Harvey Weinstein is an occasional contributor to Deadline when he has something on his mind. Before he put on the tux to root for his Best Picture nominee Lion, his mind was on Oscar races past and present; the higher purpose of these golden trophies beyond commerce, and a revisit of the circumstances behind his biggest Best Picture upset, when Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar over Saving Private Ryan.
People often ask me: how do you win an Oscar?
The answer is simple. Make a good movie, one that people like and work your butt off to make sure that people see it. The best part of the Oscars is that they shine such a wonderful light on those films that need a push every now and then – which happened for Manchester By The Sea, La La Land, Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Hell Or High Water, Fences, Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge. The spotlight that the Oscars shines is global, powerful and worth chasing. Put Lion in that category – no one would have expected it to do the box office it’s done. This is a movie where the first 50 minutes are in Hindi and it could end up doing $150 million worldwide on a $12 million budget. It’s the passion with which people like Salman Rushdie, Madeleine Albright, Gloria Steinem, Roger Federer and so many others have spoken about this movie that has propelled it to this point.
I feel the same way about some of the other nominated films. One of the seminal movie going experiences I had this year was sharing Moonlight with my daughters (we all loved it). And showing the entire family Hidden Figures, including the 4-year old. Wow. This PG movie so inspired everyone in my family.
The Oscars have helped so many filmmakers over the years. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to walk into that building on Sunday night, because you just never know what’s going to happen.
Sometimes I feel I’m in a Michael Lewis book, the way Oscar decisions are parsed and thought about. Whoever said “it’s only a movie” was right. So once again, this year, The New Yorker and New York Times, among other publications, decided to rehash for the 300th time the story of how Shakespeare In Love beat Saving Private Ryan. And so for the umpteenth time, let’s rehash it here.
No, we did not hire people to say that the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan were great and the rest of the movie was bad. Do you know why no one in his right mind would say that? Because you’re dealing with Academy members – 6,000 of them – and they read, they write and they’re erudite. They know how to judge a movie. You could never convince someone of his or her own opinion of a movie. That’s the great thing about movies – everyone has their own opinions. We made sure that as many people as possible saw our film and that we matched, to the best of our ability, the advertising done by the other companies. Knowing that people would say I spent more – even though I knew I didn’t – both companies agreed on a referee. Jeffrey Katzenberg, then at DreamWorks, and I asked Warren Beatty to count the ads. You want to know the definitive answer of who spent more money? Ask Warren.
Saving Private Ryan had one of the most profound of effects on me. My father was a soldier in WWII and he never talked about it. When he saw those John Wayne and Errol Flynn war movies, the fact that neither of them was serving bothered him. He asked why they were making movies while he was overseas. I tried to explain to him later that they were propaganda meant to inspire us but he wasn’t having any of that. The profound effect of being a soldier in combat was beautifully explained by Saving Private Ryan. I told this to Steven Spielberg and I told him it was the movie that unlocked the mystery of my father. If you can give a movie higher praise, then please tell me.
As a student of politics who worked for Tim Russert while rooming with two guys in college who ended up becoming judges, I know that history often repeats itself. When I studied the Oscars, it seemed like every time a movie about the industry got made and was good, it got an extra special reception. That is what happened in the simple case of Shakespeare In Love. Actors, writers and directors loved a movie about actors, writers and directors. We knew who to appeal to and who we wanted to see the movie – simple as that. Nineteen movies about our industry have won Best Picture, and Shakespeare In Love is just one of them. Those movies are great – they celebrate artistic technique and are inspiring and hopeful.
One of the great thing about the Oscars is it shines a light on innovative filmmaking and that spotlight can be used to be politically effective. Moonlight, Fences, La La Land and so many others fall into that category. La La Land carries the hope this country needs right now. I always loved the work of Jacques Demy. When I was a young man and had a lot more hair, we at Miramax helped restore and distribute The Young Girls Of Rochefort, one of Jacques Demy’s great musicals. Although financially unsuccessful, it was personally inspiring to me. Damien’s movie feels like a tribute to Demy and the great Hollywood musical, that goes even one step beyond in its innovation.
When promoting The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch approached me with a great idea. He proposed legislation to pardon the 39,000 men criminalized for homosexuality in England. What a wonderful opportunity to rally worldwide support not for a movie, but for a cause. We teamed up with Stephen Fry and many LGBT organizations in the UK to fight. Three years later, after numerous setbacks with Parliament, we shared in a victory. Those men are now pardoned. In my career, those are the movies I’ve cherished – the ones that say something, like Bully, Fahrenheit 9/11, Citizenfour, Sicko, Silver Linings Playbook. I think Django Unchained had the most amazing effect on me and many other people for its brilliance and daring in dealing with race relations. When film historians look back, they’ll see the daring political nature of what Quentin Tarantino did in that film. It was so daring that there were times I thought I wasn’t brave enough to handle it, though I always knew Quentin was. I remember being at the theater in Roosevelt Field with 400 African-Americans who spoke about the movie the way they do Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Ironically, when people first wrote about Lion, they said it was the perfect Oscar-bait movie for Harvey Weinstein to make. But try this on for size – my wife helped build a school in India 13 years ago and now works with Magic Bus to help take children off the streets. In fact, our daughter is named India because of the inspiration that country has provided us. India held a special place in my heart long before the script for Lion fell into my lap so when it was brought to me, I was game from the beginning. Garth Davis, the director, and Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, the producers of the film, are launching efforts to help the 80,000 children who go missing in India each year. If this is another The Imitation Game in its cause and effect, then I’ll count this film as a big win. We aren’t the only ones – many studios and directors have used films and the Academy to move the needle such as In The Heat Of The Night, The Grapes Of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, Gentleman’s Agreement, and so many others.
I asked Rich Nordwind of the LA Times, as well as other editors, why our company and me, personally, get singled out for controversial articles. Whenever we blow it on a movie, it’s trumpeted. He told me it’s because we and I are colorful – I’m political, involved in different causes and speak my mind. Readers don’t know executives at some of the other companies and thus we are good copy by default. Two other journalists who loved Lion echoed this sentiment, but their organizations wouldn’t let them go public. Clearly, I never should have named the company Miramax after my parents. I should have called us Anonymous Content – but too bad, that name was already taken, and interestingly enough, by a great company.
This year, I’m going to work on a project that everyone can be a part of – The Defenders. It’ll be the Marvel movie I always wanted to make. Actually, it isn’t a real movie, more of an aspiration. It isn’t about Hollywood but about teachers, policemen and citizens who are honest, caring and patriotic. It’s about Defending the Constitution – Defending freedom of the press, Defending freedom of speech and Defending us from Orwellian tactics. The way transgender children were treated this week is an act of pure malice that’s beyond compare. We need to Defend them and the LGBT community. We need to Defend Planned Parenthood and women’s rights. We must Defend against racial crimes and anti-Semitism. We must Defend ourselves against those that would divide us. But no matter how we win, the Defenders need to do it in the Red States and prove our point by being there. We need to be present and talk about what’s true and what isn’t. While I think we have a very robust movie slate next year, The Defenders would be the one project that I’m most excited about. There could be nine of these movies. And I have a feeling that the ending is going to be very Capra-esque.
One of my favorite movies is She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. I’ve made more people watch that movie than I have a right to but I still love it. So, today, I’m happy to say He Wore A Blue Ribbon, because I’ll be wearing one for the ACLU. In my mind, they’re amongst our greatest Defenders.
And as far as next year goes, when people ask me about Shakespeare In Love again, I’m finally going to tell the truth. I’ll admit that we hired Martians to hypnotize Academy members. It was expensive, but worth it.