Friday Sep 15, 2023
Friday Sep 15, 2023
Friday Sep 15, 2023
We finally complete our mini-series on the 1980s movies released by Miramax Films in 1989, a year that included sex, lies, and videotape, and My Left Foot.
From Los Angeles, California, the Entertainment Capital of the World, it’s The 80s Movies Podcast. I am your host, Edward Havens. Thank you for listening today.
On this episode, we complete our look back at the 1980s theatrical releases for Miramax Films. And, for the final time, a reminder that we are not celebrating Bob and Harvey Weinstein, but reminiscing about the movies they had no involvement in making. We cannot talk about cinema in the 1980s without talking about Miramax, and I really wanted to get it out of the way, once and for all.
As we left Part 4, Miramax was on its way to winning its first Academy Award, Billie August’s Pelle the Conquerer, the Scandinavian film that would be second film in a row from Denmark that would win for Best Foreign Language Film.
In fact, the first two films Miramax would release in 1989, the Australian film Warm Night on a Slow Moving Train and the Anthony Perkins slasher film Edge of Sanity, would not arrive in theatres until the Friday after the Academy Awards ceremony that year, which was being held on the last Wednesday in March.
Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train stars Wendy Hughes, the talented Australian actress who, sadly, is best remembered today as Lt. Commander Nella Daren, one of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s few love interests, on a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as Jenny, a prostitute working a weekend train to Sydney, who is seduced by a man on the train, unaware that he plans on tricking her to kill someone for him. Colin Friels, another great Aussie actor who unfortunately is best known for playing the corrupt head of Strack Industries in Sam Raimi’s Darkman, plays the unnamed man who will do anything to get what he wants.
Director Bob Ellis and his co-screenwriter Denny Lawrence came up with the idea for the film while they themselves were traveling on a weekend train to Sydney, with the idea that each client the call girl met on the train would represent some part of the Australian male.
Funding the $2.5m film was really simple… provided they cast Hughes in the lead role. Ellis and Lawrence weren’t against Hughes as an actress. Any film would be lucky to have her in the lead. They just felt she she didn’t have the right kind of sex appeal for this specific character.
Miramax would open the film in six theatres, including the Cineplex Beverly Center in Los Angeles and the Fashion Village 8 in Orlando, on March 31st. There were two versions of the movie prepared, one that ran 130 minutes and the other just 91. Miramax would go with the 91 minute version of the film for the American release, and most of the critics would note how clunky and confusing the film felt, although one critic for the Village Voice would have some kind words for Ms. Hughes’ performance.
Whether it was because moviegoers were too busy seeing the winners of the just announced Academy Awards, including Best Picture winner Rain Man, or because this weekend was also the opening weekend of the new Major League Baseball season, or just turned off by the reviews, attendance at the theatres playing Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train was as empty as a train dining car at three in the morning. The Beverly Center alone would account for a third of the movie’s opening weekend gross of $19,268. After a second weekend at the same six theatres pocketing just $14,382, this train stalled out, never to arrive at another station.
Their other March 31st release, Edge of Sanity, is notable for two things and only two things: it would be the first film Miramax would release under their genre specialty label, Millimeter Films, which would eventually evolve into Dimension Films in the next decade, and it would be the final feature film to star Anthony Perkins before his passing in 1992.
The film is yet another retelling of the classic 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson story The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, with the bonus story twist that Hyde was actually Jack the Ripper. As Jekyll, Perkins looks exactly as you’d expect a mid-fifties Norman Bates to look. As Hyde, Perkins is made to look like he’s a backup keyboardist for the first Nine Inch Nails tour. Head Like a Hole would have been an appropriate song for the end credits, had the song or Pretty Hate Machine been released by that time, with its lyrics about bowing down before the one you serve and getting what you deserve.
Edge of Sanity would open in Atlanta and Indianapolis on March 31st. And like so many other Miramax releases in the 1980s, they did not initially announce any grosses for the film. That is, until its fourth weekend of release, when the film’s theatre count had fallen to just six, down from the previous week’s previously unannounced 35, grossing just $9,832. Miramax would not release grosses for the film again, with a final total of just $102,219.
Now when I started this series, I said that none of the films Miramax released in the 1980s were made by Miramax, but this next film would become the closest they would get during the decade.
