Each year, Harvey Weinstein has taken time out from his Sundance buying frenzies to do an Oscar-season interview that touches on his Academy hopefuls, all the films he bought in Park City, and politics. Well, January’s Sundance couldn’t have been duller — outside of his multiplatform arm RADiUS, The Weinstein Company made zero buys there for the first time in forever — but so much has happened since that we needed a catch-up call to get it all in. Here, Weinstein touches on everything from watching Philomena get the Best Picture Oscar nomination over higher-profile TWC films to Quentin Tarantino’s leaked The Hateful Eight script to his battle with Warner Bros over The Hobbit gross points, to the NRA. And, just as he came out of Toronto with the big acquisition in Can A Song Save Your Life?, Weinstein walked away from Berlin with The Imitation Game, the drama about genius British mathematician Alan Turing, whose work cracking the Nazi Enigma Code made him a bona fide WWII hero but who later was prosecuted for being homosexual, chemically castrated and eventually committed suicide.
DEADLINE: We started this interview at the tail end of Sundance and you uncharacteristically hadn’t bought a single movie. You went right to Berlin and paid a record $7 million for U.S. rights to The Imitation Game. What happened?
WEINSTEIN: One of the things I’ve never been great at is discipline, but we just didn’t feel like there was anything we had to have at Sundance. We decided that, like with Can A Song Save Your Life? at Toronto, we wanted the movie. Imitation Game was a project all of us followed, and those 20 minutes gave that zeitgeist feeling to me, David Glasser, everyone on our team. Negeen Yazdi, who runs our English office, tracked this one so hard that it was like she was trying to break the Enigma Code.
DEADLINE: How hard is it to make such a big commitment based on a 20 minute compilation of scenes?
WEINSTEIN: It was easier in that we all knew the script and could see the level of performance Morten Tyldum got in his first English language film. Alan Turing is not outwardly very sympathetic. He’s brilliant, but the way that Benedict Cumberbatch played him showed us these guys found the right level of vulnerability, genius and the arrogance of the character, too. We felt after reading the script that you could get this wrong, from the tone to the casting. The reason we didn’t make it ourselves was, it felt like a near impossible walk on a tightrope. Morten walked the tightrope. And Keira Knightley is so brilliant in Can A Song Save Your Life and she was helpful and loyal in pushing it our way that we wanted this huge run she is about to have to be with us.
DEADLINE: Post-Sundance, Quentin Tarantino shocked everyone by shelving his ensemble Western The Hateful Eight after he handed a first draft to a few actors and somebody leaked it. Then he sued Gawker.com after one of its sites told readers to help themselves to that script, furnishing a link to an anonymous site where it could be downloaded. How did all that make you feel?
WEINSTEIN: I was really proud of the stance that Quentin took on Deadline. The business has to reform itself sometimes, and a businessman wouldn’t get us there. It takes an artist as successful and with the power of a Quentin Tarantino. People acted badly and he called out the industry on it. Everywhere Quentin goes right now, people in the industry are behind him for standing up for his integrity. I’m 100% behind his decision.
DEADLINE: You mean his decision to postpone, or sue?
WEINSTEIN: I’m behind his decision to protect his rights, no matter how he chooses to do it. I think he’s setting an important example about the importance of intellectual property. You wouldn’t go into a clothing store and steal six shirts. He is standing out on a limb for what is right, and backing it up with legal action. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of Quentin. I have to put the integrity of the situation beyond the movie at this point in my career, too. That will be wholly Quentin’s decision, whether he makes that movie or not. He’s got other movies he’s thinking about and now, he’s got a good old fashioned fight on his hands that he’s going to win. And everywhere he goes, he gets tremendous respect for taking a stand, to go with the acclaim he already had as a filmmaker.
DEADLINE: Why is there so little respect for the sanctity of intellectual property? Kids understand it’s wrong to steal from a store, but with movies or music, it’s like they feel they are sticking it to the Man. There is no tug of conscience trafficking in someone else’s sweat and effort, as was evidenced when Quentin’s first draft was disseminated online.
