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Revenge of the Weinsteins

Now that they’re free of Disney, with a $1 billion war chest, you’d think Harvey and Bob Weinstein would be happy. Beneath a smiley veneer, they’re still the angry, paranoid, gifted filmmakers they’ve always been. What do they want? Sweet vengeance, followed by a staggeringly profitable IPO.

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The fashionably revisionist biography of Chairman Mao, the one billed as Mao’s “unknown story,” was sitting on Harvey Weinstein’s oddly uncluttered desk. Weinstein had been reading it, puzzling over it, perhaps with an eye toward adapting it as a movie for the new Weinstein Company, where he and his brother Bob were now co-chairmen. But he wasn’t seeing it yet.

“I don’t believe Mao was totally the monster they’re making him out to be,” he was saying. “There must have been some charm or else who would follow this guy?”

Weinstein was looking debonair in a navy-blue Armani pin-striped suit with cuffed trousers and black suspenders, ready for his morning marketing meeting. USA Today and the New York Times’ “Arts & Leisure” section were in a heap next to his suede Tod’s driving shoes, the kind soled with fragile rubber buds and generally worn by those who travel by chauffeured Mercedes. Not that Harvey hadn’t been getting some exercise lately: A canvas tote bag in the vestibule was labeled HW GYM SUPPLY 11/11/05, like a commemorative Howard Hughes urine specimen. A wooden scale was visible through the doorway of his executive washroom.

No longer was Harvey carrying his weight like a Chicago meatpacker. After heeding a low-carb regimen custom-designed by the Euro-fabulous Downtown Cipriani kitchen, he was now a kind of handsome, his chin smudged by the salt and pepper of a beard, his teeth planed to a wide Teddy Roosevelt smile that was more in evidence these days.

This was Harvey Weinstein after his big, noisy Hollywood divorce. He and Bob had lost Miramax Films to their old employer Disney—lost the studio they’d named after their parents, Miriam and Max, and the enviable $700 million-a-year allowance that had them releasing 30-plus films annually all over the world. But the Weinsteins were open for business, their own bosses once again.

“Financially, we’re happier. Corporately, the company is happier. Physically, personally—everything. It’s just a weight has been lifted,” said Harvey. “That’s what we feel. And it’s exciting.”

And so begins the next chapter of the Brothers Weinstein: Harvey, 53, whose sumo showboating had so offended Disney’s super-suits, and Bob, 51, the quieter but no less canny back-office brainbox. No one had played the game as relentlessly: They’d break the rules, and then those would be the new rules.

But what had begun as a boutique operation had morphed into a mini-major, making films that cost $79, $100, $110 million. In 2002, Disney began to complain that it was losing money on the Miramax deal. A poster at the entrance to Harvey’s office seemed to offer no apologies: HELL’S ANGELS. HOWARD HUGHES’ THRILLING MULTI-MILLION/DOLLAR-AIR SPECTACLE WITH JEAN HARLOW—from the good old days, when what Harvey likes to call “painting on big canvases” was actually celebrated.

The idea that Bob and Harvey were Disney “cast members” (which is how Disney’s Michael Eisner liked to address his troops) nauseated Harvey, who wouldn’t hesitate to bare his teeth at Eisner in the press to get his way. But when Disney finally decided enough was enough, all Hollywood believed the brothers had taken four aces and somehow managed to lose.

The brothers courted the other studios, but no one wanted to share an umbrella with the famously difficult Weinsteins on their famously generous terms. So Bob and Harvey shopped themselves to Wall Street. By October, they had almost $1 billion of financing in the bag and announced the brave new launch of the Weinstein Company. But things had changed since the old days, with lots of new competitors using the Weinsteins’ own playbook. And the stand-alone studio business these days is not for the meek. Could the Weinsteins avoid the fate of DreamWorks—the other stand-alone built on hatred of Michael Eisner—which was finally absorbed last month by Paramount Pictures? “DreamWorks did succeed ultimately, and every investor on Wall Street will tell you,” said Harvey.

His is a different business model anyway, with an emphasis on acquiring finished movies at festivals (at Sundance last week the Weinsteins nicked Factory Girl away from Sony for $2.5 million), and building a library that lives on through DVD sales and pay-TV deals. That the Weinsteins’ operation has been busted down a degree is a sensitive subject. They’ll be releasing twelve to eighteen films a year. “So, fewer than before?” I’d asked Bob.

“And why specifically are you asking that question? Why is that question so important to you?” asked Bob, who would only say that the brothers “have more money to work with than we had before.”

But there is added pressure to adjust to a medium that is mutating at sci-fi speed. With box office flatlining, the payoff is in the video-DVD bins and foreign-rights sales. Production and marketing costs have gone up, and cable and TiVo make it harder for TV commercials to hit their targets.


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