationship between the releases of art house—oriented independent distributors (e.g., Island/Alive, Skouras, Cinecom) and "classics divisions" (e.g., United Artists Classics, Orion Classics, 20th Century-Fox International Classics) of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and those distributed by specialty divisions such as Miramax, Fox Searchlight, and Focus Features in the 1990s and 2000s. Though there certainly are connections between the films, executives, and practices of independent distributors of these two eras, it is important not to overstate these linkages. (Chapter 4 elaborates on the cultural, aesthetic, and industrial distinctions between 1980s-era independents and 1990s-era indies.) In fact, there is a danger in drawing connections between independents of the 1980s and those of the 1990s. Frequently, the 1980s-era independent films, filmmakers, and distributors are positioned as more "authentic" because they are seen as being more removed from Hollywood industrially, politically, and aesthetically. Such an approach risks minimizing the long and complicated relationship between Hollywood and independents, implying that the two are diametrically opposed in terms of politics, style, and content.
Value judgments are frequently made by those who view the rise of indies as a move away from a particular strand of 1980s-era, art house—oriented independents and toward Hollywood practices and conventions. More specifically, commerce is seen to be overriding art as "outsiders" are incorporated into the system, and the vibrancy and vitality of independent film is seen as being depoliticized and homogenized in the process. Divisions such as Miramax are viewed as exploiting the rhetoric of independence when in practice they serve as little more than marketing arms for media conglomerates. In terminology that often echoes Adorno and Horkheimer, indie divisions are viewed as "brands" that exploit naive or gullible consumers with their vacuous products. Nowhere is this attitude more evident than in the journalist Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film. In this book, Biskind chronicles the rise of Miramax, the Sundance Film Festival, and, to a lesser extent, the independent distributor October Films. He begins with the 1989 premiere of sex, lies, and videotape at Sundance and the film’s subsequent acquisition by Miramax, and concludes with the Weinsteins' struggles with Martin Scorsese over the pricey, bloated Gangs of New York (2002).
Down and Dirty Pictures was designed as a follow-up to Biskind's earlier best seller, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which chronicles the rise of the Hollywood Renaissance in the late 1960s and tracks the careers of the film school—educated "movie brat" generation (Scorsese, Coppola, Cimino, Spielberg, etc.). The reverential tone that Biskind uses toward baby boomer filmmakers in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is replaced with a sense of disdain in Down and Dirty Pictures toward what I discuss in chapter 4 as the "cinema of cool"—a group of mostly self-educated Gen Xers that included Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez. In addition, in the latter book, Biskind focuses far less on the textual characteristics of the films, thereby implying that most of these films are scarcely worthy of serious consideration. Inasmuch as he discusses the films themselves, they are often seen as empty exercises in style over substance, paling in comparison to both the Hollywood Renaissance films and the "truly" independent films of the 1980s. Such independents, directed by filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Wayne Wang, Susan Seidelman, and Spike Lee, are discussed in chapter 4 as part of a "cinema of quality" that can be contrasted to the later "cinema of cool." In a statement that reflects the attitude he takes throughout the book, Biskind declares that "the triumph of sex, lies over Do the Right Thing ratified the turn away from the angry, topical strain of the indie movement that had its roots in the 1960s and 1970s toward the milder aesthetic of the slacker era."
Whereas in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls Biskind depicted art and commerce combining for a brief moment to yield politically charged, creatively inspired films worthy of respect, in Down and Dirty Pictures he suggests that commerce trumped art before a truly great American cinema on par with that of the 1970s could be realized. He places most of the "blame" for the missed opportunities squarely on the shoulders of Miramax, and in particular on Harvey Weinstein. Rather than supporting auteurs with strong social realist visions (e.g., James Mangold, James Gray) or avant-garde tendencies (e.g., Bernardo Bertolucci, Todd Haynes), Biskind suggests that Weinstein intervened in a manner that harmed these individuals' films and careers. Concurrently, he argues, Miramax became ever more focused on releasing a combination of amoral, Tarantino-esque product (which he portrays as the triumph of the "tastes of the barbarians"), lowbrow genre fare in the vein of Scary Movie (2000) (at one point, he describes Miramax's Dimension genre division a "roach motel"), and sentimental, middlebrow Euro-American "kitsch" like Chocolat (2000). From Biskind’s perspective, Weinstein’s desire to be a modern-day David O. Selznick—a creative producer who took an active role in shaping projects from inception to final cut—combined with his obsession with market research, not only hurt filmmakers and their films but also influenced the direction that indie film took from the mid-1990s onward.
