Buying out the studios orphaned by the recent Universal and Polygram merger, the QVC business man prepares goes toe-to-toe with Miramax

By Josh Young
May 21, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

In this corner, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, with 20 years of breakthrough filmmaking to his credit. But entering the ring, a new challenger…someone who put the edge in edgy…the egg-headed, snaggletoothed Barry Diller, who has just bought his way back into the movie biz.

This June, in an estimated $150 million deal, the pugnacious Diller, 57, stands to take control of the indie-film companies orphaned as a result of the merger between Universal and PolyGram (including Gramercy, October, and Propaganda). Yet the sale will further blur the meaning of the word indie.

For Diller, it’s a bottom-line decision. ”Buying the studios,” says producer Laurence Mark (As Good as It Gets), ”is Barry’s way of getting back into film in the most intelligent way.” Not to mention the fastest: Diller’s acquisition means the newly formed USA Films — named for its parent company, USA Networks Inc., which the exec acquired from Seagrams CEO Edgar Bronfman in 1998 in an estimated $4.1 billion deal — has a slate of release-ready movies, including The Muse with Sharon Stone.

But this new studio creates some of the strangest corporate bedfellows yet. Now the indies that, along with Miramax, fueled the alternative-filmmaking scene (October championed Robert Duvall’s The Apostle) will share the same corporate parent as Xena: Warrior Princess, Jerry Springer, and Silk Stalkings. In other words, exactly the kind of tacky lowbrow entertainment that is the antithesis of Sundance.

In fact, for the last seven years, the center of Diller’s universe has been as far from Park City, Utah, as you can get. After exiting Fox Inc. in the wake of a rumored turf battle with owner Rupert Murdoch in 1992, Diller holed up in West Chester, Pa., home of shopping channel QVC, and became the pied piper of the Information Superhighway.

While many Hollywood-ites have rolled their eyes at Diller’s vision of an integrated entertainment conglomerate, he has soldiered on, buying companies and attempting to create a 21st-century entertainment giant that, in addition to TV and movie outlets, has tentacles in Internet sites, direct retail, and even ticket sales.

The question remains, what kind of indie guru will Diller be? For most of his career, this Beverly Hills rich kid, who dropped out of college at 19 to work in the William Morris mail room, has been the Midas of mainstream. He’s credited with inventing the Movie of the Week (while programming ABC in the early ’70s), shepherding Saturday Night Fever (as head of Paramount in the mid-’70s and ’80s), and making Bart Simpson a household name (as the brains behind the Fox network in the late ’80s).

James L. Brooks, who directed Broadcast News and produced The Simpsons during Diller’s Fox era, believes, ”The question isn’t what Barry’s aesthetic is, but what kind of people does he respect?” As lauded as Diller is for his killer instincts, the exec’s knack with talent shouldn’t be underestimated. ”You don’t have to translate your thoughts into business-speak with him,” Brooks explains. ”You can talk in raw, creative feelings. With Barry, it’s in the nuance…. That makes a huge difference.”