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Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of the Independent Film

By Peter Biskind
Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 544 pp., $26.95

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Reviewed by: AL HOFF

 

In the 1990s, independent films burst out of the art-house ghetto and stomped across the land, breaking new stars and directors, creating new fortunes and firmly establishing "indie" as a marketable brand. Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of the Independent Film is a dense, and frequently entertaining, deal-by-deal case study of this rapid ascension, when the independent film mutated from a low-budget artistic risk to a big-budget production where the work is systematically neutered for "risk aversion."

 

Biskind begins his story at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, a year of confluence when Steven Soderbergh's sex lies and videotape got picked up for distribution by then-small Miramax and became a surprise multiplex hit. Biskind tosses a lot in the pot -- a cast of thousands and a decade's worth of trade papers. The book often gets bogged down with details about phantom equity and sale-leaseback arrangements, and with so many players hopping about, many deal-making scenes never fully flesh out. And despite the book's density, the Sundance angle never gets much juice (founder Robert Redford doesn't cooperate with the author), nor does Biskind provide much historical context for independent films prior to the '90s, or account for any outside-Hollywood production or distribution companies, such as Lion's Gate or Artisan.

 

What Biskind really wants to talk about is Miramax, how it moved to Hollywood, and Miramax's big kahuna, Harvey Weinstein (who does sit for interviews) -- and this is a good story. Whether fact or fiction, Harvey comes off like a man who smelled golden opportunity in indie film and, almost through the sheer force of his personality, re-ordered it to suit his needs: money, power, respect and a professed love for quality cinema. Tracking Miramax's meteoric rise, Biskind ushers us from Harvey and Bob Weinstein's humble beginnings in upstate New York -- where they got their feet wet in an even worse business, rock 'n' roll promotion -- and past '90s milestones: Reservoir Dogs (the anti-art art film); The Crying Game; their acquisition by Disney; Pulp Fiction; the Shakespeare in Love Oscar sweep.

 

Biskind is clearly fascinated and repulsed by the Weinsteins, and he relates hundreds of tales from appalled colleagues: Harvey throws things, shoves junk food into his maw, alternately bribes and throttles reporters, re-cuts and shelves films, is late to screenings, and makes directors cry. Yet, despite all the fishy accounting and thuggish stewardship, Miramax continues to inspire loyalty among some filmmakers and actors. Perhaps it's out of self-preservation in a notoriously nasty biz, but supporters cite the benefits outweighing the risks and aggravations. Longtime independent producer Christine Vachon (Far From Heaven) says about Harvey: "I realized an asshole who cares about movies is better than an asshole who doesn't."

 

And one must give the devil his due: Miramax performed a peculiar alchemy: They made indie films popular by hyping the very qualities that had made them previously unmarketable (unknown directors, tiny budgets, weird-looking actors, unusual subject matters). When the breakthrough indie movie of the '90s is a film about terrorists and a chick-with-a-dick starring nobody you've ever heard of, there's a marketing genius somewhere.

 

But Miramax's success proves double-edged. The Disney acquisition set off other indie-major marriages, and the competition and infusion of studio cash drove costs sky high. Miramax may have made indie movies sexy, but that cursed them to the commercial marketplace. Now huge acquisition or production costs had to be recouped same as the majors -- with costly stars, test marketing, heavy advertising and splashy opening weekends.

 

Biskind describes Down and Dirty as "a sequel of sorts" to his 1999 book on 1970s New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But Biskind's analysis in Easy Riders benefited enormously from hindsight, something that is missing from this history that runs right through last winter's MPAA screener ban. It may be too soon to see which deals, feuds and films of the '90s carry significant impact.

 

Only fans of indie films (or of highly fluid big business) will find much of this book's minutiae fascinating. Yet few starry-eyed art-house aesthetes may want to learn how very unpleasant the backstory is. Down and Dirty is less of a celebration of an art form than an itemization of an idealistic scene wiped out by big money. Of course, films don't exist without the deals that put 'em out in the marketplace. But now when the Miramax logo opens a film, I can't help but feel a trifle queasy.

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