Legacies are tricky things—hard to establish, but even harder to maintain, particularly because life is long, people are prone to mistakes, and all it takes is one august years blunder to completely undo your entire reputation. Or, as the punchline of one of our favorite jokes has it: “You fuck one lousy goat.” We’ve seen this illustrated in the extreme in recent years in cases like Phil Spector and nearly every Republican blowhard politician who ever spoke out against infidelity, but deep down we’ve always known those guys were goat-fuckers; far sadder than that is watching a once-surefooted institution crumble and lose its way—as in the case of The Weinstein Company, which was the recent subject of a revealing and rather dispiriting profile in the New York Times, and which has become a symbol of the way that hard work and dedication to something ultimately don’t mean anything if you spend your later years putting your name on Superhero Movie and generally broadcasting how out of touch you are.
For the Weinstein Bros., it’s been a slow tumble ever since being bought out of Miramax, leaving behind their license to print cash and Oscars and embarking on a four-year, 70-film streak of mediocrity where one-quarter of those films failed to break $1 million. According to Davd Segal's pull-no-punches piece, now their backers are reportedly, understandably “anxious” about the production company being in such dire straits that it’s had to split the costs—and thus, the profits—on many of its upcoming films. Even worse, that slate is full of "must-wins" that hold the future of the company in their success or failure; as Harvey Weinstein blackly jokes, “The ship’s riding on the slate.” How did the Weinsteins go from being “arguably two of the greatest movie producers in cinematic history” to sorta-mockingly proposing a photo shoot of the two of them begging in front of Goldman Sachs? What ultimately killed the indie film goose?
Megalomania, for one. In the ’90s, the Weinsteins reaped huge box-office returns with movies like Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare In Love, then—just like every other celebrity on the planet—they decided that the skills that made them famous could easily be translated to other areas that they knew nothing about through sheer force of personality. This is known as “diversifying the portfolio,” or “having a delusion of grandeur,” or “fucking yourself over by trying to do stuff you’re not good at,” and it leads to things like buying a stake in a fashion company (Halston) even though you tend to dress like you own a seafood restaurant on the Jersey Shore; investing in the cable channel Ovation even though it’s a network aimed squarely at an audience that doesn’t own a television; and ponying up for something described as a “MySpace for Millionaires,” which sounds like a bad College Humor sketch. It also means taking cues from Tyler Perry and trying to corner the market on African-American comedies with shit like Soul Men because you believe black people will watch anything with other black people in it. Or pulling your fluke TV hit Project Runway over to another network and getting smacked with a major, cash-draining lawsuit because you couldn’t be bothered to read your contract. Stuff like that.
And then there’s the sad, endemic-to-aging-filmmakers strategy of always chasing the zeitgeist. Somewhere in the last few years, the Weinsteins have become notorious for playing numbers games with films like Awake and Derailed—propping up weak scripts with pretty people who are on lots of magazine covers and hoping they can sucker enough fools in on opening weekend that the shitty reviews won’t matter. The attempts to balance the quick cash-ins with “credibility” films have become just as calculated. Miramax built its name on quieter, artier movies like The English Patient and The Piano—movies that became dark horse Oscar candidates precisely because they weren’t seen as awards bait. Nowadays, Harvey Weinstein starts braying about nominations and runaway blockbusters before his movies are even released, seemingly basing his appraisals solely on loglines like, “Renée Zellweger stars in a period piece about Beatrix Potter!” or "Kate Winslet in a Holocaust movie—and she can’t read!” or “Seth Rogen! Titties!” Granted, it’s that sort of hucksterism that’s kept the company afloat with investors, but it’s also overshadowed a once-great reputation for a “golden touch.” The second you start crafting a film as “Oscar bait,” or as a condescending nod to “whatever the kids are into this year,” you change from a “dark horse” to just another jackass who can’t be trusted. Intimations of “whisper campaigns”—and flagrant displays of trash talking—against your colleagues (as with A Beautiful Mind and Slumdog Millionaire) only serve to reinforce that image.
And then there’s the gradual crap-ifying of taste that comes with age—or simply with mistaking art for commerce, as creative people who make money are often wont to do. As the profile puts it:
At the start of their careers, the brothers found ways to package the sort of skillfully made, modestly financed films that Hollywood ignored. Inevitably, Hollywood started paying attention, and conventional studios like Fox Searchlight now churn out movies like “Juno.” Yet the surprising part isn’t that old, bloated Hollywood adopted the methods of the Weinsteins. It’s that the Weinsteins adopted the methods of old, bloated Hollywood, rather than finding a new way to again outfox the majors. “Fanboys” aside, Harvey has been gravitating to more star-driven vehicles with larger budgets.
And it must be said that Fanboys included, he’s also been gravitating to movies that aren’t very good, simply because they sound like easy moneymakers, even if the sheer, Big Lots-like volume of shoddy crap has left everyone feeling burned and wary of shopping with him again. As longtime Weinstein associate Kevin Smith—whose Weinstein-produced Zack And Miri Make A Porno also wasn’t very good, but which Harvey probably called a “smash hit” to anyone who would listen—says, “They had impeccable taste when they were hungry. The problem is that they’re not really hungry anymore. They’re starving and desperate.” They’re also borderline enfeebled, according to an anecdote Smith shares about Harvey trying to introduce him to actress Sarah Chalke at the Zack And Miri première—“which was awkward because the woman was actually Traci Lords, a co-star of the movie.”
But while it would be reductive to only judge the Weinsteins by their misses and accidental mistaking of youngish TV actresses for fortysomething ex-porn stars—and indeed, even the author of the profile acknowledges that their confessions of failure seem perfectly timed to set up a comeback story based around the success of Inglourious Basterds et al.—it does say something about how in the soup they are that they’re willing to be stripped bare in the press like this, and what a dreary time it’s become for independent film in general. While no one should take pleasure in the Weinsteins’ failure—even if they are assholes, they’re responsible for producing and inspiring a lot of great movies over the years—it’s especially sad to see a legacy like theirs tarnished so quickly, and what was once the embodiment of “indie spirit” so quickly reduced to a reactionary formula. And while the Weinsteins are using this opportunity to trumpet their renewed commitment to getting “back to what you know,” when getting back to what you know means churning out three more Scream films and big-screen versions of The Equalizer and Knight Rider, it’s enough to make people wonder what you ever really knew in the first place.