HARVEY: We grew up in Flushing, and we went to the Mayfair movie theater to see foreign films.
BOB: But they weren’t even called “foreign films.” They were called “art films.” As if there was some planet called Art . . .
HARVEY: … where films come from. And you know, the famous story that we’ve told a thousand times, is when we went to The 400 Blows. We thought it was a sex movie. We were 14 and 12 . . .
BOB: … so for me it would have been an educational film at that point.
HARVEY: So we took all our friends to see the movie, and they left because it was black-and-white; I made him stay because he was my younger brother. And we liked it, so we kept on going back and seeing the movies of Fellini, De Broca, Truffaut. So it was like having our own Cinema Paradiso in the backyard. Because the Mayfair Movie Theater was . . .
BOB: … you could walk there.
HARVEY: … you could walk there from our house. When the movies were sexy, we used to get our dad to take us. Certainly those were the influences.
BOB: Without a doubt. It’s funny. Now there are event movies. Then, it was just “I’m going to see a movie.” They were just movies, but the director meant to say something. That’s what we’re trying to do at Miramax. If people say, “I’m going to see a movie,” we want them to walk out entertained, but also thinking.
HARVEY: I went to the University of Buffalo. The school was broke. So they couldn’t afford to do a Stephen Stills concert, and I found the money privately, produced the show, made some money, and I started producing concerts privately out of an old movie theater that we had in Buffalo. I brought Bob in to run it.
BOB: I was at the State University at Fredonia. I spent all my time listening to music or watching movies, and not going to class. Then Harvey gave me the opportunity. He was running concerts out of the Century Theater, but it didn’t pay, just having concerts. So we programmed movies. A typical bill, all in one night, would be Alice’s Restaurant followed by 2001: A Space Odyssey, and because it was a concert hall, it was known to that crowd, we’d run every concert film there was. I know them all. So we showed these for $1.50 for all three movies. By the late seventies, Harvey was sort of phasing out of the music business, and I was very interested in broadening out from the exhibition side. We went to the Cannes Film Festival. We were like two guys going to the prom – we didn’t know anybody, we just loved film. So we bought The Secret Policeman’s Ball with the money we had saved up.
HARVEY: Cannes! We heard that’s where they sold movies. We shared a bed. And one movie led to another. It was like a path. From Secret Policemen’s Ball, to Crossover Dreams, to Darling Vera, to sex, lies and videotape, to producing Scandal.
BOB: We had seen that this is the future. We had seen films that we could have bought or directors that we could have worked with, but we didn’t have the financing to take it to the next level. So we went out looking for financing from banks. We were after quality films, the films that we liked to see. We had a rule early on, which was just buy them for what we like, not for any formula.
HARVEY: Our outsider status is very important to us. It keeps us human, normal. I love New York. We can go to the grocery store and not bump into guys who want to do a three-picture deal.
BOB: We stayed in New York because the Knicks play in New York City. When they move, we’ll think about moving.
HARVEY: Even if they move, I’m not going.
BOB: All right, good enough.
HARVEY: Because this is New York, and you meet people who don’t work in the entertainment business or who aren’t in the movie business, and you can have a cup of coffee with the guy at the diner.
BOB: And he doesn’t give a shit what . . .
HARVEY: … you do . . .
BOB: … or whether you win the Oscar.
HARVEY: We flirted with all that. Bob and I directed a movie for Universal called Playing for Keeps. We produced a movie which Orion distributed that Bob wrote and I produced called The Burning. So there were always flirtations. But we were always New Yorkers, and we were never leaving New York.
BOB: And still to this day we don’t believe in working for anybody else.
HARVEY: Cutting to the chase, Bob sees sex, lies and videotape at Sundance, and at that time, spending a million dollars for an American independent movie was unheard of, but he thought that it would do incredibly well. I thought it would do less than he did. But he just knew. And it grossed $17 million.
BOB: So basically, we put our money where our mouth is. With more money, we were able to do one thing that nobody, I believe, up to that time had done. Which was to take these art films that we grew up with, which became the American independents or just independent films wherever they were made, to a bigger audience. We believed that there’s an audience. That there are millions of people out there that have the intellect and want it.
HARVEY: What we did was, we gave them these movies. Now there are tons of good movies. We fought for good cinema. We were selling what had been considered unsaleable films. Innovative marketing techniques just seemed to be a natural way of busting these movies out. With My Left Foot, we pioneered the use of videocassettes, sending them out to the voters for the Oscars. Then with The Crying Game, the idea was, “Can we develop something like keep-the-secret?” And to give you an idea of how successful that was, in France and England the movie was owned by other people, and they didn’t use the secret, and the movie was not successful. The marketing concepts that later on were used in Pulp Fiction and other movies grew out of The Crying Game. The fact that you could shock, wake up, grab attention for a movie became a cornerstone concept of the company.
Disney bought Miramax for a reported $80 million in 1993. Then, we get to ’95 when seven Miramax releases garnered 22 Academy Award nominations. The first movie I green-lighted after Disney was Pulp Fiction. I think that turned the corner on the business. That’s what made us the so-called envy of Hollywood. That’s when everybody started to say, “Let’s compete with them.” For us, Quentin Tarantino is what Reggie Jackson was for the Yankees, what Michael Jordan is for the Bulls. Pulp Fiction rewrote the rules of movie-making. Nonlinear plot, non-chronological. Yet it somehow all worked. It combined the great American noir gangster classics with a sort of European sensibility. And it was unlike anything else. I mean, the movie is a masterpiece and will go down as a masterpiece. Time will never hurt that film; it will only make it better and better.
BOB: Competition just keeps us innovating all the time.
HARVEY: So Bob started Dimension a genre film subsidiary, because he felt all the studios were just going to try to crush us. They actually forced us into franchise situations like Scream. And I think in years to come, Bob will have a Star Wars and a Titanic. Those kinds of things will come out of his division, not mine; Miramax is not going to change. But there are no limits. If you follow your heart instead of your head, you can do incredible things.
Interviewed by Michael Gross