WEINSTEIN: We just have so little respect for the guy who writes the song, or the book. Anything that’s so called public, we feel we own it. We don’t. We don’t even understand what is at stake. This has to start with education. Everyone understands you can’t steal a car without consequence but nobody thinks that way when they steal music, movies, or the script. It’s unbelievable how, for such a media conscious industry, we have done such a poor job educating people. Between the music and the movie industries, we have the power to change that. The problem is we never sit down as a group, and when people try, there are cries of collusion. There are a million excuses, but the big thing is we don’t use our resources as a group to protect or even educate. Maybe a smart entertaining public service announcement is a first step. I’d be willing to chip in. Maybe we could put something in classrooms, get movie theaters to run them, and put them in front of our DVDs. And as an industry, we take the lesson of what happened with Quentin and use it to protect not just him, but all artists, screenwriters, and directors. We lose so much to piracy. You might think it comes out of the record company’s hides but in large part, the price is being paid by the artists and creators losing income.
DEADLINE: On the subject of picking fights, you came out swinging when you said Hollywood should be more aware of the violence in films it releases and that you will make The Senators Wife with Meryl Streep to put the NRA on its heels. What was that reaction like?
WEINSTEIN: It stemmed from people asking me all the time, why do violent movies play in Japan and there aren’t the number of school massacres we have here? Their local language movies are more violent than ours, blood spurting in slow motion, and it’s the same with China and many other Asian countries. They don’t have the massacres we do and it’s because guns aren’t so readily available, and the same is true in England and France. Some artists have reacted by saying, it might not be that, others have said, I love what you’ve said, and others have said it’s worth exploring. They are sophisticated enough to know that artists have their own vision and it’s not like we’re not going to support that vision. I just want to be thoughtful and smart and consider things and not be hypocritical. Some of the criticism has been amusing, at least the way I’ve interpreted it. I’ve become the poster boy for Ted Nugent’s rants. And he hasn’t even heard me sing.
DEADLINE: Last year when I interviewed you, it was right after you pulled an all-nighter buying Fruitvale Station, the rare movie that made you feel the tragedy of gun violence. I asked you then if there was a correlation between screen and real violence and you said you didn’t know but you were investigating it. Was that a reason you bought that movie?
WEINSTEIN: No. I’ve been thinking about this whole thing for a while. Movies like Fruitvale Station are great for showing that, but different movies teach lessons in different ways. To me, Django Unchained is a political masterpiece. I liked 12 Years A Slave, but Quentin covered a lot of that ground first, and dealt with violence, slavery and oppression, shining a light on the American holocaust, as he called it.
DEADLINE: Not many of your peers take stands like this. What sparked this in you?
WEINSTEIN: I feel like I’ve been doing this my whole life; in the Weinstein household, politics were as common as bad cooking by my Jewish mother. My dad, who supported Norman Mailer for mayor, got us to love Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and Mike McAlary, whom Tom Hanks played so brilliantly last year. We got the Daily News at home, read the Post on the subway, just absorbed the great columnists of New York and all the politics. My parents were working class people, but they had opinions and taught us to have them as well. My grandparents were immigrants who never took it for granted when they got the right to vote.
DEADLINE: We’re in the Oscar home stretch. When you came into the season, the big bets were Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom and August Osage County. Turned out your Best Picture nominee is the small film Philomena. How surprised were you?
WEINSTEIN: We’ve been feeling a tremendous surge of support for Philomena, a discovery movie that people are finding and falling in love with. It got some of the highest test ratings for us since The King’s Speech, but it’s a movie you have to nurture. You try to do everything equally for all the films, and sometimes one will emerge, and that one was Philomena. I’m not making that up as an Academy statement. People really love the movie. The question has been, will it be able to catch up in time? I enjoyed so many movies this past year, David O Russell’s film, Marty’s movie, Steve McQueen’s film. I loved Prisoners, which didn’t get the love it deserved. And to me The Croods is artistic genius, it’s a beautiful, incredible animated cornucopia of a movie with a great idea.
DEADLINE: Must be a different feeling for you, not being the frontrunner.
WEINSTEIN: Yes, but what I keep hearing about Philomena is some films might tie and cancel each other out, and you never know. I’ve never really been in this position, I have actually been enjoying it. At Sundance, I threw a party for the NFL Championship Games and actually got to watch a lot of it.
DEADLINE: The nomination seems to have meant so much for Philomena, this tiny film that has now grossed $77 million worldwide, with Philomena Lee getting to press her case for transparency on forced adoptions on Capitol Hill and with Pope Francis at the Vatican, where the film got screened.
WEINSTEIN: The normal thing you do when you get that Oscar nomination is you go wide right away, and blitz it out, but we knew that wasn’t going to work. It was the same thing with Silver Linings Playbook. You’re better off having people discover these kinds of films in limited theaters at first, in theaters full of people laughing and crying and applauding. So we’ve broadened slowly. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel holds the record for this kind of movie with $46 million and I think we’ll beat that.
