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Will there be a place for Miramax in Disney's new movie script?

September 24, 2009 |  1:52 pm

Boysareback

The fate of specialty movie label Miramax Films appears even murkier than it has been in the wake of Dick Cook's ouster as the head of Walt Disney Studios.

Cook remained a staunch supporter of Miramax as rumors of the unit's demise swirled earlier in the year when independent filmmakers feared that Disney would abandon the often risky business of releasing offbeat sophisticated adult fare.

Even in the face of Miramax's box-office malaise, with such disappointments as "Adventureland," "Blindness" and "Happy-Go-Lucky," Cook told The Times in May that he still had faith in the direction of the specialty label and its leader, Daniel Battsek, the British executive whom he handpicked four years ago to run the once-maverick company founded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein in 1979.

But that was then, and this is now. Miramax has never appeared to be a priority for Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, nor does it fit his strategy to focus on Disney's "branded" mass entertainment that can be exploited across the Burbank studio's various businesses including theme parks, television and consumer products.

After Disney's $4-billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment closes, Iger and his soon-to-be announced Cook successor -- Disney Channel head Rich Ross is said to be a top candidate -- will be plenty busy conjuring up ways to commercially exploit their new family of superhero characters.

As for Miramax, the division continues to struggle but has high hopes for its latest offering, "The Boys Are Back," an emotional drama directed by Scott Hicks and starring Clive Owen as a widower struggling to raise two sons, which opens tomorrow in limited release in Los Angeles, New York and a few other cities. The film, based on Simon Carr's 2001 memoir, received strong industry trade reviews and Oscar buzz at the recent Toronto Film Festival, where it received a five-minute standing ovation after its world premiere.

Miramax's most recent releases, "Extract," an R-rated comedy starring Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck, and director Stephen Frears' period romance "Cheri," headlined by Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend, didn't do much business.

It's unclear what Disney's plans for Miramax are now that Cook is gone and the studio is about to push the reset button on its movie agenda. Presumably it would be tough to find a buyer for the unit right now given the weak economic climate and the difficulty most smaller independent films face attracting adult audiences.

Then again, keeping Miramax alive doesn't cost Disney that much money and the specialty label's smart, low-budget movies provide a much-needed relief from its big sister studio's slate of mainstream films. As was its history under the Weinsteins, Miramax continues to put out movies worthy of Oscar attention. Its 2007 drama "No Country for Old Men" won for best picture and was profitable; Daniel Day-Lewis won a best actor Oscar for Miramax's 2007 film "There Will Be Blood"; and a year earlier, Helen Mirren took home a best actress statuette for the 2006 release "The Queen."

Nonetheless, chances are Disney will continue to scale back the operation, whose overhead and production and marketing budgets were dramatically slashed after the Weinsteins left in 2005. The company now has about 80 employees between its headquarters in New York and its L.A. office.

Or, not out of the question, Disney could do something more drastic, such as shuttering the operation as Paramount and Warner Bros. did with their specialty labels, and just concentrate on repackaging Miramax's rich library, which boasts Oscar winners like "Shakespeare in Love" and "The English Patient."

A studio spokesperson said Disney doesn't plan to unload Miramax and was noncommittal about whether a downsizing is likely.

"We have no plans to sell Miramax," said the spokesperson, adding, "As we have stated before, we continue to look at all of our lines of businesses and the best way to run them most efficiently."

-- Claudia Eller

Photo: Nicholas McAnulty, left, Clive Owen and Emma Booth in a scene from "The Boys Are Back." Credit: Matt Nettheim / Miramax Films
 

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