Sunday, December 2, 2012

Annapurna and the Weinsteins

The Weinstein brothers have ridden the roller coaster of success for the last 25 years, starting with Miramax. They were moderately successful when it came to distributing art and foreign films in the beginning, then Quentin Tarantino came around and suddenly they blew up. They became perennial big time money makers and Oscar contenders, which lead to Disney buying out Miramax and a subsequent falling out which, in hindsight, everyone should have seen coming.

They formed their own company once again: The Weinstein Company, and they seemed to have been barely skirting by until, once again, Quentin Tarantino bails them out with the hugely successful Inglourious Basterds. A newly reinvigorated company now, they buy the distribution rights to The King's Speech and The Artist and turn them into box office successes.

Great. So why does it feel like they still don't quite know what they're doing? The movie business has always been based on luck, but the Weinsteins's entire career seems based on luck. The hope that Quentin Tarantino would turn out to be as great as he is, the hope that the movie they pay the distribution rights for turns out a profit. Still, The King's Speech and The Artist were low-risk/high reward type films. They were crowd pleasers. Despite the violence, QT's films are also usually crowd-pleasing, to an extent. The Weinsteins have never been able to show that they can produce and distribute more difficult adult drama successfully.

This year makes all that abundantly clear. They had a killer lineup this year. Lawless, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Killing Them Softly, Django Unchained... sure I didn't like Killing Them Softly, but on paper it just seems like you couldn't lose with five films like that. Five films from great filmmakers: Hillcoat, PT Anderson, O. Russell, Dominik, QT... they should've had 2012 in the bag. So what happens?

Lawless comes out to decent reviews, but middling box office returns. It gets stuck in that lousy August 31st weekend, a weekend where everyone's usually BBQ'ing or preparing to go back to school or something. Nobody seems to want to watch films that weekend. You had Tom Hardy just coming off The Dark Knight Rises, Shia Labouef who's a pretty recognizable name, and the rest of the cast is rounded by solid performers. It's an entertaining flick that aims to please more than it aims to challenge. The release date it got, however, never really gave it a chance to succeed. Overall, it did ok in the box office, but it could've done way better.

Few weeks later, The Master comes out to rave reviews and great buzz. Its first weekend, it breaks records in limited release. From the outset, this film was clearly going to be a tough sell, but one has to imagine it could've done better than $15 million in the box office. It's always had serious awards buzz, and honestly, probably would've been better off with a late-October/early-November release with a slow rollout until the Oscar noms came out.

Silver Linings Playbook also has some great reviews and positive press, it's still making its slow rollout so the jury is still out on the film. Killing Them Softly has had decent reviews, but the box office returns appear to be woeful with an F cinemascore rating to boot, meaning that moviegoers kinda hated the film. Again, another film that seemed poorly handled. The marketing was completely deceptive and having it be released to nearly 3,000 theaters just seems like a boneheaded move at this point. If anything, Silver Linings should've gotten the wide release and KTS the limited one.

This all leads to Django Unchained and its Christmas release. Once again, it's all on QT to bail the Weinsteins out again. Can he do it? Can the film be successful? Judging by crowd reactions whenever I see the previews for this film, I say yes. It has a great cast, QT's riding high on the success of his previous film, and its Christmas Day release may actually help, instead of hinder, like with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last year. But hey, True Grit did pretty well on its Christmas Day release two years before.

So Django Unchained just might bail the Weinsteins out and their year may be saved but it doesn't undo a poorly managed year on their part. They appear to have no idea how to market difficult movies such as these and due to the lack of success, I predict they're gonna try buying distribution rights to cheaply made, crowd-pleasing period films yet again and then try to grab Oscar acclaim soon after. This year it really seemed like they were gonna go for the jugular with all these challenging movies and they're limping as they head to the finish line.

The one who it may hurt the most, perhaps not financially, but mentally, is Megan Ellison and her production company Annapurna Pictures. Here's a bright young woman who, at age 25, suddenly decided to start her own film production company and help out some great filmmakers who otherwise may have had a really tough time getting their films made. Lawless, The Master, Killing Them Softly... next year she has Spike Jonze's "Her" and Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher." She still has Zero Dark Thirty coming out later this year, a film that's not being distributed by the Weinsteins, but Sony Pictures instead.

What I hope is that she doesn't back down after a tough year like this. Maybe think twice before making distribution deals with the Weinsteins again. They have poorly handled her films, flat out. She, and the films she's produced, deserve way better. Her conscious effort to provide thought-provoking art films to the forefront should be applauded, but her lack of immediate success is a bit disconcerting. I remember first hearing she was going to be funding all these films and my first thought was "yes! this woman is an angel" but then I started to think "wait, what if these films don't do well?" That turned out to be a valid question.

But here's to Megan Ellison. The movie business is a tough one, especially in these tough economic times when the movie-going audience dwindles more and more each year. A person doing this great of a service always manages to get rewarded somewhere down the line. Hopefully Megan is able to get hers. And hopefully The Weinsteins are bailed out by Quentin and eventually figure out how to market difficult films successfully. They were onto something this year, trying to put these films out to the public, they just didn't do a good job. That doesn't mean they should stop trying.

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