In July 1961, John Profumo was the Secretary of State for War in the conservative government of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, when the married Profumo began a sexual relationship with a nineteen-year-old model named Christine Keeler. The affair was very short-lived, either ending, depending on the source, in August 1961 or December 1961. Unbeknownst to Profumo, Keeler was also having an affair with Yevgeny Ivanov, a senior naval attache at the Soviet Embassy at the same time.
No one was the wiser on any of this until December 1962, when a shooting incident involving two other men Keeler had been involved with led the press to start looking into Keeler’s life. While it was never proven that his affair with Keeler was responsible for any breaches of national security, John Profumo was forced to resign from his position in June 1963, and the scandal would take down most of the Torie government with him. Prime Minister Macmillan would resign due to “health reasons” in October 1963, and the Labour Party would take control of the British government when the next elections were held in October 1964.
Scandal was originally planned in the mid-1980s as a three-part, five-hour miniseries by Australian screenwriter Michael Thomas and American music producer turned movie producer Joe Boyd. The BBC would commit to finance a two-part, three-hour miniseries, until someone at the network found an old memo from the time of the Profumo scandal that forbade them from making any productions about it. Channel 4, which had been producing quality shows and movies for several years since their start in 1982, was approached, but rejected the series on the grounds of taste.
Palace Pictures, a British production company who had already produced three films for Neil Jordan including Mona Lisa, was willing to finance the script, provided it could be whittled down to a two hour movie. Originally budgeted at 3.2m British pounds, the costs would rise as they started the casting process. John Hurt, twice Oscar-nominated for his roles in Midnight Express and The Elephant Man, would sign on to play Stephen Ward, a British osteopath who acted as Christine Keeler’s… well… pimp, for lack of a better word. Ian McKellen, a respected actor on British stages and screens but still years away from finding mainstream global success in the X-Men movies, would sign on to play John Profumo. Joanne Whaley, who had filmed the yet to be released at that time Willow with her soon to be husband Val Kilmer, would get her first starring role as Keeler, and Bridget Fonda, who was quickly making a name for herself in the film world after being featured in Aria, would play Mandy Rice-Davies, the best friend and co-worker of Keeler’s.
To save money, Palace Pictures would sign thirty-year-old Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones to direct, after seeing a short film he had made called The Riveter. But even with the neophyte feature filmmaker, Palace still needed about $2.35m to be able to fully finance the film. And they knew exactly who to go to.
Stephen Woolley, the co-founder of Palace Pictures and the main producer on the film, would fly from London to New York City to personally pitch Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Woolley felt that of all the independent distributors in America, they would be the ones most attracted to the sexual and controversial nature of the story. A day later, Woolley was back on a plane to London. The Weinsteins had agreed to purchase the American distribution rights to Scandal for $2.35m.
The film would spend two months shooting in the London area through the summer of 1988. Christine Keeler had no interest in the film, and refused to meet the now Joanne Whaley-Kilmer to talk about the affair, but Mandy Rice-Davies was more than happy to Bridget Fonda about her life, although the meetings between the two women were so secret, they would not come out until Woolley eulogized Rice-Davies after her 2014 death.
Although Harvey and Bob would be given co-executive producers on the film, Miramax was not a production company on the film. This, however, did not stop Harvey from flying to London multiple times, usually when he was made aware of some sexy scene that was going to shoot the following day, and try to insinuate himself into the film’s making. At one point, Woolley decided to take a weekend off from the production, and actually did put Harvey in charge. That weekend’s shoot would include a skinny-dipping scene featuring the Christine Keeler character, but when Whaley-Kilmer learned Harvey was going to be there, she told the director that she could not do the nudity in the scene. Her new husband was objecting to it, she told them. Harvey, not skipping a beat, found a lookalike for the actress who would be willing to bare all as a body double, and the scene would begin shooting a few hours later. Whaley-Kilmer watched the shoot from just behind the camera, and stopped the shoot a few minutes later. She was not happy that the body double’s posterior was notably larger than her own, and didn’t want audiences to think she had that much junk in her trunk. The body double was paid for her day, and Whaley-Kilmer finished the rest of the scene herself.
Caton-Jones and his editing team worked on shaping the film through the fall, and would screen his first edit of the film for Palace Pictures and the Weinsteins in November 1988. And while Harvey was very happy with the cut, he still asked the production team for a different edit for American audiences, noting that most Americans had no idea who Profumo or Keeler or Rice-Davies were, and that Americans would need to understand the story more right out of the first frame. Caton-Jones didn’t want to cut a single frame, but he would work with Harvey to build an American-friendly cut.
