One day before Harvey Weinstein’s films got 16 Oscar nominations, we sat down in Park City to discuss everything from the Oscar race to the slow pace of acquisitions at Sundance, to how important day-and-date theatrical and VOD releases will be to the independent film business. And how, after The King’s Speech was an underdog that roared past The Social Network to win Best Picture last year, Weinstein is in the uncharacteristic position of being the frontrunner with The Artist. The film has gained momentum, winning the PGA Award, as well as the DGA prize for director Michel Hazanavicius. Last night, Jean Dujardin was named Outstanding Male Actor In a Leading Role at the SAG Awards.
DEADLINE: Last year at this time, I asked you to explain why The King’s Speech was a worthy Best Picture candidate against the hipper Social Network. The Artist certainly was a prototypical Oscar film–in 1929. Why does a black and white silent film deserve Best Picture in this era of cutting age VFX and 3D?
WEINSTEIN: There is that great line in the song in Casablanca, “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.” We can always relate to the story of a man who is up and then falls and then gets replaced by new technology. It’s how I feel every day; I still can’t even operate my Blackberry and my kids laugh at me. This story deals with what’s happening to all of us, facing a world that is changing too fast, as his world is changing too fast. And it’s deeply emotional and a love story, and you feel fabulous at the end of it. Great stories never go away.
DEADLINE: Even if you don’t hear dialogue?
WEINSTEIN: I think you get more out of this movie without dialogue. You do read titles, and that sometimes scares an audience, and they might say, I don’t want to see that. There there is music, sound effects. This was a movie made in Los Angeles, a love letter to American filmmaking. The president says, this is our best export, and this is a love letter to what we do. And it was filmed in the places where the Pickfords, the Fairbanks and the Chaplins lived.
DEADLINE: At our Contenders panel, I asked a group of independent distributors if they would have taken the leap on The Artist like you did on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival. They all admired the movie but said no. How did this happen? Wasn’t Warner Bros supposed to be involved?
WEINSTEIN: Warner Brothers had France, where Jean Dujardin is a big star. I saw a rough cut of the movie and I had tremendous passion for it. And maybe I was crazy and delusional, but I saw all of this. I saw this march was possible. I knew if you didn’t baby this movie and just released it based on reviews and the marketing campaign, this would be over in two weeks. Somebody had to dedicate themselves and be willing to give up a year to make this something. I mean, to create value in this to reach a greater audience. I wanted to be that guy; I felt it talked to me and it made me see the world differently. Maureen Dowd said when you see the movie and then you walk out, that all of a sudden sounds feel different. I had that experience. I walked out of the rough cut when I was in Paris and heard the sounds of the cars, the traffic. For the first time in my life I appreciated the street sounds. I thought, what a transformative effect the movie had. So I was passionate about it, even though people said don’t do it.
DEADLINE: Years ago, before the Palme d’Or-winning The Piano was seen by other distributors, you headed to Europe while they were in Sundance, and I remember hearing that “Harvey got them in a room and would not leave until he walked out with the film under his arm.” Was The Artist the same situation?
WEINSTEIN: I knew these guys, Thomas Langmann and Michel. I was a fan of OSS 117, and wrote Michel a fan letter. I’ve known Thomas all my life. He’s Claude Berri’s son, I was close to Claude and I released Germinal and we did other things over the years. And Vincent Maraval from Wild Bunch, we coproduced City Of God and released King’s Speech in France. Vincent turned me on to this film at the beginning, so it wasn’t like I had to lock it up. They wanted me to like it because the whole room was family. They’d put up a lot of money, houses were mortgaged, and they needed more. So we got in a risk position with them. It was a courageous decision by them to make this movie. Distributors saw it, and didn’t want it. Imagine taking that risk, and not having enough money after you’ve mortgaged the works.
DEADLINE: Last year at this time, The Social Network won the Golden Globe, and The King’s Speech was still the underdog. So was Shakespeare In Love, and with both coming on at the end. Now it’s the opposite. The Artist just won the Golden Globe and the Producers Guild Award and has been the frontrunner. What do you do differently, when you are favored and trying to keep that momentum until the Oscars?
