WITH PROVOCATIVE FILMS LIKE THE CONTROVERSIAL 'PRIEST,' MIRAMAX TESTS THE FAITH OF CONSERVATIVE PARENT DISNEY

By EW Staff
April 28, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
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In the April 6 Catholic New York, Cardinal John J. O’Connor called the film ”blatantly anti-Catholic” and-without seeing it-compared it to a scrawl on a bathroom wall. The conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has called for a stockholder protest against Disney. The right-wing American Life League is spearheading a Disney boycott and demanding that the company make ”a public apology to all people of faith.” And on April 16, Priest, a tiny British movie that’s barely touched the $1 million mark at the box office, officially became the first Silly Showbiz Issue of the 1996 presidential race when candidate Bob Dole said on Meet the Press, ”If I’m the President of the United States, I’m going to encourage consumers to not patronize these movies.” * Welcome to controversy, Miramax-style. All the | elements are in place for a small, hard-to-market film to become headline- making material, thanks to the uncanny knack for generating publicity that brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who run the company, have so often used to their advantage. But is controversy still welcome? Just two years ago, Miramax, then one of the leading independently owned film companies, would have relished the attention-getting uproar over Priest. However, that was before the Walt Disney Co. made an $80 million deal to acquire Miramax and the services of its two founders. At the time the marriage of Disney and Miramax seemed a perfect union of deep resources and entrepreneurial talent. These days, the industry is looking more closely to see whether the bride and groom are still smiling- or just clenching their teeth. Priest first grabbed the Weinsteins’ attention at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. As it made its rounds on the film festival circuit, the drama, about a homosexual priest in Liverpool who’s trying to come to terms with himself and his faith, earned enough advance praise to suggest that critics would offer their support, and pushed enough hot buttons to stand a chance of gaining notice on op-ed pages as well. The Weinsteins, who built their success by marketing controversial films, snapped up rights to the project for $1.75 million. By February, they were screening Priest for Catholic interest groups in major markets, hoping to spark comment-pro and con-on its merits. Then, perhaps to take advantage of the Easter/Passover holiday weekend or to incite the church’s vocal wrath, Miramax scheduled Priest’s national release (it opened in L.A. and New York on March 24) for April 14-Good Friday. The release date was disclosed in the Los Angeles Times by director Antonia Bird, who said, ”Sort of appropriate, wouldn’t you say?” Miramax had all the right voices ready to swing into action for the defense, claiming the clamor over Priest was unwarranted. The movie ”was never intended to upset people,” Bird explains, ”but to force debate.” And star Linus Roache, who has been hailed for his performance as the gay priest, insists, ”This film is in no way a condemnation or an attack on the Catholic faith. I think anybody who really looks can see that.” What Miramax watchers could see was another perfectly crafted campaign from the New York-based company, which had gained a reputation for distributing art films like The Crying Game and The Piano that not only won Academy Award ^ nominations but broke out of the art-house circuit to attract mainstream audiences. When Oscars weren’t in the offing, loud, public arguments were the next best thing: Miramax had gotten attention for its clashes with the MPAA- administered ratings board over X ratings of 1989’s Scandal and Pedro Almodovar’s 1990 Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! And last year, the 16-year-old company took two movies shunned by major studios, The Crow and Pulp Fiction, and drove them to grosses of over $50 million and $100 million, respectively. Priest, it seemed, also had a good shot at breaking out of the art-house ghetto. Then things got considerably more tense. The day Priest opened in Los Angeles and New York, Disney’s Burbank studios tightened security, and Miramax held a news conference announcing that the film would not, on second thought, be released on a religious holiday. While some believed the Weinsteins were bowing to Disney’s pressure, others thought it was one more example of Miramax’s orchestrating a devilishly clever marketing scheme. ”The whole Good Friday release is so transparent, it’s laughable,” says New Line Cinema marketing president Chris Pula. ”But at the same time it’s brilliant. Priest might have done nothing without the controversy.” ”Please,” says Harvey Weinstein, ”I’m a brilliant marketer, by my own immodest opinion, but I’m not that good. We changed our mind with this protest. Everyone originally thought this was a thoughtful period for reexamining faith and dealing with these issues, and it was not meant to insult anybody. At the end of the day, it’s my mistake, and I apologize for that.” In fact, Weinstein says the film could have generated even more news if he and Bird hadn’t edited the homosexual priest’s love scenes before the film, which is rated R, was shown to the ratings board. How much controversy is Disney willing to tolerate over a movie that isn’t financially worth as much as one hair in The Lion King’s mane? That may come down to how much a company known for its tightly controlled corporate ethos is willing to put up with the freewheeling Weinsteins. Harvey Weinstein doesn’t deny that conservative factions within Disney have never liked the brothers’ unbuttoned style, and even friendly observers call Disney and Miramax an odd- couple match. ”I respect their talent and ability and gumption,” says Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment president Bill Mechanic of the Weinsteins, but ”if you’re (part of) a corporation, that doesn’t always make you good corporate citizens.”

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