WEINSTEIN: Oh yeah. People have come to us and said they are split between this Best Picture movie and that movie, but they all seem to love Philomena. Now, I could say, well then vote for it, but I’m not saying anything. You think about what this little movie has done in Ireland, where there are thousands of kids who don’t know who their parents are, and many more all over the world in the same situation. The United Nations asked the Vatican and Ireland to give them a full accounting of this, and it was because this film has been shining the spotlight on that issue. You can be as cynical as you like, but it’s the great thing about what we do as an industry, whether it’s 12 Years a Slave, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, Django, or The Hurricane or Norma Rae. The great movies of my life are the ones that made me think, that were about something. And I’m telling you, I’m not hallucinating, people are saying that while they’re split between this movie and that movie, they all love Philomena.
DEADLINE: I know you can get the president on the phone if you need to. Did you have a hotline to il Papa that got Philomena an audience with the Vatican?
WEINSTEIN: No. We went through the usual channels. That guy is a rock star, I love him.
DEADLINE: He showed more empathy toward gays, lesbians and transgender people than I’ve ever seen done by the Church ever, just by saying, ‘Who am I to judge?’
WEINSTEIN: I am not Roman Catholic like you, I’m Jewish, but it made him relatable, found that I connected with him more than I ever thought I could.
DEADLINE: Before August: Osage County came out, you, George Clooney and Tracy Letts told me you feared that showing an incomplete version rushed for the Toronto Film Festival would harm its chances. Both Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep got nominations but the picture did not. Do you think you paid a price?
WEINSTEIN: The movie cost us $25 million plus the tax rebate, so it was inexpensive with all the talent including Meryl and Julia taking a fraction of their salaries upfront. We even bought the farm house. So we know we are going to do just fine there financially, but I do think we paid a price critically by rushing for Toronto. It bothered me, the nasty blogs that picked on John Wells and called him a TV director. How can you say that about the guy who co-created the ER pilot, who was Aaron Sorkin’s partner on The West Wing? I resented that. As for turning a play like that into a film, I’m film buff so for me this was a trip back in time. I loved Kazan’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire, but I remember the same kind of criticism, that Vivien Leigh’s Blanche was over the top and blah, blah, blah. And she of course won the Oscar. The reviews there were similar to those of August: Osage County, and Streetcar is now a classic. Whether it’s that, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, every play seems to have one thing in common when it is turned into a movie when it comes to critics. That is, the play is always better. Even if they never even saw the play, they still say it was better. The film is for the people who didn’t see the play, because in the world we live in, a lot of people can’t pay the $100 or $150 a ticket. People who see this film recognize their own crazy families. In my house growing up, plates flew all the time. With my mother and my aunt, every holiday was like that scene from The Exorcist, where the table would lift, the forks would fly. I swear I thought I was going to be an interior decorator when I grew up after all the experience I got rearranging the furniture every Thanksgiving with my brother and my cousin. As for your Toronto question, I watched how David O and Marty took the time they needed on their films, and imposed their strong will and vision in films that came out when they were ready. I have only myself to blame for pushing John Wells to try and be ready for a festival. It was my call, and it was not the right call.
DEADLINE: Nelson Mandela died just as The Long Walk To Freedom was opening. Did he see the finished film?
WEINSTEIN: His family saw the movie, and they loved it and endorsed it. He saw parts of the movie, dallies and scenes while he was sick, and I can tell you he absolutely loved how Idris Elba played him. My fondest memory of Mandela came when Robert De Niro brought him to the U.S. for a fundraiser in New York, right after he got out of prison. We were all there at the Tribeca Grill and we thought Mandela was going to get up and talk about politics. Instead he talked about being a prisoner in Robben Island, and how important DeNiro and Eddie Murphy and all the guys who were in the room were to him because he grew up with their movies, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop. Thursday nights were the only time for communal activity, and they’d watch movies in the prison. It infused him with a love of film. I met him a number of times, found him warm, funny, and deep and honest.
DEADLINE: I don’t know if you ever asked him this but you watch that movie and wonder how could a guy like that not hold a grudge after being robbed of his best years?
