Some years back, when the Emmy-winning HBO sitcom Entourage took the title characters to the Sundance Film Festival, they had the foursome tangle with a famed indie film maven, a man feared for his temper and respected for his judgment, and embodied onscreen by the corpulent character actor Maury Chaikin. The man was based on a real person and, on the show, was known by a single name (like Cher, or Topol), which was fitting, because in the independent film world, there is one figure who truly towers above all others.
The name used, of course, was Harvey.
For close to three decades now, Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob have ruled the roost of the indie world, racking up dozens of Oscar nominations and making countless millions of dollars by combining higher brow films with straight genre fare. While big brother Harvey oversaw Miramax, Bob’s domain was Dimension, and the two did exceptionally well for themselves before selling the company to Disney in 1993, where they ran it autonomously until 2005. The brothers left the company they started and named after their parents, opening up The Weinstein Company as a direct competitor.
But as brilliantly as Miramax performed during the years the brothers ran it, TWC has not been as successful. While it has done well with television — specifically Project Runway — the movie division has been very up and down. Just six movies and total domestic grosses of $46.9 million in its first year, a high of $491.7 million from 21 movies in 2013 (as well as a very impressive 4.3 percent market share), with all manner of results in between.
Lately, the numbers have been pretty good — an average of 18 movies and $313.9 million in domestic grosses over the past five full years — but that hasn’t prevented trouble on the home front, as the company was rocked by massive layoffs back in November. That was exacerbated when Weinstein mainstay Quentin Tarantino’s latest film didn’t do the boffo numbers the company was hoping for, and the recent decisions to move a pair of highly anticipated films from 2016 into 2017 has certainly raised a few questions.
First things first, though. This calendar year has been, by far, the worst in the company’s history. Only two films have come out under the TWC aegis, with two more coming from Dimension and none of the four doing any appreciable business. Despite the fact that Sing Street is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, it only did $3.2 million here and a total of $8.3 million worldwide. Likewise, the troubled Natalie Portman vehicle Jane Got a Gun, which the Weinsteins rescued from Relativity, did just $1.5 million here with similarly negligible numbers abroad. The two genre flicks — Regression and Clown — combined for about a hundred grand.
A look at the overall numbers for the year will tell you that the company has grossed $54.8 million domestically, but almost $50 million of that came from The Hateful Eight and Carol, which means that the four movies released by the company thus far this year have combined for, wait for it, just a shade under $5 million domestically. The numbers improve ever so slightly with the foreign, thanks to the added dollars brought in by Sing Street and a surprising $17.5 million from the Ethan Hawke-led Regression, but it’s pretty much impossible to put a positive spin on this.
Amazingly, it gets worse. As I mentioned above, the Weinsteins have taken two movies that were expected to generate some serious awards buzz off of this year’s schedule and have pushed them to 2017. First, it was Tulip Fever, starring recently christened Oscar winner Alicia Vikander and two-time winner Christoph Waltz, which was pushed from July 15th to February 24th. The fact that the decision was made on July 6th raised a whole lot of eyebrows, but not as many as were raised at the choice to move the Michael Keaton-led biopic The Founder from August 5th to January 20th. While the company is going to give it a limited December release to qualify it for awards, observers found it curious that the company would make the move, especially since it had already moved away from its original November release date so as to not interfere with the company’s other Oscar hopeful, Lion.
The reasons the company gave for the changes — which included conflicting promotional schedules and awards date concerns — didn’t hold much water to industry insiders, either. A couple weeks ago, Tatiana Siegel wrote about this very thing in The Hollywood Reporter and discussed the ongoing scuttlebutt that the Weinsteins need money and have pushed the projects because they can’t afford to properly release them. If this is the case, and it appears that it could very well be, then we might just be seeing something from the brothers we haven’t ever before: desperation. And, as we all well know, that is the world’s worst cologne.
Were this one of the years in which QT had a film on the schedule — he made two of the top four grossing films in the company’s history — there might be some serious hope to salvage something from this mess, but since he just made one last year, that’s sadly not the case. Instead, the company has just three more movies set for release before year’s end (not including the limited-run set for The Founder, of course), starting with Hands of Stone, coming out the final weekend of this month, which is not exactly a coveted and lucrative date, historically speaking. The Roberto Duran biopic, starring Edgar Ramirez and Robert De Niro, is tracking to make about as much in its opening weekend as the rest of the company’s 2016 releases have combined. That is, about $5 million. Not great.
Hopes are higher for Lion, which lands on Thanksgiving weekend, primarily because it’s TWC’s big Oscar hopeful, and as we seem to discuss every week, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that awards talk leads to big box office. If Lion comes through with great reviews and serious Oscar consideration for stars Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, as well as writer Luke Davies and director Garth Davis, that one big gainer could go a long way toward easing the Weinsteins’ pain. Of course, pinning too much of the company’s hopes for this one film, which is about an Indian boy adopted off the streets of Calcutta who, 20 years later, returns home to find his family, is pretty dicey. Now, I think that sounds great, and will definitely see it, but it’s not exactly blockbuster material, is it?
One other interesting item on the schedule is the Christmas Day release of Gold, from Oscar-winning filmmaker Stephen Gaghan. The adventure film stars Matthew McConaughey and Bryce Dallas Howard and could break through the logjam of Christmas releases, but even if it does, it’s not going to make the Weinsteins too much money, because they didn’t finance it, Teddy Schwartzman’s Black Bear Pictures did. TWC is just distributing it, which means that, while it might get the chance to pad its overall grosses, it’s not going to do a whole lot for the bottom line.
A bottom line, by the way, which appears to need some serious help.
Is 2017 going to bring it? Possibly. The Founder and Tulip Fever could both do some solid business, but you can’t count on either. Dimension has a new Amityville movie coming out on January 6th, there’s a De Niro flick called War With Grandpa scheduled for late April and the Mark Wahlberg-led TV adaptation The Six Billion Dollar Man around Christmas, but other than that, a lot of question marks. Over a dozen movies are on the rolls without actual release dates, and whether or not they’ll actually see the light of day is anyone’s guess. It all comes down to what the Weinsteins can afford to do with them.
It’s an odd thing, talking this way about a company owned by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, especially after the run of success the pair had over the course of more than a quarter century. Every good run has to end at some point, the question here is, has this one just hit a speed bump, or has it finished for good?
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Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN.