EXCLUSIVE: Last Monday, after a trade report had him skipping Park City for the D.C. inauguration, Harvey Weinstein met me in Sundance for what has become an annual sit down lunch. He and his COO David Glasser looked as tired as I felt—they brokered and I covered an all-night negotiation for Fruitvale, a film that went on to win all the big festival prizes. A fixture at Sundance since turning the festival into a lucrative marketplace with Steven Soderbergh’s crossover success sex, lies & videotape, Weinstein is as busy right now as a one-armed wallpaper hanger.
Beyond his D.C. stature, Weinstein owns the last two Best Picture Oscars with The King’s Speech and The Artist, and he’s got Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchainedin this year’s wide-open race. He’s making a fortune on a film he didn’t release–The Hobbit–because he made five points of first dollar gross the price for allowing Peter Jackson shop The Lord of the Rings and subsequent Tolkien films elsewhere when Michael Eisner refused to let Weinstein make them at Miramax. The Hobbit is closing in on $1 billion in worldwide gross. If all that isn’t enough, Harvey recently learned that he and his fashion designer wife, Georgina Chapman, are now expecting their second child together (that will make five children for the mogul). In between all that chaos, Weinstein took an hour to discuss politics, Sundance and of course the Oscars. He was uncharacteristically circumspect on the latter, fully aware that the voting period is in full swing.
DEADLINE: And here I’d read in The Hollywood Reporter that you’d be at Barack Obama’s inauguration today. On behalf of Deadline, thanks for cancelling. He’s the leader of the free world, so this can’t be about me. Is Nikki Finke that powerful?
WEINSTEIN: (Long pause). I’ll say yes (laughs). The thing I love about Nikki Finke is, I’ve got Silver Linings Playbook in its 12th week, grossing $13 + million. Unheard of for a movie to complete the platform it had and go wide like this, and it kills it, the #3 movie in the country, beating all the new releases. Does she write, “Outstanding!” “Boy they were smart!” “God, they’re going to do $100 million,” or “Shit I was wrong.” Nothing. The movie’s at $58 million now and we’re 6 weeks until the Oscars. Silver Lining’s is going to gross $100 million. And when it does, I suppose she’ll just write “’Silver Linings grossed $100 million.’”
DEADLINE: You spent the weekend with the Obama clan, and raced back to negotiate the Fruitvale deal. Does it bother you that after all these years, you’re still down to convincing young kid directors like Ryan Coogler to trust you with their small movies?
WEINSTEIN: That is the refreshing part of all this. He was humble, smart, and his knowledge of film and what he wanted to do was exceptional. Ryan’s movie was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time and certainly it was the best movie here. And when Ryan talks about the films that inspired this, he talks about the theme of a father trying to do right by his child, and mentions The Bicycle Thief, one of my favorites. You just look at a guy like this and say, here’s the next generation.
DEADLINE: You’ve had the Best Picture winner two years running. This year, two of the nine nominated pictures are yours. Make a case why Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained would each make a worthy winner.
WEINSTEIN: I don’t want to do that. Anyone who talks about this Oscar race has to deal with the fact that it was such a ridiculously good year for movies that, who knows? They’re all great. Life of Pi, brilliant, Ang Lee at his absolute best. Lincoln’s a masterpiece. Ben Affleck hit it out of the ballpark with Argo. Zero Dark Thirty. Amour, amazing, and those guys did such a good job getting that film noticed and nominated. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Miserables. Stupendous year.
DEADLINE: Let’s attack it another way. You worked on Silver Linings Playbook for years, and it started as a Sydney Pollack project. He couldn’t crack the idea of a comedy with a bipolar protagonist. He brought in David O Russell, who made it work. What was the creative breakthrough?
WEINSTEIN: Here was the eureka moment. People who are bi-polar, or depressed, or are borderline, don’t usually say, ‘hey, that’s me.’ It is the same way stutterers felt before The King’s Speech. They hid it in shame. The movies de-stigmatized that. David O. Russell’s son, as he’s admitted, is borderline. And he one day said to David, in what became the key that unlocked the movie, “I don’t want to live in this world.” To hear that as a father, you can just imagine how David felt. And he wrote this to give hope to people who have this problem. Everyone in this movie has something. Bradley Cooper’s character is bipolar, Jennifer Lawrence’s character has problems, Bob De Niro’s character is obsessive compulsive. It is no day in the park, but David used humor beautifully to deal with an important subject in a way that gives people hope. Sydney going to David was serendipitous for all of us. For Sydney and Anthony Minghella, this is the final project for two exceptional men who so influenced our industry. This was Sydney more than Anthony; it’s really Sydney’s last hurrah and that means a lot to us. And of course, Django means a lot to us because it’s Quentin.
DEADLINE: People seem to tip toe around controversy during Oscar voting. Anybody who read Quentin’s Django Unchained script when it circulated two years ago could see what was coming, from the violence to the systemic degradation of slaves, to the use of the “N” word, to the Spaghetti Western style and humor. When media reports count the number of times the “N” word was used and play that as big news, how much harder does that make it for you during this voting period?
WEINSTEIN: The movie has had champions from Jesse Jackson to Al Sharpton to BET to the NAACP; it got four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The people who are for it are much more influential than those against it, and they’ve put out a lot of those early fires started in some cases by people who hadn’t even seen the film, which is irresponsible. The “N” word was in Lincoln, too, because that’s the word they used. It was in Roots. They weren’t called African Americans then, the reference was way more derogatory.
DEADLINE: Was Quentin robbed with no nomination for Best Director?
WEINSTEIN: I don’t want to use the word “robbed,” but Quentin Tarantino not in the running for Best Director? He is one of the greatest directors of our time. Here’s what I think happened on Django. We finished the movie December 1. We didn’t show it until a few days later. The race was early this year: the voting cutoff was January 3. We tried to show it to people in theaters, not on DVD. It’s an epic movie and that man put his whole life and heart into this. It’s his most important movie, his most important subject matter, and the idea of DVDs stopped me cold. And I stopped them. I wouldn’t do it.
DEADLINE: What do you mean? Even I have an Oscar DVD.
WEINSTEIN: I delayed them. I wanted people to see it on the big screen. I told Quentin we’d probably pay the price at the Oscars, but it was the right way to see an epic period movie about a man who does not give up. Eventually, we gave out the DVDs but we paid the price for being late. We paid no price as far as the gigantic business the movie’s doing. It’s the biggest of Quentin’s career. After we put our heart and soul into the movie, the Oscar campaign was secondary. But make no mistake about it – we got five nominations including Best Picture, and we only had one week. We sent the DVDs out on December 17.
DEADLINE: The first script had an even harsher depiction of how slave women and Broomhilda in particular were used for sex by their masters, and how male slaves were used in gruesome fights to the death to entertain those masters. Did you ever say, “Quentin, I don’t know?” After all, you have been in business with him his whole career, and you’re the one who markets these movies.
WEINSTEIN: Quentin is so educated on the subject that the original idea for this wasn’t even a movie. Ten years ago, he spoke to me about how Birth of a Nation had been lauded and yet there was this strand of racism in it that had been ignored by major critics who’d put it at or near the top of their all-time best lists. I watched Birth of a Nation and suggested that he do a piece for The New Yorker, a 30 or 40 page treatise. You know Quentin; he can write like any film professor. He writes brilliant scripts; and trust me, I read pages of the treatise. It was astounding, the amount of research he put into the slave era. So I’ll tell you the truth; if anything I’m the one who said to him, if you really want to show slavery…show it. The reality was worse than what we put on that screen. Way, way worse. All I said was, we’ve got to find a way to get an audience inspired by this, to want to do their own research, but not turn them off.” Quentin knows this subject better than anybody and when you’ve got someone who wants to bring that incredible knowledge to the screen, you just let him be.
DEADLINE: The way he covered those topics but didn’t make them the movie’s focal point gave me the same chill I felt during a scene in the movie Exodus, when Sal Mineo’s character tried to join the radical underground group Irgun in Israel. He was forced to talk about his concentration camp experience, and after he told of how attractive Jewish women were spared from the gas chambers to be used for sex by Nazi officers, while others were sent to be killed, he admitted finally that he too was used like a woman by the officers. It was one chunk of dialogue but it conjured up WWII atrocities I hadn’t considered until then.
