Will Miramax's Impending Doom Signal the Death of Studio Indies?

The Disney-owned production house named after founders Bob and Harvey Weinsteins' parents, Miramax, is—like Bob and Harvey's current shop—facing tough times. But while The Weinstein Company struggles for air, Miramax is being choked out by its corporate parents.

It wasn't much of a surprise when it was announced that Disney would be "restructuring" Miramax down to three films a year and cutting their staff by 70%.

When Disney studio chief Dick Cook was ousted last week, it was pretty common knowledge that an absent Cook, who was long a proponent of keeping the Miramax brand alive, certainly wasn't going to help things. Miramax hasn't been sufficiently profitable for a while, at least by Disney's standards. Sure, they've turned out some quality films over the last few years (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) but most people attribute those victories to New York's Worst Boss '07, producer Scott Rudin, and not Miramax head Daniel Battsek, the Brit who couldn't zero in on American tastes without the help of producers like Rudin: ears for quality and easy ins to studios. Miramax has also had far more than their fair share of failures lately, which the LAT report nicely reduces to their most recent three (Extract, Cheri, and The Boys Are Back). Are we forgetting Adventureland, Eagle vs. Shark, Blindness, etc? Because, well, we shouldn't.

These are mostly expensive films with fairly "bankable" stars being trotted out as "independent" fare, or as the LA Times enjoys calling it: "smaller, offbeat movies," which is a nice euphemism for anything that doesn't have a nailed-down demographic of conspicuous consumers (or, for that matter, teenagers). But big studio dramas used to do really well! Remember the 90s? Braveheart, Schindler's List, American Beauty, Gladiator: these films used to win box offices and Oscars. Not anymore. In their place are smaller affairs: The Reader, Crash, Revolutionary Road. Restrained pieces of moviemaking that aren't as epic as their history would suggest. Times change.

Picturehouse, Warner Independent, and now, Miramax: all of these were so-called "specialty division" studio-within-studios that failed. They were built up to lure stars with the promise of getting their art-house rocks off in exchange for a multi-picture deal involving a blockbuster. Why? Because, for studios, they weren't worth the cost of the money they were losing devoting resources to making or acquiring and marketing these mostly unprofitable movies. So: studio indies are coming to an end. Thank god.

Miramax got their name by making movies like Swingers and Pulp Fiction. They stumbled upon raw talent who could make an incredible movie on the cheap, and the profits were extraordinary. When you have the backing of a studio like Disney, or Warner Bros, that's never going to happen. As much as they probably enjoy the schadenfreude of Disney fucking up their baby, even The Weinstein Brothers, still hopped up on the memories of their last moneyed days with Disney, are now caught between pissing cash into the wind on highbrow stuff, or focusing on making more stuff like Halloween 2. Layoffs are impending for Miramax employees who once thought they had the safety of a studio that cared about "good" movies. Disney's commitment to "quality" extends as far as their bottom line, like so many other multinationals trying to turn a buck.

Independent film used to be a game of digging through the dark to find something incredible, and that might be what it's returning to. Hollywood's new producers are savvy to New Media marketing games; they know how to make good films while keeping the kitchen sink. We can try to avoid the symbolism of Miramax's doom as much as we want to, but in the end, it's simple: conglomerates are out of the art-house game, which means its full-on open season for underdog movies again. Let the new Weinsteins emerge.