While he was in London in November 1988, he would meet with the producers of another British film that was in pre-production at the time that would become another important film to the growth of the company, but we’re not quite at that part of the story yet. We’ll circle around to that film soon.
One of the things Harvey was most looking forward to going in to 1989 was the expected battle with the MPAA ratings board over Scandal. Ever since he had seen the brouhaha over Angel Heart’s X rating two years earlier, he had been looking for a similar battle. He thought he had it with Aria in 1988, but he knew he definitely had it now.
And he’d be right.
In early March, just a few weeks before the film’s planned April 21st opening day, the MPAA slapped an X rating on Scandal. The MPAA usually does not tell filmmakers or distributors what needs to be cut, in order to avoid accusations of actual censorship, but according to Harvey, they told him exactly what needed to be cut to get an R: a two second shot during an orgy scene, where it appears two background characters are having unsimulated sex.
So what did Harvey do?
He spent weeks complaining to the press about MPAA censorship, generating millions in free publicity for the film, all the while already having a close-up shot of Joanne Whaley-Kilmer’s Christine Keeler watching the orgy but not participating in it, ready to replace the objectionable shot.
A few weeks later, Miramax screened the “edited” film to the MPAA and secured the R rating, and the film would open on 94 screens, including 28 each in the New York City and Los Angeles metro regions, on April 28th.
And while the reviews for the film were mostly great, audiences were drawn to the film for the Miramax-manufactured controversy as well as the key art for the film, a picture of a potentially naked Joanne Whaley-Kilmer sitting backwards in a chair, a mimic of a very famous photo Christine Keeler herself took to promote a movie about the Profumo affair she appeared in a few years after the events. I’ll have a picture of both the Scandal poster and the Christine Keeler photo on this episode’s page at The80sMoviePodcast.com
Five other movies would open that weekend, including the James Belushi comedy K-9 and the Kevin Bacon drama Criminal Law, and Scandal, with $658k worth of ticket sales, would have the second best per screen average of the five new openers, just a few hundred dollars below the new Holly Hunter movie Miss Firecracker, which only opened on six screens.
In its second weekend, Scandal would expand its run to 214 playdates, and make its debut in the national top ten, coming in tenth place with $981k. That would be more than the second week of the Patrick Dempsey rom-com Loverboy, even though Loverboy was playing on 5x as many screens.
In weekend number three, Scandal would have its best overall gross and top ten placement, coming in seventh with $1.22m from 346 screens. Scandal would start to slowly fade after that, falling back out of the top ten in its sixth week, but Miramax would wisely keep the screen count under 375, because Scandal wasn’t going to play well in all areas of the country. After nearly five months in theatres, Miramax would have its biggest film to date. Scandal would gross $8.8m.
The second release from Millimeter Films was The Return of the Swamp Thing. And if you needed a reason why the 1980s was not a good time for comic book movies, here you are. The Return of the Swamp Thing took most of what made the character interesting in his comic series, and most of what was good from the 1982 Wes Craven adaptation, and decided “Hey, you know what would bring the kids in? Camp! Camp unseen in a comic book adaptation since the 1960s Batman series. They loved it then, they’ll love it now!”
They did not love it now.
Heather Locklear, between her stints on T.J. Hooker and Melrose Place, plays the step-daughter of Louis Jourdan’s evil Dr. Arcane from the first film, who heads down to the Florida swaps to confront dear old once presumed dead stepdad. He in turns kidnaps his stepdaughter and decides to do some of his genetic experiments on her, until she is rescued by Swamp Thing, one of Dr. Arcane’s former co-workers who got turned into the gooey anti-hero in the first movie.
The film co-stars Sarah Douglas from Superman 1 and 2 as Dr. Arcane’s assistant, Dick Durock reprising his role as Swamp Thing from the first film, and 1980s B-movie goddess Monique Gabrielle as Miss Poinsettia.
For director Jim Wynorski, this was his sixth movie as a director, and at $3m, one of the highest budgeted movies he would ever make. He’s directed 107 movies since 1984, most of them low budget direct to video movies with titles like The Bare Wench Project and Alabama Jones and the Busty Crusade, although he does have one genuine horror classic under his belt, the 1986 sci-fi tinged Chopping Maul with Kelli Maroney and Barbara Crampton.
Wynorski suggested in a late 1990s DVD commentary for the film that he didn’t particularly enjoy making the film, and had a difficult time directing Louis Jourdan, to the point that outside of calling “action” and “cut,” the two didn’t speak to each other by the end of the shoot.
