Why Miramax mattered -- a critical appreciation. How the Weinsteins changed the movie business

By Owen Gleiberman
March 14, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s virtually impossible to imagine a modern movie landscape without the Miramax that Harvey and Bob built. Their legacy is everywhere, most notably in the ”specialty film” divisions of major studios (Fox Searchlight, etc.) that all, one way or another, took Miramax as their role model. Yet was there a Miramax aesthetic? The company’s output has always been a cornucopia of diversity (the be-cool nihilism of Tarantino, the literate swoon of Shakespeare in Love, the blasphem — and dogma! — of Kevin Smith), yet what those movies added up to was a revolutionary change in taste for a changing world.

There was once a world without Miramax, and in case you don’t remember, it looked very different from this one. Just go back to 1989, when the company first asserted its influence in a seismic, headline-grabbing way. Hollywood, you may recall, had by the end of the Reagan era reduced itself to an unadulterated greasy-carb diet of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Batman and Lethal Weapon, Simpson and Bruckheimer, John Hughes and more John Hughes. The mass-market omnipotence of franchise films, still known merely as sequels (how quaint!), was unquestioned; high-concept was just about the only concept around. It would be an understatement to say that this was far from the best of times to be a movie buff.

Within the relative totality of that homogenized, if not oppressive, multiplex-blockbuster world, I can recall the Saturday afternoon in August 1989 when I joined a line of ticket holders that snaked down a Boston sidewalk. We were all there to see sex, lies, and videotape, and if the size of the crowd was a shock, the excitement was palpable — a sign that this was something bold and new. Though no one could have guessed it at the time, all of us in line were the first fruit of Harvey Weinstein’s marketing genius: a mass of people lined up for a movie whose title teased you with the promise that you were going to see not just sex but…forbidden sex. Videotaped sex. Sex through the eyes of a creep-show voyeur. What might have looked vaguely underground just a few years before had suddenly gone overground.

The movie, of course, wasn’t all thatoutré. Since the weirdo in question, played by James Spader with the shaggy-haired sensitivity of a sociopathic lit major, turned out to be more lover than pervert, sex, lies, in its way, struck a perfect balance of exploitative come-on and ”literate” consummation. Yet overnight, it set the tone for what would become, in those early glory years, the Miramax mystique: a little darkness, a touch of kink, the promise of that primal moviegoing emotion, danger…all done with taste, grace, and formal elegance. The edge made artful.

Harvey Weinstein is often described as the man who brought art films to the malls. Actually, that theory gives him too much credit — and too little. For decades, European art cinema, from Breathless to Blow-Up to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, from Fellini to Bergman to Louis Malle, had drawn sizable audiences. In the ’80s, before Miramax grew powerful, the Masterpiece Theatre genre had taken hold with stiff-upper-lip romantic hits like A Room With a View, and Kiss of the Spider Woman proved that an independent film could cross over to become an Academy Award magnet.