WEINSTEIN: It’s the most boring answer in the world. You’ve just got to make sure people see the movie. There are 6,066 people who vote for the Academy; 100,000 vote for SAG. These people are busy, who knows what they can see? By the time I sent my ballot out I made sure I watched all the movies, and I just don’t vote my movies or only vote number one. I fill out the whole ballot. What about people who don’t? Say you’re a premier sound mixer and you’re working 18, 20 hours a day? How are you gonna watch 20 movies? I know plenty of people who have not seen The Artist. That’s my job; to get them to see it.
DEADLINE: These 6,066 Oscar voters, are you on a first name basis with all of them?
WEINSTEIN: Of course not. Legend would have it otherwise, but it’s just people saying stuff. It’s just the opposite. Today, the more removed you are the better off you are. We are respectful of the rules. I don’t think anybody can say in the last five or seven years that our campaigns have been aggressive at all. They’ve been absolutely respectful of the Academy. We don’t make a move without checking; we don’t spend as much money as everybody else does, on purpose. Because of early skirmishes which were all blown out of proportion, we have to lay back more than anybody else.
WEINSTEIN: Because the movies win the Oscars, not the campaigns. It’s the filmmakers that win, not me. I don’t want people to say, well, it won because the campaign was good, the campaign was aggressive.
DEADLINE: As frontrunner, you have to guard against backlash. Has that been a factor for The Artist?
WEINSTEIN: I think there’s always backlash on any project that you do. I don’t think it has been a factor so far, unless you count Uggie’s retirement and the question of whether he should get an Honorary Oscar for performance of the year. That is a joke, folks.
DEADLINE: What was your reaction to Kim Novak taking out a trade ad to complain that the use of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score was a rape?
WEINSTEIN: You know, I’ve always loved Kim Novak movies. Ironically, she had a box of five movies come out and I told my 16-year-old daughter who just went through Audrey Hepburn’s films that Kim Novak’s movies were great. Picnic and a favorite of mine, Middle of the Night, which Paddy Chayefsky wrote, with Fredric March. I think Pal Joey and Jeanne Eagels and Bell Book And Candle are in there. Kim is great, but I’m sorry, Bernard Herrmann’s music from Vertigo has been used in many other movies. Terry Gilliam used it in 12 Monkeys. Ludovic Bource composed 80 minutes of original music. Most of my other movies have 40, 50 minutes of original music. He won the European Film Award, he’s won awards everywhere for this and I would hate to think that that could hurt him.
DEADLINE: Did you speak with her directly?
WEINSTEIN: No. People have to be entitled to their opinion, whatever it is.
DEADLINE: You mentioned The Artist being about a guy who is on top and falls. You had some rough years after leaving Disney, and there you are with the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech and now The Artist and you had more Golden Globes face time than host Ricky Gervais, and Meryl Streep calls you God in her acceptance speech. We used to hear, Harvey’s such a tough guy. He’ll take your movie and cut it. How are you different this time around?
WEINSTEIN: When you get a second chance you appreciate it in a way that you didn’t the first time. When Bob and I were creating Miramax, it was a wild, incredible ride. We were making up a business, with no skill sets whatsoever. Bob and I didn’t go to Harvard Business School. Some of the stuff is myth. People always say mogul. I don’t feel that way. I read books, I read scripts, I’m involved in politics. But the description always falls into, two-fisted mogul. But really, what happens the second time around is, you just appreciate all of it. I asked Cameron Diaz how she was feeling at the Golden Globes and she said, blessed, we are blessed to be able to do this for as long as we can. Steven Spielberg also talked to me about being able to do this for as long as he can. I feel that in the second incarnation, I’m blessed too. I’m mellower; I laugh more. You said Meryl Streep thinks I’m God. Three of my daughters sent me simultaneous emails and they each wrote, “Ha!” And hours later, the cast of The Artist, who had been incredibly punctual and done anything I asked, celebrated and they were a little too inebriated to do the Today Show at 4:30 in the morning. They had already built this set for The Artist and said, we’ll take Harvey and the dog. I think it was the dog and Harvey, actually. So, between worrying about the dog wanting to poop, and my kids making fun of me, I did not feel like a deity of any sort.
