Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film
By Peter Biskind
Simon & Schuster, 2004, 560 pp.

Thanks to the Internet, cable television and information-packed DVDs, today’s movie-going audiences are savvier than ever. Gone are the days when fans were content to simply watch movies as they rolled off the assembly line and into neighborhood single-screen theaters, happily confining their knowledge of Hollywood’s workings to the travails of Bill Holden and Liz Taylor, or the latest salary demands of Marlon Brando or the anti-Communist fervor of John Wayne. Today’s audiences are keen to the realities of opening weekend box office grosses, hip to the special effects undergirding practically every frame of The Lord of the Rings and at least vaguely aware of the fact that the biggest name in quality art house cinema is Miramax, run by two brothers named Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

To an extent, the increased public participation in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking is unobjectionable; there’s no reason why people shouldn’t learn more about the products they consume. But there’s the rub. For in the last decade or so, the magic of the movie-going experience has been eroded by our understanding of the movies as commodities, a shift that has been encouraged by the endless stream of deluxe-anniversary-collector’s edition DVDs and Web sites like Harry Knowles’ Ain’t-it-Cool-News that deliver judgments on scripts before they’re even filmed. It’s therefore fitting that art takes a backseat to commerce in Peter Biskind’s exhaustively researched Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film.

Simultaneously dishy, depressing and indispensable, Biskind’s book is a study of a decade and a half of American independent filmmaking. But Down and Dirty Pictures covers a very different era from the one chronicled in his previous book, the shamelessly juicy Easy Riders and Raging Bulls. The earlier book is a fascinating account of the New Hollywood of the early 1970s, a remarkable era in which genius flowed like water–and sex and cocaine–and such megalomaniac talents as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski and George Lucas made the freshest movies this country had seen in decades.

Sadly, the talents and the pictures have gotten smaller since the days of The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Chinatown and Nashville, a development that’s tacitly acknowledged in Biskind’s book. Today, the suits are the stars. But, to Biskind’s credit, he tells a good story even if there’s occasionally more than we want to know about the intricacies of back-end participation deals and back-stabbing in the executive suite.

The trajectory of Biskind’s narrative can be discerned by the two films which frame his book: Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape…, released in 1989, and Rob Marshall’s Chicago, which gobbled up the Oscars a year ago. Soderbergh’s debut film, made when he was 26 years old, was a breath of fresh air at a time when Hollywood sexuality consisted of lurid fantasies about virginal hookers and castrating blondes. Sex, lies and videotape… was, for its era, a bold, original and unsettling film and one that never could have been made in the genre-bound, risk averse Hollywood factory. After its success at the still-obscure U.S. Film Festival (soon to be re-christened Sundance), the distribution rights were picked up by a scruffy, declasse outfit in New York called Miramax. The rest is history, of which Biskind’s version is likely to be definitive.

Biskind recounts how the Weinsteins, once music concert promoters in Buffalo, N.Y., migrated to the city and got into the movie distribution business as bottom-feeders trading in such soft-core titles as I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and Goodbye, Emmanuelle. But they admired the foreign films they’d seen in college, like The 400 Blows, and gradually they got into the art film game, an ascension that was finally completed in the late 1980s with their purchases of sex, lies and videotape…, The Crying Game and My Left Foot. In particular, it was Harvey’s savvy marketing of The Crying Game’s “secret” that caught the eye of filmmakers who were in need of a magic sales touch for their own difficult projects. Over the next few years, Miramax would be lionized for its willingness to take on such edgy fare as Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Dogma and Kids. But these initial successes only whetted Miramax’s appetite for more power and influence.

The brothers Weinstein, an angry, bellicose pair, made legions of enemies during their rise to Hollywood influence. They played the game with brass knuckles, repeatedly intimidating exhibitors, filmmakers and producers into accepting low returns on very questionable bookkeeping. They would buy up movies at exorbitant prices just to keep them out of the hands of rivals, with the result being that films would often languish unreleased for years.

The brothers developed separate divisions within Miramax: Bob started Dimension, a subsidiary that specialized in low-budget schlock, and was so successful with films like Scream, Scary Movie and The Crow that his profits became the backbone of Miramax. Harvey, meanwhile, wanted to be a player in prestige cinema and a mogul of the old school, but in doing so, he employed the thuggery of a gangster. Indeed, one observer suggests that Harvey would have been quite at home with Prohibition-era mobsters.

Biskind’s book is packed with appalling stories of chicanery and abuse. The Weinsteins–particularly Harvey–were notorious for threatening bodily harm to their staffers and career ruination to unfriendly journalists, rival distributors and recalcitrant filmmakers. Todd Haynes was reduced to tears in a confrontation over the editing of Velvet Goldmine, and Matt Damon nearly ruined his still-nascent career when he spoke disrespectfully to Weinstein in a pre-production conference about Good Will Hunting.

In Biskind’s telling, Harvey Weinstein comes off as a tragic villain of Shakespearean proportions, physically repulsive and gluttonous in his appetites for food, cigarettes and power while believing that he is serving the interests of a vigorous and exciting movie culture. But, as one observer tells Biskind, “Harvey loves movies the way a dog loves meat.”

In 1993 Miramax was acquired by Disney, a move that made the brothers very rich but, as Biskind argues, discouraged them from tackling controversial or otherwise marginal films. Increasingly, the Miramax name came to be associated with the stuff of Pottery Barn catalogs, bonsai trees and soy lattes: Il Postino, Mediterraneo, Life is Beautiful, Malena and Chocolat. In 1996, Miramax had its first big Oscar winner with The English Patient; three years later, they swept the Oscars with the cutesy-poo Shakespeare in Love and they would triumph again last year with Chicago.

Like the conclusion of Animal Farm in which the insurrectionists become the new bosses, the enshrinement of Miramax as a purveyor of safe, expensive quality entertainment seems complete (although they continue to keep Quentin Tarantino in their stable). Unfortunately, Biskind’s tale of the rise and fall of American indie filmmaking ends with a pessimistic post-script. “The independent film movement, as we knew it, just doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it can’t exist anymore. It’s over,” Steven Soderbergh tells Biskind, who can’t resist adding, “And Miramax killed it.” EndBlock