At first look, Disney’s purchase last week of maverick Miramax Pictures for a reported $65 million is not a match made in heaven. On one side, there’s Disney, maker of family movies, distributor of such mainstream fare as The Mighty Ducks and Sister Act, and the most cost-conscious, control-driven studio around. On the other, Miramax’s founders, brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, are loved and loathed for their cutthroat deals, scuffles with the ratings board over NC-17 films, and marketing skills (they made a monster out of The Crying Game). While many question whether such contrary, volatile personalities can coexist inside the Magic Kingdom, few doubt that this maneuver could make Disney Hollywood’s No. 1 studio.
At the very least, Miramax seems a smart buy. For less than the price of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film like Last Action Hero, which is costing rival Columbia Pictures an estimated $80 million, Disney gets Miramax’s 200-film library plus 20 more movies to release next year.
The acquisition comes on the heels of a shopping spree by Disney chairman Michael Eisner and studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg designed to increase Disney’s film output while giving the studio some non-animated films to compete with on Oscar night. Among their recent deals:
·A five-year, $25 million contract with ex-Twentieth Century Fox chairman Joe Roth to make 25 sophisticated films like the romantic comedy I Love Trouble (starring Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts and slated to start shooting this fall).
·A three-year deal with the Oscar-winning Howards End team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, which allows them to produce as many $12 million movies as they want, starting with the upcoming Jefferson in Paris, costarring The Player‘s Greta Scacchi, and an adaptation of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady.
·An attempt by Katzenberg to bring once-spurned Disney animator Tim Burton back into the fold. The Batman director will deliver his first Disney animated feature, The Nightmare Before Christmas, for the fall.
If you add up the numbers, Disney will be in a position to release as many as 60 movies in 1994, compared with 27 in 1992. Moreover, these films will be made by producers and distributors who recognize the importance of the bottom line. ”Market share is Hollywood’s new mantra,” explains Dave Davis of Paul Kagan Associates, an entertainment research firm. ”Disney already has the lowest production costs and was the most profitable studio in 1992. Now they’re lowering costs even further by making lower-budget product like Merchant/Ivory or Miramax films.”
This may leave Warner Bros., current owner of the market-share crown and Disney’s biggest rival, in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar position of playing second fiddle. Throughout the ’80s, Warner always developed, produced, and released more projects than anyone else. While Hollywood has been titillated by the recent squabble between Disney and Time Warner over theme-park advertising (and Eisner’s abrupt decision to yank Disney ads from all Time Inc. magazines, including Entertainment Weekly), the real battle between the two companies is at the box office. Warner has been sticking to its tried-and-true game plan of hiring producers and releasing 28 movies a year; Disney has been steadily increasing output — its 1993 release slate was up to 31 films even before it announced the Miramax pact.
It’s ironic that Warner, whose music division grew powerful in the ’60s and ’70s by buying up smaller record labels like Elektra, seems to be waiting out the similar game in the movie business — even as the competition jumps in. Sony now boasts several brand-name film divisions, including Columbia, TriStar, and the art-film distributor Sony Pictures Classics (Howards End). Universal has invested in PolyGram’s Gramercy Pictures. Now Disney boasts two mainstream arms, Hollywood and Touchstone; the children’s label, Disney; plus Miramax. (Warner executives declined requests for comment.)
”We are going into the age of software,” says one Disney executive, explaining the strategy, ”where the wealth of the studio is no longer in its distribution but in the product. You want to have just as many movies as you can.” At this rate, Mickey will be a mighty mouse, indeed.