DEADLINE: In our last interview, we talked about your building Miramax and clashing with some filmmakers and stars like My Left Foot’s Daniel Day-Lewis. How has the way you deal with filmmakers evolved?
WEINSTEIN: I was younger then. A lot of these filmmakers are younger than me, and I have the benefit of being older, and that fatherly wisdom of being able to put my arm around somebody and say, you know, we should do this; this is the benefit of my experience and I can actually cite the examples. When Daniel Day-Lewis and I were both starting out in 1989, we were volatile, principled people. Daniel felt strongly that the press was not his best friend; he wanted a private life and he’s maintained that to the best of his ability. And I said, this is a movie worth fighting for. And got into a fight about it. It becomes easier when you can point to a movie like sex, lies & videotape and say, call Steven Soderbergh, who actually calculated the number of interviews I made him do. That’s why Madonna called me The Punisher. The nickname is taking on different connotations, but she meant that I make her sit down and do all this press. Steve Soderbergh did 168 interviews for sex lies & videotape. I’m constantly, but more subtly than the old days, reminding people how important it is. Madonna, even though she’s performing at the Super Bowl, she always finds it awkward to talk to the press. And The Punisher is because she’s done a lot. Meryl has done a lot. People always come over to me and say, God, they’ve done more on this than they’ve done in the last five movies. That’s The Punisher
DEADLINE: Getting the industry to acknowledge The Artist is one thing, but a broad movie audience is another. The film’s done a respectable $12 million, but that’s close to where The Hurt Locker was when it became the lowest grossing Best Picture winner in decades. How do you convince a 21st century wide audience to give a silent film a chance?
WEINSTEIN: I think the reason people were fearful of the movie was that it’s an incredibly difficult movie to market. You’re not marketing a movie, you’re marketing an experience. People are fearful about what they’re gonna do; they have so little time for leisure activity. They want to be really intellectually stimulated, learn something, share something. But they think, okay, it’s a silent movie; this must be difficult; I won’t understand it. They’re used to seeing silent movies broken up on TV. Their knowledge of silent movies is never to watch a beautiful movie in a beautiful theater and a beautiful setting. So, people don’t have that framework of reference. So, it is tough to get them in. Each award is another step on the path and the way the distribution pattern is set is, there’s no date for the movie to go on video. So, God willing, we win something; it’s not like The Hurt Locker, which won when the video was coming out. I purposely said no video date, because I didn’t want to be boxed in. The filmmakers have noticed I’m just caressing the distribution. I have time and I’ll tell you what happens. We open a theater in say, Indianapolis, and we open to $3,000 the first week, which isn’t great. Mission: Impossible does that on a Friday. But the next week, we do that same number, and again for weeks and weeks. I’ve had movies like this, Sling Blade and Cinema Paradiso, that opened very slowly and had to stay the course. Sling Blade, we got some terrible reviews in New York and they wanted to throw us out of the Lincoln Plaza Theater. I was on vacation and flew home to convince them to keep the movie in the theater. And each week it grew. City Of God, we kept that in theaters 72 weeks. So, we’re at $12.1 million now. I think we’ll grow next week slowly and we’ll grow the week after and the week after and the week after. And if we’re lucky enough to do well at the Academy Awards, we have the ability to transform the way audiences look at movies. I’m hoping that The Artist is not a one-off. Michelle Williams, who knows so much about movies, pointed out one I hadn’t seen. It’s rare that happens outside of Quentin Tarantino or Marty Scorsese. I went to U of Quentin and U of Marty, and lived to tell the tale in Marty’s case. But she pointed me to this 1930 movie City Girl, by F.W. Murnau. It was spectacular and the luncheonette scene is referenced in The Artist, and Terry Malick’s Days Of Heaven quotes the movie all over the place. It was spectacular filmmaking. So, besides the “is Harvey back or not back, if you take one kernel out of this interview everybody who loves movies should rent City Girl. I would love to rerelease it. Fox owns it and if I was them, I’d clean it up and re-release it. James Cromwell, who’s in The Artist and whose father directed silent films, talked about the joy of making a silent movie. I hope Steven Spielberg makes one or Marty Scorsese or a young kid with a camcorder. I don’t think this is a novelty act.
