How do you solve a problem like The Weinstein Company? It’s a tricky one, but not without its eager volunteers, ready to step in and try to fix it. After months of the company’s board sorting through offers, the process of finding someone to buy the company and turn it into something redemptive in the wake of its founder’s world-rocking scandal has narrowed down to a single person. Maria Contreras-Sweet, the former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration for the Obama administration, is apparently in the final stages of exclusive negotiations to take over and push TWC into a new direction, without either Harvey or Bob Weinstein involved in any way, shape or form.
Assuming that she succeeds in buying the company (for something in the neighborhood of $500 million), staffing it with a predominantly, if not exclusively, female board of directors, and getting out from the myriad lawsuits that hang over it, there is genuine concern about what direction the company will take and what kind of operation Contreras-Sweet will run. Where does the new company go from here, and what kind of movies should it make? More importantly, will the newly-reconstituted company ever be able to escape the stigma attached to its past, thanks to Harvey’s decades of abominable behavior? Harder to discuss, but a real issue with which to be reckoned, is the question of how to replace Harvey’s marketing prowess, which led to dozens of awards over the years. Can that skill set be duplicated by someone else? After all, Harvey may be a monster, but even in his last Oscar race just one year ago, he took a flawed movie like Lion through the awards gauntlet and somehow came away with a half dozen Oscar nominations. That kind of Academy savvy is hard to find.
There are several other issues that come to mind, chief among them, the slight problem of the company’s new name. Apparently, several new ones are being bandied about, and they include Wonder Hill, Assembly Hall, and Creative Trade Studios. None of those feel terribly inspired, but then, I wouldn’t have named a company A24, and that one seems to be working out pretty well. Assuming one of those aforementioned three is chosen, it certainly leaves the Weinstein name in the dust, which is as good an initial step to take as any in creating its own brand identity.
Whatever the new name, and with Bob Weinstein now on his own and taking the Dimension Films banner with him, Contreras-Sweet’s company will inevitably be staffed by what’s left of TWC’s staff, including the distribution infrastructure that Harvey set up years ago. That alone puts it ahead of other startups, which often don’t have the luxury of such experience.
And make no mistake, even though Contreras-Sweet is taking over an existing company, it might as well be a startup, simply because of the wholesale changes that need to occur for her and her team to turn it around and make it their own. A new board and a new mandate means throwing out everything that came before. It means establishing a new corporate culture and, with it, a new and improved working environment.
Which brings us to the new company’s mandate. The company formerly known as TWC will likely shift gears, since Harvey’s taste effectively dictated its film slate, so what kinds of movies does Contreras-Sweet’s team plan to make? Will they cater to female and minority filmmakers? It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea, though they may find that direction limiting. Independent film in general is not always the most commercial of endeavors, and while some films do break out — Lady Bird is a perfect example of this year’s crop — most don’t. This is especially true of more esoteric or specialized fare, in which the perception, right or wrong, is that a particular film is meant for a particular audience. The danger of specialization is that it limits the potential of a film breaking out and crossing over into a mainstream hit.
Having said that, this is a unique opportunity for Contreras-Sweet and her backers, and it comes at a very special time in our industry. Last week, after my column about the politicization of the Oscars, a female filmmaker with whom I am friendly reached out to talk about the piece. In our conversation, we agreed that now is the time for film companies and financiers to recruit women’s projects and stories, and that there has never been a better time for those stories to be told. “You should write kind of a how-to for financiers to recruit them,” she told me. While that’s a harder story to write, putting forth the notion that a company could succeed with that strategy is far easier.
The big question is whether the industry will embrace Contreras-Sweet and her plans for the future, or whether her company will always be haunted by the Weinstein stench, at least until a few hits help fumigate it away. Perhaps the very best way to do that is to recruit strong female filmmakers, which might be the ultimate F-U to Weinstein, who preyed on women for decades. It’s hard enough for female filmmakers to get attention in a male-dominated profession, but if there was a company dedicated to helping them and giving them opportunities that few others are offering, then that immediately gives said company an advantage. Just as Contreras-Sweet is a new voice in Hollywood, she should be aiming to discover new voices in the industry — valuable voices that need to be developed, supported and amplified in this time of listening and meaningful reflection. Contreras-Sweet’s new company has the chance to serve as an oasis of gender and cultural equality at a time when the industry desperately needs someone to step up and offer just such a safe harbor.
Obviously, it’s a risky proposition and there are no guarantees of success in this business. In fact, I’ve spoken to a few people who don’t believe that Contreras-Sweet and her team will be able to pull it off. But the industry will be behind her, as there’s nothing that Hollywood loves more than a happy ending. She may not be able to save the town as a whole, but TWC will be an important first step for the industry as it steps out of the darkness and into the light.