The Return of Swamp Thing would open in 123 theatres in the United States on May 12th, including 28 in the New York City metro region, 26 in the Los Angeles area, 15 in Detroit, and a handful of theatres in Phoenix, San Francisco. And, strangely, the newspaper ads would include an actual positive quote from none other than Roger Ebert, who said on Siskel & Ebert that he enjoyed himself, and that it was good to have Swamp Thing back. Siskel would not reciprocate his balcony partner’s thumb up. But Siskel was about the only person who was positive on the return of Swamp Thing, and that box office would suffer. In its first three days, the film would gross just $119,200. After a couple more dismal weeks in theatres, The Return of Swamp Thing would be pulled from distribution, with a final gross of just $275k.
Fun fact: The Return of Swamp Thing was produced by Michael E. Uslan, whose next production, another adaptation of a DC Comics character, would arrive in theatres not six weeks later and become the biggest film of the summer. In fact, Uslan has been a producer or executive producer on every Batman-related movie and television show since 1989, from Tim Burton to Christopher Nolan to Zack Snyder to Matt Reeves, and from LEGO movies to Joker. He also, because of his ownership of the movie rights to Swamp Thing, got the movie screen rights, but not the television screen rights, to John Constantine.
Miramax didn’t have too much time to worry about The Return of Swamp Thing’s release, as it was happening while the Brothers Weinstein were at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. They had two primary goals at Cannes that year:
- To buy American distribution rights to any movie that would increase their standing in the cinematic worldview, which they would achieve by picking up an Italian dramedy called, at the time, New Paradise Cinema, which was competing for the Palme D’Or with a Miramax pickup from Sundance back in January.
- Promote that very film, which did end up winning the Palme D’Or.
Ever since he was a kid, Steven Soderbergh wanted to be a filmmaker. Growing up in Baton Rouge, LA in the late 1970s, he would enroll in the LSU film animation class, even though he was only 15 and not yet a high school graduate. After graduating high school, he decided to move to Hollywood to break into the film industry, renting an above-garage room from Stephen Gyllenhaal, the filmmaker best known as the father of Jake and Maggie, but after a few freelance editing jobs, Soderbergh packed up his things and headed home to Baton Rouge.
Someone at Atco Records saw one of Soderbergh’s short films, and hired him to direct a concert movie for one of their biggest bands at the time, Yes, who was enjoying a major comeback thanks to their 1983 triple platinum selling album, 90125. The concert film, called 9012Live, would premiere on MTV in late 1985, and it would be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video.
Soderbergh would use the money he earned from that project, $7,500, to make Winston, a 12 minute black and white short about sexual deception that he would, over the course of an eight day driving trip from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, expand to a full length screen that he would call sex, lies and videotape. In later years, Soderbergh would admit that part of the story is autobiographical, but not the part you might think. Instead of the lead, Graham, an impotent but still sexually perverse late twentysomething who likes to tape women talking about their sexual fantasies for his own pleasure later, Soderbergh based the husband John, the unsophisticated lawyer who cheats on his wife with her sister, on himself, although there would be a bit of Graham that borrows from the filmmaker. Like his lead character, Soderbergh did sell off most of his possessions and hit the road to live a different life.
When he finished the script, he sent it out into the wilds of Hollywood. Morgan Mason, the son of actor James Mason and husband of Go-Go’s lead singer Belinda Carlisle, would read it and sign on as an executive producer. Soderbergh had wanted to shoot the film in black and white, like he had with the Winston short that lead to the creation of this screenplay, but he and Mason had trouble getting anyone to commit to the project, even with only a projected budget of $200,000. For a hot moment, it looked like Universal might sign on to make the film, but they would eventually pass.
Robert Newmyer, who had left his job as a vice president of production and acquisitions at Columbia Pictures to start his own production company, signed on as a producer, and helped to convince Soderbergh to shoot the film in color, and cast some name actors in the leading roles. Once he acquiesced, Richard Branson’s Virgin Vision agreed to put up $540k of the newly budgeted $1.2m film, while RCA/Columbia Home Video would put up the remaining $660k.
