Thursday, January 28, 2010

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Last night, a colleague called me for some advice. She was updating a handout she gives to her students every semester that covers the major distributors of specialty (aka indie aka independent) film. Before she began rattling off company names, I tried to convey to her how depressing this was going to be.

The conversation went something like this:

Her: Paramount Vantage?

Me: Gone.

Her: Warner Independent?

Me: Gone.

Her: Picturehouse?

Me: Gone. Gone. Gone. Also, cross off ThinkFilm. And New Yorker Films. Note that New Line has been downsized. Focus has cut back. IFC buys lots of films but doesn't pay much.


Me:   And I don't know where you should put Miramax. It's all but dead. But I don't think that Disney will actually *kill* it.
Then I woke up this morning. What was the first thing I saw? A zillion tweets along the lines of "RIP Miramax," "Miramax killed by Disney," etc.
Sharon Waxman of The Wrap broke the story this morning, and as she notes, this news does not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following indie film. There are any number of moments that one can point to when it was clear that Miramax was on its way out. One could cite the moment when Robert Iger replaced Michael Eisner at Disney and the Weinsteins left the company in 2005 or, more recently, when the Weinsteins' replacement, Daniel Battsek, announced he was leaving in late October 2009.

In spite of the fact that Miramax's fate had long been sealed, it was startling for me to see that this moment had actually come to pass. It is odd to me to mourn the death of a company, of all things. And yet for both personal and professional reasons, the end of Miramax hits me fairly hard.

I spent much of the '90s seeing -- and enjoying -- Miramax movies. From sex, lies, and videotape to The Crying Game, Walking and Talking to The Piano, Emma to Pulp Fiction, much of my moviegoing time (and my time as an undergraduate) was spent seeing Miramax movies. I was their target audience. I bought into the hype of independence, the rhetoric of quality they so aggressively sold. Throughout the decade, I actively sought out Miramax movies. The brand meant something to me. Indeed, my curiosity about the company led me to write about it for my Masters thesis. This, in turn, led me to pursue a dissertation topic on a TV company that functioned similarly in the industry in terms of branding and niche marketing (although in very few other ways): Fox.

A few years ago, I returned to my earlier research on Miramax and began to consider how to expand my topic and reframe my discussion as a history of the reconstitution of Hollywood in the 1990s. By then, it was already clear that the particular story of Miramax that had come to interest me -- a story that involved the emergence of studio-based specialty divisions as well as the cultural struggles over the meanings and uses of terms like independent, indie and Indiewood -- had long since come to its conclusion. As such, none of these recent developments with indie film affect my book all that much. But they do make the tale of Miramax that much more poignant, especially since I am concluding revisions on the manuscript right now and preparing to send it to the publisher within days.

It is odd to conclude the writing process even as Miramax's own history concludes. It is all-the-more striking that this is taking place even as Sundance winds down -- a Sundance that, by nearly all reports I have seen, was notable mainly for its lack of deals. Sundance, much like Miramax, just doesn't have the cache that it used to. There may be a new person running the festival, and Robert Redford may be committed to return Sundance "to its roots," but all of this seems just a little too late. (Without seeing any of the films, it is hard to say how different they are from those shown in previous years. However, from what I can tell from reading the press coverage, the films aren't nearly as different as Redford would like to have us believe.)

The end of Miramax ultimately represents the definitive conclusion of a certain era for indie film. No new generation has yet broken through, and I don't think they will in the same way that the Tarantinos, Smiths and Rodriguezes did. In spite of the best efforts of many marketers and journalists, mumblecore never took off. Meanwhile, with The Weinstein Company, the brothers have tried to replicate what worked with '90s-era Miramax. But it is a different time, a different industrial climate, and moviegoing habits have changed. At present, the Weinsteins find themselves struggling to keep their company afloat. As far as next generation indie companies go, Summit and Lionsgate show the most promise. However, their business strategies and the kinds of films they release are substantively different (but that is the subject for another post...).

So what's next? Much remains in flux at the moment, but it seems likely that both the films and the companies releasing them will scarcely resemble Miramax. As with every sector of the media industries, long-standing business models and distribution strategies are in crisis. There are some companies, such as Magnolia and IFC, that are experimenting with making their content available simultaneously online, on TV via PPV, and in theaters. There are others who are trying to re-think the system more radically (for a discussion of how indie filmmakers are using social media, see Chuck Tryon's book, Reinventing Cinema; also check out the blogs of Jon Reiss, Brian Newman, Ted Hope, Scott Kirsner and Peter Broderick for some fruitful discussion about the possibilities for low-budget films in the future). Ongoing conversations about how to re-think independent film are also taking place through The Workbook Project and Power to the Pixel, along with other venues.

I suppose it is telling that what drew me to indie film in the first place -- rich characters, strong storytelling, stylistic experimentation -- I rarely seek (or find) in these movies any longer. In fact, I now turn to television to find them. And that's where many of the '90s-era indie filmmakers have gone as well -- at least for now.

Rest in peace, Miramax.

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