DEADLINE: In our Contenders mogul panel, when the subject of Oscar spending came up, Jeffrey Katzenberg said that you were the one doing it right, because your Oscar campaigning is your P&A spend. Why don’t more people do that?
WEINSTEIN: That’s nice of Jeffrey, but it’s not really true. You have to have a certain movie, you know, to be able to coast it all the way through. I think The Descendants is doing it well, and some others. The problem today is that media is so expensive and to sustain anything is crazy difficult. Opening all at once is one thing, but if you platform for a week or two and then you open, you end up spending more money sustaining things. This only makes sense for a certain kind of movie, and it doesn’t make sense for most movies. Next year we have the movies The Silver Linings Playbook and Quentin’s Django Unchained. We might platform a week, but then we’re going wide. It’s whatever works for each movie. You can’t say, this is how you get an Oscar, if it’s the wrong movie.
DEADLINE: What do you see as The Artist’s strongest competition for Best Picture and what 2011 movies did you love?
WEINSTEIN: I don’t look at it as a competition on the movies but I can tell you which 2011 movies I loved. I loved Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. The second to last shot of the movie, with the horse going up the hill, coming home? That’s Lawrence Of Arabia and The Searchers, the spirit of David Lean or John Ford. Nobody does that anymore, and it took my breath away. Steven’s skill-set with the actors and the command of his visuals are incredible. I loved Hugo, my kids all read the book and when I took them, they loved it too. I loved The Descendants. Any father of teenage girls that doesn’t like the ending of that movie is nuts. Alexander Payne and I have four daughters. Tintin I saw in London and that was incredibly enjoyable and better to see it there because the character is so popular it was like watching a Bruce Lee movie. I thought Puss n Boots was just classic animation. My second job is politics, and Clooney’s movie, The Ides Of March, that movie was so realistic, it’s almost a documentary. I never expected The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to be so romantic. The original Swedish movie was good, but this was better because Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander broke my heart. To me, the key is how great Daniel Craig is. If you don’t love him, Salander doesn’t work at all. He’s so much more powerful than the Swedish actor and he’s the center strength and selflessness of the movie, so when he walks off with Robin Wright, I’m thinking, why am I welling up at Dragon Tattoo? That’s Fincher’s great skill. I loved Moneyball. Brad Pitt’s out of this world, and Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ridiculously good.
DEADLINE: Outside of Moneyball and Midnight In Paris, a lot of these Oscar frontrunners haven’t done well compared to their budgets, like Hugo or J. Edgar?. What is that telling us about the prestige business?
WEINSTEIN: I don’t know but I think in tough times, people look for escapist entertainment. I think the challenging stuff, people see Greece and Italy defaulting. Our own economic woes and unemployment. It’s tough to think about anything. But Mission: Impossible, which is a good movie too, but it’s just fun. People want to get out of the house and have fun.
DEADLINE: W.E. won best song at the Globes, but critics have been harsh. Your relationship with Madonna goes back to Truth Or Dare. What did you see in the film when you acquired it at Cannes?
WEINSTEIN: Of all the movies this year that have gotten a bad shake from the critics this is the one. And I think it’s Madonna. I think they see the personality behind the film. You have extraordinary performances in the movie. There’s nobody can say Andrea Riseborough isn’t absolutely brilliant and one of our emerging great actresses. And the rest of the cast is great. The setting, the lighting, the costumes, all of which is Madonna’s vision. And the music, the ballsiness to put The Sex Pistols into a period piece. I wanted to take the adventure with her. She did a damn good job and she’s getting a bad shake from people. The great thing about sending out the DVDs is, you get audience reaction, unfiltered and with no critics in front of the movie. People call me all the time and go, wow, I really enjoyed it. So, if it wasn’t Madonna, if it was Joe Smith this movie would be getting three stars and about the director we would be saying wow, this is a talent to watch and a movie you should see. Of course, Madonna’s line is, I don’t want to be Joe Smith.