Perhaps because he is so dismissive of the films released by Miramax following its purchase by Disney, Biskind expends little effort analyzing them. Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on the ways that select individuals in the indie world—in particular Harvey Weinstein—screwed over everyone and anyone. The book strings together a series of ugly anecdotes about the backroom machinations of the Weinsteins and Robert Redford. Biskind culled such tales from the dozens of interviews he conducted with countless disgruntled filmmakers, former employees, and direct competitors of Miramax and Sundance. Through this "cult of personality" approach, Down and Dirty Pictures certainly offers plenty of juicy gossip about the conflicts and confrontations that transpired between Miramax executives and others in the indie film business. For that reason, the book is an enjoyable read for those wanting to understand the key figures behind many of the indie films of the 1990s.
Yet, in a variety of ways, his book falls short. Though Biskind constructs Down and Dirty Pictures as an exposé of the shady goings-on in the indie film world, he frequently reinforces a number of unproductive misperceptions about the companies and their films. For example, he provides a highly selective approach of Miramax's releases and activities. In supporting his position that Miramax helped drain art house—oriented American independent film of substance as it evolved under Disney's control, he overlooks the company's long-standing investment in a diverse slate of niche films from around the world. Further, though Miramax did place a greater emphasis on emotionally charged films such as Sling Blade, Good Will Hunting, and The Cider House Rules (1999) as the 1990s wore on, the company had always invested heavily in such material. Just because these films did not realize the particular vision of quality cinema he preferred is no reason to reject them out of hand.
Biskind's value judgments—as well as his view of what independent film should have become—lead him to present an incomplete snapshot of the indie film business in the 1990s. As another example of the partial perspective provided, his nearly 550-page tome offers only about twenty substantive pages of discussion of Miramax's genre division, Dimension. This limited coverage reflects his (un-interrogated) view that that division's films were disposable cultural products and had little to do with the broader indie film business beyond generating revenue. While he may not be fond of the Scream, Spy Kids, and Scary Movie franchises, their economic and cultural impact should not be dismissed. Meanwhile, Biskind is so busy identifying the indie film movement of the 1990s as a distinctly American phenomenon that he fails to explore those films that do not fit within this narrative. Even as the culturally hybrid nature of films such as The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love is dismissed, the ties of films such as The Crying Game to the UK and The Piano (1993) to Australia—New Zealand are scarcely remarked on. Biskind downplays such connections in the interest of constructing a tale of the co-optation of authentically independent American cinema by the evil brute Miramax. This one company—along with the lone festival, Sundance—is presented in near isolation throughout the book. There is little sense of a larger industrial or cultural context, either at the independent or conglomerate level. He mentions Disney on only a handful of pages; the prominent 1990s-era indie competitors Gramercy and Sony Pictures Classics are brought up even less often. By failing to discuss such major films and companies at any length, Down and Dirty Pictures provides a distorted depiction of this defining moment for low-budget film.
While Biskind should be praised for providing the first (and thus far only) book-length exploration of Miramax's practices during the 1990s, his approach needs to be expanded and modified in significant ways. Indie, Inc. provides a corrective to many of the misleading assumptions and arguments that Biskind makes about both Miramax and indie film during the 1990s. Through case studies of key releases such as sex, lies, and videotape, The Crying Game, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Kids, Scream, The English Patient, Life is Beautiful, and Shakespeare in Love , I reconsider many of the ideas that have come to be taken for granted by Biskind as well as many others writing about the Hollywood-independent relationship. Cumulatively, my book challenges the notion forwarded by Biskind that Miramax's greatest accomplishment came from helping to make American independent film mainstream. Instead, we need to see Miramax as part of a much larger process: the restructuring of global Hollywood. Rather than focusing predominantly on those so-called quality films that appealed to a particular white, male, upper-middle-class demographic and were most extensively celebrated by the press and critics, this study surveys a much broader range of English-language product, genre films, mid-range transnational prestige pictures, and foreign-language imports released by Miramax. In addition, it explores how, on a smaller scale, Miramax exploited Disney's resources to transform a diverse set of films into multimedia franchises. To undertake this analysis, I turn to a wide range of documents, including feature articles and reviews in trade publications, newspapers, and magazines; marketing materials such as press releases, press kits, print advertisements, and trailers; and a broad sample of Miramax feature films. These sources are used to construct a revisionist history of the rise and fall of Miramax that integrates a discussion of shifts in the film industry, in discourses about independence, and in film aesthetics.