Soderbergh and his casting director, Deborah Aquila, would begin their casting search in New York, where they would meet with, amongst others, Andie MacDowell, who had already starred in two major Hollywood pictures, 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire, but was still considered more of a top model than an actress, and Laura San Giacomo, who had recently graduated from the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh and would be making her feature debut. Moving on to Los Angeles, Soderbergh and Aquila would cast James Spader, who had made a name for himself as a mostly bad guy in 80s teen movies like Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero, but had never been the lead in a drama like this. At Spader’s suggestion, the pair met with Peter Gallagher, who was supposed to become a star nearly a decade earlier from his starring role in Taylor Hackford’s The Idolmaker, but had mostly been playing supporting roles in television shows and movies for most of the decade.
In order to keep the budget down, Soderbergh, the producers, cinematographer Walt Lloyd and the four main cast members agreed to get paid their guild minimums in exchange for a 50/50 profit participation split with RCA/Columbia once the film recouped its costs.
The production would spend a week in rehearsals in Baton Rouge, before the thirty day shoot began on August 1st, 1988. On most days, the shoot was unbearable for many, as temperatures would reach as high as 110 degrees outside, but there were a couple days lost to what cinematographer Lloyd said was “biblical rains.” But the shoot completed as scheduled, and Soderbergh got to the task of editing right away. He knew he only had about eight weeks to get a cut ready if the film was going to be submitted to the 1989 U.S. Film Festival, now better known as Sundance. He did get a temporary cut of the film ready for submission, with a not quite final sound mix, and the film was accepted to the festival. It would make its world premiere on January 25th, 1989, in Park City UT, and as soon as the first screening was completed, the bids from distributors came rolling in. Larry Estes, the head of RCA/Columbia Home Video, would field more than a dozen submissions before the end of the night, but only one distributor was ready to make a deal right then and there.
Bob Weinstein wasn’t totally sold on the film, but he loved the ending, and he loved that the word “sex” not only was in the title but lead the title. He knew that title alone would sell the movie. Harvey, who was still in New York the next morning, called Estes to make an appointment to meet in 24 hours. When he and Estes met, he brought with him three poster mockups the marketing department had prepared, and told Estes he wasn’t going to go back to New York until he had a contract signed, and vowed to beat any other deal offered by $100,000. Island Pictures, who had made their name releasing movies like Stop Making Sense, Kiss of the Spider-Woman, The Trip to Bountiful and She’s Gotta Have It, offered $1m for the distribution rights, plus a 30% distribution fee and a guaranteed $1m prints and advertising budget. Estes called Harvey up and told him what it would take to make the deal. $1.1m for the distribution rights, which needed to paid up front, a $1m P&A budget, to be put in escrow upon the signing of the contract until the film was released, a 30% distribution fee, no cutting of the film whatsoever once Soderbergh turns in his final cut, they would need to provide financial information for the films costs and returns once a month because of the profit participation contracts, and the Weinsteins would have to hire Ira Deutchman, who had spent nearly 15 years in the independent film world, doing marketing for Cinema 5, co-founding United Artists Classics, and co-founding Cinecom Pictures before opening his own company to act as a producers rep and marketer. And the Weinsteins would not only have to do exactly what Deutchman wanted, they’d have to pay for his services too.
The contract was signed a few weeks later.
The first move Miramax would make was to get Soderbergh’s final cut of the film entered into the Cannes Film Festival, where it would be accepted to compete in the main competition. Which you kind of already know what happened, because that’s what I lead with. The film would win the Palme D’Or, and Spader would be awarded the festival’s award for Best Actor. It was very rare at the time, and really still is, for any film to be awarded more than one prize, so winning two was really a coup for the film and for Miramax, especially when many critics attending the festival felt Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was the better film.
In March, Miramax expected the film to make around $5-10m, which would net the company a small profit on the film. After Cannes, they were hopeful for a $15m gross.
They never expected what would happen next.
On August 4th, sex, lies, and videotape would open on four screens, at the Cinema Studio in New York City, and at the AMC Century 14, the Cineplex Beverly Center 13 and the Mann Westwood 4 in Los Angeles. Three prime theatres and the best they could do in one of the then most competitive zones in all America. Remember, it’s still the Summer 1989 movie season, filled with hits like Batman, Dead Poets Society, Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Lethal Weapon 2, Parenthood, Turner & Hooch, and When Harry Met Sally. An independent distributor even getting one screen at the least attractive theatre in Westwood was a major get. And despite the fact that this movie wasn’t really a summertime movie per se, the film would gross an incredible $156k in its first weekend from just these four theatres. Its nearly $40k per screen average would be 5x higher than the next closest film, Parenthood.