DEADLINE: What changed since you bought it at Cannes and worked with her on it?
WEINSTEIN: I don’t know if it’s me. I saw it before Cannes, in the editing stage. She was going to whittle it down anyway. Since Toronto and Venice, there were a couple of things she did that made it better and more understandable. And also she put some more politics in there. Stanley Baldwin was the prime minister and we dealt with some of this in The King’s Speech. Winston Churchill, in The King’s Speech, you see him very favorable to Bertie, but actually he was very favorable to King Edward. King Edward and he were actually talking about doing a political party together, and that’s why Baldwin wanted to get rid of Wallis Simpson. There were more political things than, just, oh Wallis Simpson was a thrice divorced woman. I said to Madonna it’s not clear to anybody but a Rhodes scholar but you can make it clear and she agreed. There’s more documentary footage in the movie and also better voice-over that explains about Churchill, who got shouted down at Parliament for suggesting that King Edward form a new political party. Also this king was different. He was of the people, he wanted to be more active and they wanted to keep him in the king box. He was venturing into politics and they thought what he would do was a constitutional reform. I know all this sounds boring but for me it was fascinating. So it has a more historical context presented in an understandable way. Unlike me, trying to explain it.
DEADLINE: Tom Hooper was adamant last year that the array of “fucks” uttered by Colin Firth stay in The King’s Speech. You put out a sanitized version late and got PG-13. Was it a mistake? What difference did it make?
WEINSTEIN: I have about 100 letters from kids who saw the PG-13 movie. The letters would say, I saw the movie; I’m a stutterer, and it inspired me to not be ashamed of myself and to work with a speech therapist like Geoffrey Rush. All those children who saw it in the PG-13 version and all the children who were stutterers, in my humble opinion override Tom Hooper. His R-rated version with the F words, was released on video. And then the PG-13 version came out at the same time. If we helped one kid overcome his stuttering, that’s worth Tom Hooper’s objections. I have kids and they trump everything as far as I’m concerned. He won the Oscar, his version exists and it’s out on video. When Tom Hooper has kids I’m going to revisit this subject matter. When he has teenagers I want to talk to him, see how he feels then.
DEADLINE: When you have rival performers like Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady and Michelle Williams for My Week With Marilyn, How do you balance it so you don’t appear to be serving one over the other? Has this happened to you before?
WEINSTEIN: It happened with Joanne Woodard and Angelica Huston one year. You just do your job. These are two elegant women. And Michelle’s so excited to hang out with Meryl Streep in the first place. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Michelle. She hates when I talk about it, but my brother actually did a Halloween movie, and she was actually good in H20 with Jamie Lee Curtis. I picked up The Station Agent, and then Blue Valentine. Now, she just won the Golden Globe and 10 critics awards. She’s pretty happy. As for Meryl, she’s not a campaigner at all; and Lord knows I’ve tried. What blows my mind is that she hasn’t won the Oscar in 29 years. She won in 1982 for Sophie’s Choice and then ’79 for Kramer Vs. Kramer. So, she’s only won a supporting actor and she won an actress award and has been nominated a lot of times. People think she’s up for her sixth Oscar, and you remind them there are people with more Oscars than Meryl Streep. I’ve done five movies with Meryl; I’ve never seen her prouder of a movie than this and she had a great deal to do with this movie, too, behind the scenes.
DEADLINE: Why hasn’t it caught on better domestically?
WEINSTEIN: It’s doing great. The price and the subject matter dictate a movie. It cost $14 million to make. England will gross $20 million, Australia will gross $10 million. Here maybe we gross $25 million-$30 million. Spain’s gonna gross well. If you have a $14 million movie and you gross $120 million worldwide; I will take that every day of the week. We did that with The Reader, which was a bit more expensive. People don’t see all the pieces. Margaret Thatcher is never gonna be Mission: Impossible, she doesn’t scale down the Dubai building. If The Artist, which cost $14 million, grosses $100 million worldwide, that’s a success and someone should make another. Marilyn cost under $10 million and it that does $50 million or $60 million, that’s awesome.