WEINSTEIN: I know the exact scene. Sal Mineo is this tough, tough, tough guy and when the Irgun breaks him down, what he says is astonishing, that he was a boy used in the service of German homosexuals. They used him like a woman. Just horrible.
DEADLINE: Weren’t you once interested in directing a remake of Exodus?
WEINSTEIN: I didn’t want to remake it, I wanted to do Leon Uris’ prequel, Mila 18, which I own. That’s about the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. I still want to do it. I just need time, and I want to be surrounded. At one time, I had Anthony Minghella and Marty Scorsese as my executive producers. I figured that when I was out of my depth, I would say, “I’m going to take a walk now,” hoping that Anthony and Marty would fix everything.
DEADLINE: How far in your future is that film?
WEINSTEIN: I don’t know. I can’t predict tomorrow these days. I’ll tell David Glasser and my brother Bob, “hey, by the way, I’m taking 3 years off and I’m going to make this movie. Have fun!”
DEADLINE: So we shouldn’t dress for the premiere just yet. You are up here buying films for TWC, Dimension and Radius-TWC. A few years ago, things weren’t going so well, you blamed yourself, said you were distracted, and that you were going to recapitalize and refocus on your core business. How do you feel about where you are now?
WEINSTEIN: Yeah, I remember. A clothing business. A clothing business? There was an internet company, cable. The 10 outside interests are long gone, and the only ancillary divisions for us now are VOD with Radius, movies, and TV. That’s all I am focused on. We are really healthy and we’ve worked hard. Every time I say the company is in great shape, someone will say it isn’t so, but it is. Silver Linings Playbook will do $100 million, and Django could do $165 million. Quartet’s doing well, and Lawless, a $5 million acquisition, was a nice sleeper for us. We’ve had a good year, including The Intouchables, which was inexpensive and we owned a lot of foreign territories we did well with, and remake rights. We had a couple of bumps in there, but not much.
WEINSTEIN: Probably not, and I just feel bad for Megan Ellison on that. I think it’s a great movie and God bless her for bringing these great movies into the world.
DEADLINE: Why didn’t it click with a wider audience?
WEINSTEIN: I probably could have marketed it better. I probably should have prepared the audience. We opened up to the highest per screen average ever, but I think the audience had trouble with the movie and needed to be guided and eased into it. I was so enamored with the film that I didn’t think the audience would have that trouble. Other people around me did say the audience would have trouble, but I personally loved the movie and Paul. Maybe I would have done him more of a favor being a devil’s advocate instead of a cheerleader. I seem to do better when I’m playing devil’s advocate. I do think the film will stand up and have a long life down the line.
DEADLINE: What could you have done differently when you deal with auteurs like PTA or Quentin, who have final cut and write scripts so elegantly that you want to bind them in leather and put them on your bookshelf?
WEINSTEIN: Every movie’s different, but in the case of The Master, maybe I could have come up with a different campaign. My attachment to The Master was not the Scientology or religion; it was that in WWII, people like my dad and other combat veterans came back and were just lost after the war. There’s a documentary called Let There Be Light that John Huston made about troubled soldiers, and my own dad was one of them. The carnage he was involved in really affected him, mentally. All of those guys were looking for something spiritual and those guys in California founded Scientology. For my dad, there were all sorts of other quests, but I remember hearing stories as a young kid about veterans and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Maybe if I’d explained the movie in those terms, that it was more of a spiritual quest for a veteran who had seen action and got lost, people might have responded differently. I’d told Paul that was my attraction. But there were so many themes in the movie and I was also fascinated by the Scientology, the whole idea of the beginning of a religion or a cult. The emotional attachment in that was something else, but maybe people were expecting an expose and they didn’t get it.
DEADLINE: Everybody says you do this Oscar campaigning the best…
WEINSTEIN: It’s always about the movies. I don’t know what people think we’re campaigning. Where? Have you seen me campaigning?
DEADLINE: No. Well, for President Obama.
WEINSTEIN: That’s about the only campaigning I’ve done this year and last.
DEADLINE: What prompted this political activism in you?
