It’s never been a good idea to declare Harvey Weinstein dead -- he has a tendency to rise from the beyond.
On Tuesday, Weinstein proved that he is quite definitely reborn, buying with his brother Bob 25 percent of Starz Media in order to ensure a home entertainment deal with their Anchor Bay division, and scooping up Producers Guild nominations for "The King's Speech" and "The Tillman Story."
But beyond those momentary milestones, the movie mogul is back in the groove that once made him famous – cutting trailers, reading scripts, hanging around on movie sets – he even skipped the White House Christmas party to hunker down for “The King’s Speech” release.
“You can’t recreate it, but this is as close to Miramax as it’s ever been,” said Weinstein, in an interview with TheWrap. “I’m 100 percent focused on movies. I don’t think outside the box. I’m loving playing in the box.
After restructuring $450 million in debt this summer in the wake of a failed, five-year effort to build a multimedia empire, Weinstein and his brother Bob are now focused on a smaller, core business at which they unequivocally excel: making independent films.
Since this summer’s refinancing, the studio has surged forward on a number of fronts, racking up deals even as they gain momentum in this awards season.
>> The studio has four movies in production -- including Oscar bait for 2011, “My Week With Marilyn,” starring Michelle Williams -- and is on track to produce eight movies this year, and acquire another four or five. (See box)
>> TWC has agreed to make sequels of Miramax movies with the arthouse library’s new owner, Ron Tutor’s FilmYard Holdings, starting with “Swingers,” “Amityville Horror” and “Bad Santa.”
>> TWC has signed a deal to market and distribute two films a year with billionaire Len Blavatnik from a $100 million film fund.
>> To top it all off, Weinstein managed to overturn an NC-17 rating for “Blue Valentine” in an impassioned personal appeal before the the MPAA.
The one sour note was losing the Miramax purchase to Ron Tutor and Colony Capital for a $663 million sale price, but Weinstein even sees this as a glass half-full:
“After that sale I can honestly say I did nothing wrong at Miramax,” he said, adding with typical subtlety: “I batted 1000, and Bob batted 1000 too. What the fuck did we do wrong?”
Maybe the independent movie mogul hasn’t changed all that much.
But he has shifted his strategy enough to pull his studio from what by all accounts was the brink of financial ruin and set it on a more solid course.
The Weinstein’s ambitions in building a multimedia empire -- raising $1.2 billion in financingto do so -- were vast, and included the fashion line Halston, the arts cable network Ovation and the social networking site asmallworld.net.
All of those lost money, and have been jettisoned. But TWC’s movies also lost money, with the notable exception of “Inglourious Basterds,” suffering from a lack of oversight and financial discipline.
In June, a federal court ordered the insurance company Ambac to pay $115 million of Weinstein’s debt to Goldman Sachs and Assured Guaranty. The remainder of the debt was exchanged for 200 TWC movies, including the $233 million in accounts receivable on the films.
The restructure handcuffed the Weinsteins in a way that has been salutary: They are not permitted to dabble in areas beyond movies, television and books.
And the deal to wipe clear the company’s debt put 200 Weinstein movies in debtor’s jail, with their redemption dependent on the company’s paying down $86 million.
Which so far, the company is doing.
One of the factors in keeping Weinstein on the straight and narrow thus far has been the rise of David Glasser, formerly the head of international and now the studio’s COO.
Glasser has insisted that all movie projects adhere to a budget, a business model and a commitment to a release date, to avoid old habits of acquiring movies and letting them gather dust on a shelf.
And another thing: “One of the things we changed was Harvey’s approach. He’s still tough and still Harvey Weinstein, but he’s not ruling with the iron fist,” Glasser said in an interview.
As a result, the mood within the company is also much improved, Glasser said.
“If you used to go to office at 6 p.m., there was nobody there. You come to office at 10 p.m. now, it’s buzzing,” he said. “People were afraid to take a chance. There was so much failure going on, they couldn’t see the light.”
That has not come without pain. The studio has been cut back to a lean 119 employees, after layoffs over the past two years cut 72 from the payroll.
Nonetheless, the studio has now attracted senior executive talent including former Miramax executive Donna Gigliotti, David Hutkin in strategic finance and Peter Lawson in acquisitions.
And the studio is now looking to hire a new marketing chief, a top publicity executive and a few others.
In some ways it seems that the Weinsteins have remembered what they once forgot – that they built Miramax into a success on a formula of low-cost, high-quality filmmaking.
While Weinstein has the authority to green-light up to $60 million movies, he has been playing it safer, keeping to budgets more in the $20-$40 million range.
If he can stick to that formula, perhaps he and his brother can recreate the success that was Miramax in the 1990s. It is clearly what they believe can be accomplished.
“I’m enjoying it,” said Weinstein. “It’s not about Disney or Miramax or all that. It’s about this time, this company, going straight ahead. And feeling this is a good time to succeed, to rebuild the independent film sector that has collapsed."