DEADLINE: Since we’re doing math let’s talk about Sundance. Buyers were wary when many of last year’s big purchases didn’t pan out. The big deal was the one you made for The Details at $7 million and a $10 million P&A commitment. Why hasn’t it come out a year later?
WEINSTEIN: We really haven’t found a slot for it. It’s a movie you have to navigate. We’re working on something, we have an idea of what we can do with that movie that’s very unique. Everybody’s on board so I think that’s going to have a very good story at the end of the day.
DEADLINE: So you don’t regret the purchase?
WEINSTEIN: No, no, no, no, no. And remember, we bought worldwide, and we’ve sold the world. Probably the biggest deal of that festival was Our Idiot Brother, because we spent $6 million dollars and got bunch of foreign territories and the U.S., where we grossed $25 million. That was great. And we sold all our territories.
DEADLINE: Let’s spend a moment on that. You opened that during a hurricane, which hurt. But if you spent $6 million and put in $15 million P&A, it doesn’t seem like a big success. Did you make money?
WEINSTEIN: Of course. Let’s go through it. If you spend $15 million and you get to $24 million, you get about $12 million in film rentals. So you’re minus $3 million. Your pay TV deal covers 50% to 60% of your film rental. So now, you’re $2 million up. Then you have video and free television to go, and that movie sold everywhere. Comedy Central wants it, VH-1 wants it. We’ll sell free TV for a lot of money and we sold England, France. That’s a couple of million dollars. We opened during a hurricane and survived. If that hurricane hadn’t hit, this would have been really profitable. Our free television, whatever we get from that and the DVD sales, which were very good on a comedy with Paul Rudd, that was our profit. So we were thrilled.
DEADLINE: This festival has been all about VOD and the success of Margin Call. Some distributors feel the film would have done better as a theatrical play. What do you think?
WEINSTEIN: It’s very exciting. The VOD gives you such incredible visibility, it’s almost like having a $20 million P&A campaign for free. You go home, you put on the TV and see spots for Margin Call. You walk by the theater when you’re out of town and go, I’ll go see Margin Call. Maybe I can’t get it at the hotel, but you open the newspaper, Margin Call is there. Or you say, “it’s Saturday, honey. The kids are having a party downstairs and somebody better be here with a shotgun. Okay, let’s order up Margin Call.” The cross-pollination of advertising is perfect. I don’t understand why people always say you could have had more. They did a great job and I thought the reason that it worked was you had the two of these together. I’ve learned the lesson and that’s why we brought Tom Quinn and Jason Janego in. We need to be doing that here.
DEADLINE: As a movie lover, you know there’s nothing like seeing it on the big screen. Will actors come around? It’s jolting for a movie actor to realize your work is going to be seen mostly on a TV.
WEINSTEIN: A famous industrialist called me and said I want the DVD of The Artist. I wouldn’t give it to him. He said, how about it if I see it in the movie theater first? I made him call and tell me about the movie. I still said I can’t stand the idea watching The Artist on a small screen. There are some movies I don’t mind at all, they play brilliantly. Then he told me, Harvey, my screen is 102 inches. I sent him the DVD. I don’t think these screens are going to be that small. You turn out the lights and you’ve got great sound. War Horse should be seen on the big screen. But there are movies that might fall between the cracks and with VOD the audience gets to vote. It’s an important tool for this business.
DEADLINE: So what message do you have for those film folks who wonder if, now that you’re back, the old Harvey will rear his head?
WEINSTEIN: What does that mean?
DEADLINE: You were rough and tumble the first time around as you build your company. How about now?
WEINSTEIN: I would say this. I think it’s important that there is strength across the independent film sector. You talked about the problems these movies have being seen. I think we should help each other more. I’m happy to go through a list of movies and talk about great films that I saw this year. If I was a threat at Miramax, I guarantee I’m no threat now. I’m Harvey without the bow and arrow. There are no more arrows in my quiver.