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The gutting of Miramax: Are studio specialty divisions headed for the dustbin?

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Adventureland_dlWhen it comes to Hollywood’s major-studio specialty divisions — those companies within companies that produce and distribute what we used to call movies, and what we now call “small,” “independent,” “quirky,” “end-of-the-year,” “Oscar-bait” “movies for adults” — is the sky finally falling? I hope I turn out to be Chicken Little for even asking that question. I hope that the answer is no.

But the signs right now are not good. A little more than a week ago, Disney made the announcement that it was shrinking (though not eliminating) Miramax, laying off a fair portion of its employees and reducing the number of films the division would release in the upcoming year. At a glance, it looked like your basic, everyday economic-crisis management maneuver. It looked like Disney was saying: We’re downsizing the company in order to save it. But let’s look at the facts.

According to the New York Times, Miramax will eliminate 50 jobs, leaving a grand total of 20 employees. And though Daniel Battsek, the division’s tasteful and industrious president (he took over after Harvey and Bob Weinstein split from the company they’d created to go out on their own), will remain in the top spot, the division’s operations, according to Disney president Alan Bergman, “will be consolidated under the larger umbrella of Walt Disney Studios.” Instead of releasing 6 to 8 films a year, Miramax will now release just 3.

Three movies. Total. In a year. Let’s be clear: That’s not organic shrinkage — that’s borderline decimation. And it’s not happening in a vacuum. It follows, last year, the closing/consolidating of Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent, and New Line. A coincidence? Perhaps. But Hollywood, a place of cliques and tribes, has always had a way of doing things in wary, competitive packs. Like making dueling asteroid movies or going 3-D. The winnowing down of specialty divisions may be a marketplace decision, but it’s also starting to feel like the acquiring of this year’s trendy handbag — the thing one has to do because everyone else is doing it. And the cruel truth is that from the standpoint of short-term profits, this particular handbag makes a terrible kind of sense.

Here are the four films that Miramax has released so far this year, and also what they grossed at the box office: Adventureland ($16 million), Chéri ($2.7 million), Extract ($10.8 million), and The Boys Are Back ($333,000 — it’s too early to tell on this one, since it has only just opened and is still playing in less-than-fully-wide release). The executives at Disney must have looked at those figures and thought, “Who needs this? We can make that much with a Miley Cyrus movie in one afternoon!” The Miramax label is being maintained, for now, because it still has value, especially for its back catalogue of DVDs. But what those numbers make plain is that specialty divisions, now more than ever, really are in the boutique game. They have precious little overlap anymore with the blockbusters that are Hollywood’s bread and butter.

So how many major-league boutique-brand movie companies are still left? In addition to the shell-of-its-former-self Miramax, there is Focus Features (the specialty division of Universal), there’s the lone-wolf Weinstein Company, there’s the vitally elite Sony Pictures Classics, and, of course, there is Fox Searchlight, now the offical 800-pound gorilla of specialty divisions (and I mean that in a good way — we need as many gorillas as we can get). As long as these companies are thriving, or even surviving, the spirit of adventurous moviemaking that they represent lives on. But the extreme downsizing of Miramax carries a special, and rather sad, symbolic weight. Back in the late ’90s, when Disney acquired Miramax in the first place, that unlikely merger — the Mouse House and the House that Harvey Built, the kingdom of family entertainment and the adult grotto of Pulp Fiction — became the template for the new-era, indie-based specialty divisions. Here, it seemed, was a workable, and profitable, model for how Hollywood could on keep making artful movies at the same time that it fed the increasingly kid-happy maw of the megaplex. This was more than a business plan. It was, in its way, a dream, one that reached back to the dream of soulful popular entertainment that has always kept Hollywood alive.

Who knows how that dream will now evolve? This year, Jason Reitman’s terrific and haunting new comedy, Up in the Air, a quintessential movie for adults, will be released by Paramount Pictures — not by a specialty division, but by the studio proper. That’s only one movie, but it is still, in its way, an encouraging sign. Maybe the new trend will be for studios that shutter their specialty divisions to incorporate the best of what those divisions have been doing. Just about the best movie I’ve seen from a specialty division this year is Adventureland, Greg Mottola’s ticklishly clever and wistful ’80s nostalgia comedy, a youth-movie romance that’s good enough to invite comparison to Dazed and Confused. Would Disney proper, or some other studio, now make that film? Maybe it’s time, in a strange way, that we stopped thinking of a movie like Adventureland as “special.” I hope that the crumbling of specialty divisions isn’t a trend that continues, but if it does, maybe that’s Hollwood’s unsconscious way of taking good movies out of the boutique.

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