WEINSTEIN: Mandela and Philomena are both about forgiving. How did she not hold a grudge? I mean that’s beyond anything you would ask of Mother Teresa! I have over the years asked my mother if we were part Sicilian because of the way I’ve held grudges, but I am learning from my own films. I tried to keep that in mind when someone asked if I picked up Mandela because Mandela was dying. I’ve been involved with this project since 1999, with Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman and others. And then he dies and my mother calls and says that she read that someone in the industry told The New York Times, without attribution of course, “What great luck Harvey’s got that Mandela died.” Besides being tacky, it was just the opposite, actually. The minute he passed, you saw so much of him on CNN and Fox News and every newspaper, people thought they knew the story. They didn’t, but they felt they did.
DEADLINE: After Warner Bros invoked its hold on The Butler title citing an obscure 1916 black and white short film, how much of the fight you waged was real, and how much for marketing?
WEINSTEIN: It turned out to be fantastic for us, but why wouldn’t they give that title unless there was some ulterior motive? And then, of course, the movie opens the week they won’t pay us for The Hobbit. I believe the two are linked, and we’ll find out in deposition. I think if Warner Bros. had to do it again they wouldn’t, but we certainly were not above fighting back and taking advantage of the attention. On a personal basis, the executives in the creative arena at Warner Bros, they weren’t the ones who did it; it was the lawyers guiding the principals, sadly.
DEADLINE: Was there a tacit offer to drop your claim to the 5% first dollar gross points on The Hobbit that extended from The Lord Of The Rings, in exchange for The Butler title?
WEINSTEIN: It was suggested to me by executives at Warner. Not the creative executives…
DEADLINE: However it got there, $180 million worldwide gross for The Butler is remarkable and has to be some kind of record.
WEINSTEIN: It is, but the best part is, it’s going to do $65 million dollars in foreign. We’ve broken barriers around the world with this, and I give Oprah Winfrey a lot of credit, and Lee Daniels for making such an emotional movie. It was disappointing that we spent more money advertising The Butler for the Academy campaign than probably all our other movies put together, and we could not remind the audience how much they loved it no matter how much we spent.
WEINSTEIN: Because of all the good movies that came into the marketplace at year’s end. Before we released in August, Lee Daniels would say to me, am I going to lose the Academy momentum because of this? I said, no way. Who knew that this year would prove to be so outrageously wonderful for good movies? Last year, that movie would have been a lock for a nomination with my hands tied behind my back and blindfolded. This year, it’s different. No front runner, three movies tied for first place, and one, the little Irish film, charging up on the outside lane.
DEADLINE: You mentioned The Hobbit. I can still remember walking out of the Ziegfeld after the premiere of The Fellowship Of The Ring, and you happened to be alongside me. Boy, you didn’t look happy, even though I knew you held onto 5% of first dollar gross in the turnaround agreement Bob Shaye signed after you developed the franchise and Michael Eisner wouldn’t let you make it. It it still the one that got away?
WEINSTEIN: Oh, yes. I put $10 million dollars into developing the technology at WETA, so I hope the Warner Bros. lawyers are listening. Because all those profits that so many people have received, from MGM to Warner Bros, to the actors and Peter Jackson, you know it had to start with somebody investing real money and not just to develop the scripts but also the technology and to get him the rights. If I don’t do the English Patient, those rights wouldn’t have gone to Peter Jackson. So it’s amazing for me to even sit here and find that studio isn’t being even generous about it. They’re making zillions of dollars and they do this.
DEADLINE: What do you remember about your conversation with Michael Eisner, the one where he told you no?
WEINSTEIN: That it was the single worst conversation we ever had!
DEADLINE: Can you recount it?
WEINSTEIN: He said something like, look, we read this in college; it’s for old hippies, no one’s going to go. Obviously you’re wrong, I said. Out of all the profits and all the things we’ve done over the years, I can’t believe you’re saying no to this, three movies at $60 million a movie. I mean they spent that kind of money on romantic comedies over there at that time. I even said ‘Michael, just green light the three, and if the first one is terrible, I’m sure Peter is not going to press, he is a gentleman.’ He wouldn’t budge. Based on our deals, it cost Bob and me hundreds of millions of dollars, personally. Disney, it probably cost them $2 billion to $3 billion dollars in profits. Does that sound like the one that got away? Michael and I have kissed and made up and in retrospect, if I had screwed up, Michael could have pointed at me and said look at that Harvey Weinstein, what an idiot, he cost us 180 million dollars! That would have been a career ender for me. Bob Shaye was courageous enough to put himself on that hook. And how long did it take before Warner Bros decided it didn’t want him around?