The art of re-invention is much revered in Hollywood, where stars and filmmakers regularly rediscover themselves after acts of self-obliteration. The same applies to companies, and surely none has re-invented itself more frequently or dramatically than Miramax. Having spotted the Miramax name on a few releases lately, I wondered, ‘Which Miramax?’ Has Harvey Weinstein transmogrified himself yet again? Has Disney, a previous owner, decided to re-enter the art movie business after pledging its lifelong commitment to tentpoles?
Investigation reveals that, no, Miramax can be traced to none of the above but rather to a relatively obscure sports and media company funded in Qatar and based in Paris. From time to time, several Middle Eastern players including Abu Dhabi and Dubai have shuffled around the outskirts of the business, but this time Qatar seems serious about movies – indeed about the Miramax label. The company has come out with five films this year, has a TV show on the air and is about to start its own distribution company. Its releases range from the arty (Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen) to the raunchy (Bad Santa 2 with Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates).
At the helm of the “new” Miramax is Steve Schoch, intense and business-like, whose previous gig was in the biotech industry at Amgen but who once toiled as a young financial executive at Disney. Schoch, it turns out, is not eager to discuss the specifics of Miramax this early in the process but does not disguise his ambitions to help it grow into a global media company. Funded by abundant Qatar money channeled through a company called BeIN, Miramax’s foundation is its library of 700 films, mostly derived from the Harvey and Bob Weinstein era. It has 110 employees diligently looking to acquire or develop film and TV properties to re-invigorate the revenue stream.
Harvey and Bob periodically announce an offer to re-acquire their old company, assuring the press that Miramax — named after their parents — belongs in the family fold and will end up there some day. But not if the formidable financiers from Qatar have anything to do with it. At a time when Chinese money continues to make the headlines, the emergence of an ambitious player from the Emirates is welcomed in Hollywood. The Emirates bankers support the idea of “starting in reverse” – that is, building on a library with a solid income stream rather than starting with a string of announcements, like Relativity. The library contains a cluster of Oscar-caliber films and Tarantino movies dating back to Miramax’s founding in 1979. The new management under Schoch intends to augment this with a range of new releases most of them co-productions: Open Road is a partner in Labyrinth, a Johnny Depp passion project. Bad Santa 2 emanated from a deal with Broad Green and Amazon. Bridget Jones’s Baby represented an alliance with Universal and Studiocanal. Miramax also released Southside with You, a love story about Michelle and Barack Obama, funded on the assumption that moviegoers would enjoy a final nostalgic visit with the first family. Not many did.
In its corporate model, the re-invented Miramax seems patterned loosely on MGM, which also has been building on its library. A cautious man, Schoch, however, has no intention of stepping into a mega-deal like Ben-Hur, whose hundred-million-dollar loss has thrown a crimp into MGM’s profits. In years past, of course, Miramax has hit its own speed bumps. The Harvey-and-Bob show turned out a stream of Oscar-worthy hits in its early days, such as Best Picture winners Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient. In 1993, when Michael Eisner was in his expansionist mode, he acquired Miramax and immediately was rewarded with the release of Pulp Fiction. The Eisner-Harvey love affair soon hit speed traps. Eisner didn’t like Harvey’s lavish spending and disdained his fondness for Michael Moore documentaries. Most of all, he didn’t like Harvey. After Disney unloaded Miramax in 2010 for $660 million, the once-prized entity bounced around between investors. An entity called Colony Investment hinted at great plans, even announcing Rob Lowe as a key adviser, but seemed committed mainly to devising an exit strategy.
New Miramax owner BeIN emanated from the corporate ruins of Al Jazeera. It operates some 96 sports channels worldwide, principally in North Africa, Asia and Australia. Its re-entry into movies comes at a propitious time, when producers of mid-level films uniformly pass the hat for funding. New players ranging from Amazon to indies such as Broad Green and Participant stand ready to chip in, and now there’s another player, Miramax, ready to join the fray. There might even be a joint venture in the future with the Weinstein Company – but unlikely.