Harvey and Bob Weinstein: The Early Days

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bob & Harvey Weinstein “The King’s Speech” is the most recent example of what the Weinstein brothers have done countless times: produce or acquire a film that their instincts tell them has Oscar potential, and then vigorously promote it as if their life depended on it. Their connection to this particular film is only of the moment because they have done this so many times before and will no doubt do it many times in the future. Next year it will be on to the next one.

Trying like hell to get a bucketful of Oscars for movies like “The King’s Speech” is just what they do. It’s actually “The Social Network” that captures who they are.

In the summer of 1983, I noticed a brief item in Variety. A company called Miramax had picked up rights to a Brazilian film called “Eréndira,” based on a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, directed by Ruy Guerra, and starring Irene Papas, that was set for its US premiere at the New York Film Festival. I had never heard of the company, but the film seemed right up my alley: Marquez was one of my favorite novelists, I knew Ruy Guerra’s work, but most of all my profession to that date had been working with the kind of modest foreign art films that had their US debut every year at the New York Film Festival. I called them up right away and set up a meeting.

Ruy Guerra in "Aguirre, the Wrath of God"

Ruy Guerra as Don Pedro de Ursua in Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”

Their office was a small apartment in a residential building across the street from the Citibank on 56th and Broadway. Miramax turned out to be a secretary, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, and Robert Newman (now a celebrated agent with clients like Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro and Danny Boyle.)   The Weinsteins had made some money producing rock concerts in Buffalo, but as longtime film fans, were moving into the film business, first with rock concert films like Paul McCartney’s “Rockshow,” and a horror film called “The Burning,” (the film debut of future Oscar winner Holly Hunter and “Seinfeld star Jason Alexander. But their biggest success was “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball,” a concert film they had created by editing the rights to two films of Amnesty International benefit shows into one movie. “Eréndira” was to be their first venture into the foreign art film arena.

I’d been through this kind of publicity job endless times before. The Film Society of Lincoln Center would bring in Ruy Guerra and put him up at the Algonquin Hotel, where I’d set up interviews. The cost of his publicity schedule would be cab fare and some meals. After eleven years working in the New York art film business, that was all I knew. Everybody I worked with cut their costs to the bone, and I had no reason to believe that the Weinstein brothers would be any different.

Talk about being wrong.

There was nothing out of the ordinary at the start. Ruy Guerra and his nectarious blossom of a girlfriend, Claudia Ohana, who played Eréndira, came to town and I put a publicity schedule together. These stories would be held until the release the spring of the following year. But then, Harvey and Bob began a campaign to bring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was also a co-screenwriter into the country. Although Marquez had become a Nobel Laureate the year before, he was still painted as a Fidel-loving subversive by the US immigration services and denied visas. At first I thought this was just a publicity stunt, but I gradually realized that they were completely serious. It didn’t bother them one bit that so many powerful cultural organizations had failed to bring Marquez in—they were going to be the ones to do it. I ended up working on the film for almost a year and I don’t remember them ever giving up for a second.

This was different. I wasn’t aware of any major studio films that were willing to take on the US government in such a fiery, relentless way.

Erendira-Poster--MiramaxErendira-PosterBut that was nothing until I saw the poster. They had taken the Brazilian artwork, unbuttoned the top button of Eréndira’s blouse and added extra cleavage to Claudia Ohana’s chest. Cleavage! I died laughing. I had never seen anything so crass. Would art filmgoers want to see the film more if they believed that Claudia had slightly bigger breasts? And it seemed so off the mark as the essence of Claudia (and Eréndira’s) sensuality, emanated from her barely ripe sensuality. But then I thought about it and I realized that this was a truly erotic movie, and the Brazilian poster was sort of prim. It didn’t signal the pleasures the film offered as well as Miramax poster did. I had to give them credit. They were showmen, paying attention to every detail. Maybe it was cheesy, but who  was I to say? Maybe it would help. (And significantly, every poster I can find on the web from other countries used the Miramax art.)

Claudia Ohana in "Eréndira” Claudia Ohana in “Eréndira”


Irene Papas in "Eréndira” In the spring, they brought in the internationally famous Greek actress Irene Papas (“Z,” “Zorba the Greek,” “The Trojan Women,” “The Guns of Navarone”) and the brothers set me to work all over again. Papas was a legend, and you couldn’t put her up at the Howard Johnson. You have to go first class in everything and I was astounded to see this kind of cash outlay for what most other distributors would consider a little film. Obviously she was on a whole other level than Ruy Guerra and I booked her everywhere-- newspapers, magazine, big TV shows, the whole works. Even during my brief stint at PMK I had never got coverage like this. The brothers also set up fancy parties. I got to meet Anthony Quinn! Their belief in the film was boundless.

Eventually Irene left town and I figured that was it for me, “Eréndira”-wise. Wrong again.

When the summer came, Harvey called me and said that Claudia Ohana was coming to New York to do a commercial photo shoot. Could I get her in Playboy? I could and I did. I also set up a lush schedule photo shoots with Claudia in lots of other places. Finally, I took Claudia to the airport and finally, finally, finally, I was done with “Eréndira.” With all the time I had spent on the film I figured I’d been paid less than a penny an hour.

Claudia-Ohana-3-Playboys Claudia’s Latin American Playboy Covers

I have no idea if Miramax made money on “Eréndira,” but it was beside the point as they had taught me a crucial lesson. These two outsiders came in and reinvented the entire business as I had known it. They weren’t trying to do it better than everybody else did; they didn’t give a damn about what anybody else did. They were looking straight up. As Christopher Lloyd’s character said in “Back to the Future”—“Roads! Where we’re going we don’t need roads!” The sky was not the limit for them because they didn’t consider the notion of there being a sky. Harvey had kicked my ass, made me work harder for less money than I ever had in my life, but he had made a real publicist out of me.

Don’t ever let ANYBODY ever tell you a film is small.
There are no small movies, only small imaginations.
There is no limit to the amount of passion and care you can put into a movie if you love it.
NEVER give up. There is never enough that you can do.

You want to know some of the business people who think this way? Looks at the world with no top? Steve Jobs. Rupert Murdoch. Bill Gates. Steven Spielberg. Michael Bloomberg. Mark Zuckerberg.

And when he’s on his game… Harvey Weinstein.

Hubris like this is very rare in business executives, but it is quite common with visionary artists. People often use the same kinds of words to describe people like this: uncompromising, arrogant, difficult, controlling, demanding, and sometimes… cruel. Something extra is inside these people and something is missing too. They’re probably born that way, lucky or cursed, and no doubt spurred by something chemical.

Like everybody else, I was fascinated to read the reports of Harvey’s bad behavior. I didn’t know that guy. The guy I knew was a charmer. When I ran into him (on the extremely rare occasions where he remembered who I was), he was always gracious. I only encountered the cruel Harvey second-hand, through the way some of the people who worked for him treated me. That wasn’t fun.

I was pretty good at my job before I worked with the Weinstein Brothers-- passionate, hard-working, and movie mad—but afterwards my outlook changed. It opened up. Shortly after “Eréndira,” I publicized “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the biggest successes I had ever had after thirteen years in the business.

In the subsequent years I worked for many people who loathed the Weinstein brothers. I imagine it will make them furious if they happen to read these words of praise. But it’s a fact that when those companies hired me, they got a publicist who was schooled and inspired by Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

If they liked the results, then they owe him, whether they want to accept it or not.