Down and Dirty Pictures

Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, subtitled Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, is a five hundred page takedown of the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, the founders of uber indie distributors Miramax (currently peddling Bride and Prejudice in the US), and of the Robert Redford Sundance empire. It gleefully dishes out enough dirt to make you feel like you need to be scrubbed with pumice, thrice over, when you're done with the book. Required reading for any wannabe film producers and directors, this tome tells you how cutthroat the business really is in the USA (as if you didn't know already!). After you've scrimped and cajoled your film into existence, hurdled the festival circle, the final and toughest obstacle is that of getting your film picked up for distribution. And that's where the sharks come in. Imagine - you've eaten, breathed, slept this film for the past three, four years of your life. You've made it past the festival circuit and your film has actually managed to get some attention away from the hot shot debut du jour. What wouldn't you do to ensure it plays at a real theater, with real patrons, munching mostly real popcorn? Would you give away your first born in exchange for a bit of marketing push? Yep, you would. And that's where they get you. The book is full of anecdotes whereby desperate filmmakers were sweet-talked by Miramax into selling their films for nothing. Of course, once they sign on the dotted line, the real fun starts. Re-cutting, re-negotiations, threats to shelf the film indefinitely and a host of other indignities follow until you are left, literally, in tears. God help you if they are both producing and distributing. An astonishing example comes in the case of M. Night Shyamalan and Wide Awake. Peter Biskind writes:

Even then, without a hit, Shyamalan was arrogant and stubborn. To them, his attitude was, "I'm Steven Spielberg, and this is a pit stop and I'm going to blow past you guys. I'm writing a movie right now called The Sixth Sense, which is going to be a $100 million dollar film, and that's the business I'm interested in." The Weinsteins returned the favor. "They treated Shyamalan like shit," says a source. When Harvey and Bob first saw Wide Awake at a Tribeca screening room, Bob, according to former production head Paul Webster, told the young director, "I don't think this movie can be saved," while Harvey "made Night cry. Destroyed him, in front of everybody."


As was their custom, the Weinsteins slashed the budget way beyond a point that was reasonable, tormented Shyamalan for exceeding it, and then when their self fulfilling prophecy was fulfilled, threw money at postproduction, allowing Harvey to flex his producing muscles. Adds Lechner, "There was cut after cut, reshoots, rescoring, revoicing, but it was fucked from Day 1. It wasn't a good script, it wasn't a good movie, and you could have worked on it for another ten years and you wouldn't have made it into a good movie." Says Joe Roth, "Harvey was recutting it behind him. Shymalan had a terrible time."

I have no idea whether any of the incidents mentioned in the book are true or not but it caused some consternation when it came out. According to a Salon article

When this year's Sundance festival opened two weekends ago, Biskind's book cast a terrible pall over the opening proceedings. Weinstein, some said, blubbered around contrite like some Ralph Kramden at Alice's funeral, while Redford just lay low, like an aging ski bum minus Viagra. The days of quitting your day job at Blockbuster and maxing out your Visa card to produce a Sundance-worthy masterpiece of American cinema seemed dead and buried.

Of course, the festival recovered soon thereafter but, like I mentioned before, the book is a sobering reminder of the perils of independent filmmaking.

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- April 9, 2005 10:16 AM // Books