The storyline is almost Tarantinian. An evil empire enslaves two flashy, fiercely-independent brothers, and then leaves them to die, while the virtuous duo ironically attempts to buy back their own identity (Miramax, a portmanteau of their own parents' names, Miriam and Max!) as well as the lifetime of groundbreaking work they helped to create.
Like so many Tarantino films, this story also ends sad and bloody. The Weinstein Company, forged in Miramax's ashes by those fiercely independent brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, reportedly began laying off staff on Friday.
The layoffs come hot on the heels of the news that Miramax—responsible for a wide swath of cinematic history, from Pulp Fiction and The Crying Game, to Good Will Hunting and Swingers, to Chicago and Gangs of New York—will be absorbed into Walt Disney Studios, leaving its 80 employees in Los Angeles and New York to search for a script with a happier ending. Such a fate seemed unavoidable after the company Disney bought the company in 1993 and, according to a former Miramax employee who requested anonymity, sucked the spirit right out of it. Michael Eisner was no fan of the brothers, the source tells FastCompany.com. Nor did Disney enjoy the meaty blend of violence, sex, and politics delivered by directors like Michael Moore, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez—clearly they didn't fit the Disney roster.
"Disney wanted to greatly cut our marketing budget and were not entirely supportive of the movies we were releasing," the employee tells FastCompany.com. Employees got a Disney handbook, informing them about proper ethics for Disney "cast members."
"At the end, it ended up just being a 'who had a bigger penis' kind of thing," says the source. "And finally Harvey and Bob said 'Enough. You know what? At the end of the day, we just want to make movies, and we aren't going to be compromised artistically.'" They left their name, a catalog they had worked over a lifetime to acquire, produce and release, and started their own company, the Weinstein Company, in 2005.
As a business innovation, there's no doubt about Miramax's legacy, as it spawned some inspired competition when studios opened their own arthouse departments like Sony Classics, Warner Independent, and Universal's Focus Films. But Miramax itself would only have been able to survive—and grow—with the Mouse's cash. "Miramax started as a small company that acquired movies like Clerks and The Crying Game," the source says. "It turned into a mini-major studio that produced titles like Chicago, Gangs of New York, and Kill Bill. This wouldn't have been possible without the financial backing from a larger corporation."
Case in point: The Weinstein Company, which hired a financial adviser to restructure the company in 2009. When Inglorious Basterds was released it came with a whispered ultimatum that if it didn't do box office gold, the Weinsteins would be out of business (it did, but that hasn't seemed to help enough).
Miramax's demise means six films in production may be scuttled, the most anxiously-anticipated being The Tempest, a Julie Taymor-directed picture on which filming is not yet complete. As for the rest of the films in Miramax's archive, it is uncertain whether or not Disney will try to offload them—or if Harvey and Bob can buy their archive back. "I'm sure that is already in the works," says the source before the layoffs began Friday.
Audiences on the hunt for original approaches to cinema are the real losers here, says the source, since Miramax's legendary commitment to arthouse will wither within Disney's walls. In 2008, studios Paramount and Warner Brothers closed their arthouse divisions, which doesn't bode well.
But that spirit lives on in the Weinsteins—provided they, too, can stay afloat. "I don't think that Harvey and Bob would ever go down without a fight," says our source. "Their goal is to do what they have always done: bring the arthouse movie that was once seen by a select few in cosmopolitan areas to a level where it is readily available to everyone, even in small town America." The source tells FastCompany.com about meeting a gay man from a rural area who said he wished he would have been able to see The Crying Game growing up. "He really had no outlet to express himself or know that there were others like him," the source says. "Miramax's films made people like that know it was okay to be that way. It gave them more confidence and made their experience growing up a little easier."
The Princess and the Frog probably wouldn't cut it.