When it comes to Miramax’s legacy and the company’s relationship to Disney, Weinstein doesn’t feel the need to exaggerate; indeed, because of a clause in his contract that forbids him from discussing the company, he prefers to let others make his case for him. And despite Weinstein’s well-deserved reputation for being an ogre, for running roughshod over anyone who gets in his way, that case is pretty convincing. As more than one person has told me, Michael Eisner could be the one person in all of Hollywood who makes Harvey Weinstein seem sympathetic and likable.
“You know what I mean?”
Here’s the CliffsNotes version of the squabble between Weinstein and Eisner:
Harvey thinks Michael is a soulless, tasteless, lying prick.
Michael thinks Harvey is a profligate boor and a bully.
Weinstein has long found it hard to believe that Eisner, who can present as the bumbling savant responsible for Happy Days, was actually his boss. Eisner, in turn, hated having to put up with the scorn of the Queens-raised, coarse-mouthed Weinstein. But the two found a way to work together, because their relationship was so mutually profitable.
In the past few years, however, Eisner became convinced that Weinstein was more interested in making tent-pole movies, $70 million, $80 million, even $100 million features with high risk and comparatively low reward. There was Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s 2002 epic. There was Cold Mountain, Anthony Minghella’s 2003 disappointment. As one studio exec put it, “When the cat shit gets bigger than the cat, time to get rid of the cat.”
“When we did the original Miramax deal, they had a formula that was very appealing,” says one movie executive. “Do these $10 million movies, and maybe on some you lost a little, and on some you made a whole lot. The Weinsteins became emboldened by their success. They had become a major studio disguised as an independent film company.”
A former Miramax exec puts a finer point on it: “Harvey Weinstein became like a drug addict trying to support his habit. In the end, he went native. He wanted to be another big player in Hollywood. He used to be a real outsider. And now he and Bob want to be let into the club.”
Even Harvey himself says he understands why Disney would want him to keep costs down. “I’ve had such a great track record in making a huge profit when the movies are smaller,” he says, gesturing animatedly in front of his couch in his Tribeca office. “But I also, you know, you want to grow with my artists. If Martin Scorsese wants to paint a canvas like Gangs of New York or Aviator, so be it. In five years, Gangs of New York will be totally profitable, if not sooner.”
A more important factor in the current standoff is probably Eisner’s personal dislike of the brothers. “Nobody at Disney ever gave these guys a chance,” says one former Disney executive. “The old studio system viewed them as pigs. It was more of a respect thing than anything else.”
As the nineties progressed, the company lost the various Disney executives that the Weinsteins had been able to work with: Disney president Frank Wells, who served as a lubricant between the Weinsteins and Eisner, died in a helicopter crash in 1994. That same year, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man who brokered the initial deal between Miramax and Disney, left Disney after his own bitter dispute with Eisner. “When we made the deal, it was with Jeffrey, Frank Wells, and Michael Eisner,” Weinstein told me one morning in his office. “Bob and I never could have predicted that Frank would die and Jeffrey leave. We honest-to-God thought, Okay, here it is: Miramax will always be part of this company. I thought it would be a forever situation. And we still hope it can be.”
Weinstein—who, if you really press him, will admit he’s not an easy guy to work with—never exactly worked to fit into Disney’s culture. He’d snub Eisner in Oscar season, and he’s never been shy about either his opinions or his healthy sense of his own worth. Lately, after a decade or so as one of the most successful studio heads in the business, he began to yearn for a true empire of his own, the type where he didn’t need to worry about the stiffs in Burbank. He didn’t like thinking of himself as an employee, but every now and then Eisner made sure to remind him of his place. Weinstein began to be told he wasn’t allowed to smoke when he visited Disney’s Burbank headquarters. His astronomical expenses were questioned, with Disney sending increasingly belittling memos about the costs of hotel bills or airfare. (“When you’re talking about a creative process, and the potential profits from these kinds of enterprises, it makes no sense to argue with these guys about hotel rooms,” says Steve Rattner, a Weinstein friend.)
“Harvey was treated a bit like the dumb uncle in the attack,” says someone who knows both Eisner and Weinstein. “He’s been squeezed mercilessly. For what? Every single other one of [Disney’s] divisions, with the exception of ESPN, is doing horribly. Look at Hidalgo. Look at Home on the Range: $100 million flops. And they’re on Harvey about Gangs of New York or Cold Mountain?”
When came the epic dustup over Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. On May 12, 2003, a Disney executive sent Harvey Wein-stein a letter saying, “You cannot release this movie.” Four days later, another letter was sent. This one outlined why Miramax would not be allowed to release the film—it was a “restrictive picture” under the Miramax-Disney contract, it was politically partisan, etc.—and instructed Miramax to divest itself of its interest in the project.
Weinstein, all sides agree, went ahead and funded the movie anyway. And, according to Disney, Weinstein hid the $6 million budget in other projects. In this version, Eisner found out about Miramax’s continued involvement only when Weinstein casually mentioned that he’d like his boss to take a look at the film as the two men were strolling toward an elevator bank in Disney’s California headquarters.
The problem is, it’s not true. Costs associated with the movie weren’t hidden; indeed, quarterly budget reports sent from Miramax to Disney in 2003 include a line item for “FAHRENHEIT 911” complete with a film code (“M1621”), a date of first cost (“FY03 Q3”), and a tentative release date (“Oct-04”). Moore even said publicly the checks came from Burbank. (Disney never produced for me the reports where Fahrenheit 9/11 supposedly should have appeared but didn’t; a spokeswoman told me I was “naïve” and “in the tank” when I explained I’d need to see the reports myself.)
This level of acrimony is not all that rare when it comes to Miramax and Disney. But in May 2004, the dispute became glaringly, embarrassingly public. Disney, the New York Times reported, would under no circumstances permit Miramax to distribute the movie. Michael Moore, seeing a chance to gin up some free and sympathetic publicity, cried censorship. Moore’s agent, Ari Emanuel, told the Times that Eisner had told him he didn’t want to endanger tax breaks Disney gets in Florida, where Jeb Bush is governor. (In another rhetorical sleight of hand, a Disney spokeswoman pointed to Emanuel’s comment as proof that Weinstein knew he was not “allowed” to fund Moore’s movie—while at the same time claiming Emanuel was lying about Eisner’s statement concerning Disney’s Florida tax breaks.)
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Eisner, who isn’t particularly skilled at the public-relations game (see Katzenberg, Jeffrey, lawsuit with. See also Ovitz, Michael, compensation of), lost this round handily. Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; Disney sold the movie to the Weinsteins but told them Miramax wasn’t allowed to have anything to do with its distribution; the Weinsteins cut a deal with Lions Gate; and Moore’s $6 million movie went on to gross more than $100 million domestically.