The 1990s as the "Age of Miramax"
Enough time has now passed since the ascendance—and complete collapse—of Miramax that the company's story can be told as a history. Previous analyses of Miramax and indie film, including Biskind's, were written while the company remained a vibrant part of the larger film industry. This is no longer the case. Many of the indie film companies in operation during the 1990s and 2000s—Miramax included—have been closed or substantially downsized. Media analysts do not agree exactly when the decline began, but most point to the Weinsteins' departure from Miramax in 2005 and the closure of the indie distributors Picturehouse, Warner Independent, and Paramount Vantage in 2008 as key turning points. The only scholar to have written extensively about indie film in the 2000s thus far is Geoff King in Indiewood, USA. In this book, King identifies Indiewood as a hybrid form that synthesizes Hollywood and independent film aesthetics. Most of the films he analyzes are pricey mid-range releases that appealed primarily to those with greater cultural capital. According to King, though specialty divisions have distributed Indiewood-style films (e.g., Traffic, 2000; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004), the majors have traded in them as well (e.g., Three Kings, 1999; Being John Malkovich, 1999). Though he does note this in his book in passing, it is worth underscoring that all the films for which he offers detailed case studies were released within a rather narrow time frame: December 1998—April 2004. Rather than historically situating Indiewood within a particular industrial moment, King is mainly interested in exploring the distinct textual strategies and taste cultures connected to a particular set of films. Had he contextualized these films industrially, he might have seen the extent to which Indiewood can be viewed as marking the end of the indie film phenomenon. As I discuss in the conclusion, his use of the label Indiewood to describe both films released by the majors' distribution arms and those released by indie specialty divisions works counter to most contemporary usages. Interestingly, the earliest film for which King offers a case study is Shakespeare in Love (1998). In contrast, I use this film as my final case study; with it, I argue, Miramax and the indie film business entered into their "mature" phase.
By identifying the 1989—1999 period as the focus of my book, I am countering the ways that many others—including producer's representative John Pierson (1984—1994), as well as King (1998—2004) and Biskind (1989—2002)—have structured their respective studies of commercially oriented low-budget cinema. Pierson's autobiographical book, Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes, chronicles the ten-year period before the explosion of indie film. At that time, it was easier for many first-time filmmakers—including Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It, 1986), Michael Moore (Roger & Me, 1989), Richard Linklater (Slacker, 1991), and Rose Troche (Go Fish, 1994)—to produce ultra-low-budget films, generate attention on the festival circuit, receive critical acclaim, and attain modest box office successes (i.e., in the $1 million to $10 million range). Pierson's emphasis is almost exclusively on a particular strand of critically acclaimed, art house—oriented American independent films. Though focusing on a different time span, he expresses attitudes toward independent film strikingly similar to those on display in Biskind's book. Significantly, the moment for these types of films was passing at precisely the time that Pierson published his book, something he acknowledges with some melancholy in the second edition, Spike Mike Reloaded.
Meanwhile, as noted above, King homes in on the tail end of the indie moment, when independent and studio aesthetics fused within a relatively small subset of films. Both of these writers, along with Biskind, have authored books about independent film in which Miramax figures prominently. And Miramax, as we shall see below, did affect the independent film world in substantive and dramatic ways. But this book is not about the rise and fall of independent film. Rather, it is about the rise and fall of Miramax. The stories are not the same, though I illustrate how they intersected at times. One of the most common mistakes made by those writing about independent film is to equate the two. In doing so, Miramax has been made into something other than what it was. Miramax was not the preeminent independentdistributor throughout the 1980s and 1990s; rather, it occupied this position only briefly, in tandem with New Line, from 1989 through early 1993. As chapter 2 demonstrates, many other companies figured far more prominently in the independent landscape prior to 1989. Further, following Miramax's purchase by Disney in 1993—the same year Turner acquired New Line—the Weinstein-led company began to transform into something altogether different. Most notably, Miramax emerged as the most high-profile and well-respected brand name for a wide range of niche films. In addition, throughout the 1990s, it had the most substantive and consistent impact on the indie film business of any company. It is for these reasons that the 1990s was the decade of Miramax. Beginning with My Left Foot, Cinema Paradiso, and, sex, lies, and videotape in 1989/1990, Miramax demonstrated the economic and creative possibilities for a diverse set of low-budget films. It continued to earn a larger market share and higher profile for such films for the next several years. Only when it deviated from its original business of releasing low-cost, high-quality films—which it began to do during the late 1990s—did its demise ensue. But this demise occurred not only because Miramax busted its business model, but also because it tarnished its reputation and adversely affected its relationships with talent and executives both at Disney and throughout the industry. Unfortunately, when Miramax went down, it brought much of the broader indie film business down along with it.
In charting the rise and fall of Miramax, Indie, Inc. focuses on the process by which a three-tier structure of independents, indie divisions, and big-budget studio distribution arms developed and then subsequently declined. Significantly, this book is not about individual personalities à la Biskind, nor is it a behind-the-scenes story of on-set dramas and boardroom battles. Rather, what is offered here is a historical analysis of shifting industrial practices and cultural discourses about independence, indie, Indiewood, and Hollywood during the 1990s. As discussed in chapter 8, by the time Miramax released Shakespeare in Love , the seeds of its destruction—and, in turn, the destruction of the conglomerates' specialty divisions—had been sown. This is not to suggest that the collapse of the "Miramax model" was inevitable. Indeed, as the following pages detail, the path taken by Miramax and its competitors in production, acquisitions, distribution, and marketing was a consequence of particular business and creative decisions made by individuals within a specific set of industrial, technological, and cultural circumstances that began to crystallize in 1989.