Disney lowers the boom on Miramax
It's not exactly a shock to see the news that Disney is downsizing its Miramax specialty division, the division that delivered the studio an Oscar best picture winner with "No Country for Old Men" just 18 months ago. Disney is taking control of Miramax's marketing and distribution divisions, which means that you can expect to see the studio lay off most of Miramax's 80 staffers in the coming days. The specialty division's output is expected to drop from its current six-to-eight film-release slate to at most two or three films a year.
Miramax chief Daniel Battsek is expected to stay on, but for how long? With the firing of longtime Disney chief Dick Cook (who largely took a hands-off approach to the subsidiary) and the much-rumored hiring of Disney Channels chief Rich Ross as the new Disney studio head expected any minute now, it's hard to imagine that there is any real corporate support for a continued Miramax presence at the studio, which increasingly sees itself as being in the brand business, not in the little-movies-that-could business.
The worst part of the news is that Disney will be handling the marketing of any upcoming Miramax releases. That's a recipe for disaster, since big studios aren't equipped to put in the grinding amount of labor and energy necessary to release specialty films -- which is why Warner, which no longer has a specialty division, gave up on "Slumdog Millionaire," last year's best picture winner, letting Fox Searchlight release the movie and grab all the glory. Big studios are marketing assembly lines, not boutiques. Disney is great at selling mass-appeal family movies and Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventure thrill rides, but it doesn't have a clue about releasing adult-oriented dramas.
So with its marketing and distribution in the hands of the parent studio, Miramax is pretty much of a dead man walking. It's always bad news for ambitious filmmakers when another specialty division bites the dust, since it means that there will be one less distributor vying to put adult-oriented films on the map. But if you look at Miramax's performance from a studio perspective, it's hard to justify its existence as a free-standing entity.
In the last few years, Miramax has certainly had its share of artistic successes, notably "No Country for Old Men" (which it co-financed with Paramount Vantage in a two-fer deal with "There Will Be Blood"). It also released "Doubt," a classy drama that incurred far too many Oscar-chasing marketing costs to make any real money. In 2007, Miramax released "Gone Baby Gone," which was critically lauded but not a money maker -- ditto for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" from the same year. Miramax's best-performing film since "No Country" was probably "Adventureland," which was a modest success earlier this year.
But Miramax kept putting out dramas long after the audience for dramas had clearly dried up, especially when it came to well-made films (like "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and "Blindness") that simply couldn't attract a wide enough audience to justify their costs. For all his good taste, Battsek wasn't the right man to keep Miramax going. It probably sounds like heresy for me to say it, but Miramax was never the same place after the departure of Harvey Weinstein. He swore like a sailor, berated his staff and drove filmmakers around the bend, but, in his heyday, he had the iron will and the showmanship that a specialty division needs to keep the doors open.
Making quality films is not for the faint of heart. It's a tough way to make a living, especially when you're working in the shadow of the newly Marvelized Magic Kingdom, where everything is viewed through the middle-brow lens of making the customer happy. For all the cozy, filmmaker-friendliness of its last years. Miramax didn't have the toughness or tenaciousness that it takes to see hard-to-market movies through to the finish line. I hope the much-reduced Miramax will have a couple more glory days, but my guess is that its future at Disney is bleak.
Photo: Daniel Battsek. Credit: Damon Winter / Los Angeles Times.