WEINSTEIN: I was cursed with it when I went to college. I had two Irish roommates, Dennis Ward and Eugene Fahey. Eugene is now a New York State Supreme Court Judge, and Dennis is a constitutional lawyer. Instead of going out and having a good time like I should have in those college years, I went with these guys as they ran the campaign for the mayor or the councilman and I’d be out there hanging posters and handing out stickers. Politics has been part of me since I was 17, when I met those guys. They still call me every five minutes. There’s always another issue, another problem. We should have been in more bars having fun and instead we were in town hall meetings.
DEADLINE: How has your flair for marketing and organization helped in being an ally for the president or other politicians? What has been most gratifying?
WEINSTEIN: The concert for Hurricane Sandy was more gratifying than anything I’ve done in movies. We raised over $60 million in one night. Jim Dolan, John Sykes and I produced that show. This started the same way as the 9/11 concert. I was in Los Angeles, watching Hurricane Sandy on television. My grandma used to have a little cottage in Rockaway. We didn’t go to the French countryside back then, you know? The Weinstein family was packed into this Rockaway bungalow. I’m watching the TV and there is no Rockaway. The boardwalk was floating in the water. I called Jim Dolan and said, “we gotta go do something.” So where was I campaigning for movies? I was producing that concert around the clock, 24/7, right after the election.
DEADLINE: What was your reaction when the NRA blamed the Newtown, Connecticut massacre on the depiction of violence in Hollywood films and video games, instead of the easy access to legal semi-automatic weapons like the one used in that elementary school shooting spree?
WEINSTEIN: Those are my three most un-favorite letters, when you put them in that order. NRA.
DEADLINE: So you reject the premise there is a cause and effect between violence and entertainment, and real violence?
WEINSTEIN: I’m not as educated as I should be here; I want to know more. But I certainly reject that premise.
DEADLINE: Could Hollywood do a better job of reigning in the depiction of violence and have stronger moral ground to stand on? Am I giving you indigestion right now?
WEINSTEIN: No not at all, I’m just trying to think it through. Mike, I don’t have the answers to these questions. I really don’t. They’re so complicated, you need people with better facts and intelligence. In this situation I have to be a follower, not a leader.
DEADLINE: Having worked hard to reelect the President after a first term where he locked horns with his Republican counterparts, what are you hoping to see him accomplish this time?
WEINSTEIN: He just made a big statement on gun control. We didn’t go over the fiscal cliff. We did the right thing for the country. I believe this will be one of the most fruitful times in America, and that he is going to take all these issues and get things done.
DEADLINE: In this intersection between Hollywood and D.C., is there an issue you hope to press that can help your industry?
WEINSTEIN: There is one. The thing I’m the most concerned about is how the internet shortchanges writers, directors and producers in our industry. Their work–10 minute clips, 15 minute clips, whatever–gets shown all the time and they never get any money. The Director’s Guild doesn’t get any money, the Writer’s Guild. Journalists don’t benefit when their stories are taken, and given a link. It would be like me launching a newspaper–call it Link—where I can have the greatest journalists in the world working for me without paying them. It’s inconceivable. If BMI and ASCAP can monitor the music business, we need a BMI and an ASCAP to monitor these businesses. This will be the one legislation for our industry that I’ll press. We need for writers, producers, studios, and journalists to be protected. That is my agenda. What kind of companies are we talking about? No disrespect to my friends who run them, but these are $5 billion dollar companies! I’m not going to feel bad if Apple has to write a check for $1 billion and now they’re a $499 billion company. They need to give it to the writers, not the studios. Just the way they give it to the guy who wrote the song, they need to give it to the producer, the director, the writer.
DEADLINE: You think this is achievable?
WEINSTEIN: I do. I will be tough and I think they’ll fight like hell and they’re influential, but I think we can get there.
DEADLINE: You mention journalism. I wonder where that craft is going when people expect to get a newspaper like The New York Times for free, and that paper is laying off editors and reporters. I’m happy to pay for an online subscription; it somehow feels important. Are we going to get to the point where journalism will have to be underwritten by government? Internet reporting on war and politics is catty and unreliable compared to old school journalism, which costs money.
WEINSTEIN: The idea is to start by accomplishing something for the 15,000 DGA members and those kids from SAG. As for journalism, what about those newspapers that are now forced to publish only three days a week? Is there no news on the other days? When it comes to journalists and journalism, I’m with you. It is important they get paid for good work, and wrong that others just take it, with a link.