In its second weekend, the film would expand to 28 theatres, and would bring in over $600k in ticket sales, its per screen average of $21,527 nearly triple its closest competitor, Parenthood again. The company would keep spending small, as it slowly expanded the film each successive week. Forty theatres in its third week, and 101 in its fourth. The numbers held strong, and in its fifth week, Labor Day weekend, the film would have its first big expansion, playing in 347 theatres. The film would enter the top ten for the first time, despite playing in 500 to 1500 fewer theatres than the other films in the top ten. In its ninth weekend, the film would expand to its biggest screen count, 534, before slowly drawing down as the other major Oscar contenders started their theatrical runs. The film would continue to play through the Oscar season of 1989, and when it finally left theatres in May 1989, its final gross would be an astounding $24.7m.
Now, remember a few moments ago when I said that Miramax needed to provide financial statements every month for the profit participation contracts of Soderbergh, the producers, the cinematographer and the four lead actors? The film was so profitable for everyone so quickly that RCA/Columbia made its first profit participation payouts on October 17th, barely ten weeks after the film’s opening.
That same week, Soderbergh also made what was at the time the largest deal with a book publisher for the writer/director’s annotated version of the screenplay, which would also include his notes created during the creation of the film. That $75,000 deal would be more than he got paid to make the movie as the writer and the director and the editor, not counting the profit participation checks.
During the awards season, sex, lies, and videotape was considered to be one of the Oscars front runners for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and at least two acting nominations. The film would be nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress by the Golden Globes, and it would win the Spirit Awards for Best Picture, Soderbergh for Best Director, McDowell for Best Actress, and San Giacomo for Best Supporting Actress. But when the Academy Award nominations were announced, the film would only receive one nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. The same total and category as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which many people also felt had a chance for a Best Picture and Best Director nomination. Both films would lose out to Tom Shulman’s screenplay for Dead Poet’s Society.
The success of sex, lies, and videotape would launch Steven Soderbergh into one of the quirkiest Hollywood careers ever seen, including becoming the first and only director ever to be nominated twice for Best Director in the same year by the Motion Picture Academy, the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America, in 2001 for directing Erin Brockovich and Traffic. He would win the Oscar for directing Traffic.
Lost in the excitement of sex, lies, and videotape was The Little Thief, a French movie that had an unfortunate start as the screenplay François Truffaut was working on when he passed away in 1984 at the age of just 52.
Directed by Claude Miller, whose principal mentor was Truffaut, The Little Thief starred seventeen year old Charlotte Gainsbourg as Janine, a young woman in post-World War II France who commits a series of larcenies to support her dreams of becoming wealthy.
The film was a modest success in France when it opened in December 1988, but its American release date of August 25th, 1989, was set months in advance. So when it was obvious sex, lies, and videotape was going to be a bigger hit than they originally anticipated, it was too late for Miramax to pause the release of The Little Thief.
Opening at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York City, and buoyed by favorable reviews from every major critic in town, The Little Thief would see $39,931 worth of ticket sales in its first seven days, setting a new house record at the theatre for the year. In its second week, the gross would only drop $47. For the entire week. And when it opened at the Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, its opening week gross of $30,654 would also set a new house record for the year.
The film would expand slowly but surely over the next several weeks, often in single screen playdates in major markets, but it would never play on more than twenty-four screens in any given week. And after four months in theatres, The Little Thief, the last movie created one of the greatest film writers the world had ever seen, would only gross $1.056m in the United States.
The next three releases from Miramax were all sent out under the Millimeter Films banner.
The first, a supernatural erotic drama called The Girl in a Swing, was about an English antiques dealer who travels to Copenhagen where he meets and falls in love with a mysterious German-born secretary, whom he marries, only to discover a darker side to his new bride. Rupert Frazer, who played Christian Bale’s dad in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, plays the antique dealer, while Meg Tilly the mysterious new bride.
Filmed over a five week schedule in London and Copenhagen during May and June 1988, some online sources say the film first opened somewhere in California in December 1988, but I cannot find a single theatre not only in California but anywhere in the United States that played the film before its September 29th, 1989 opening date.
Roger Ebert didn’t like the film, and wished Meg Tilly’s “genuinely original performance” was in a better movie. Opening in 26 theatres, including six theatres each in New York City and Los Angeles, and spurred on by an intriguing key art for the film that featured a presumed naked Tilly on a swing looking seductively at the camera while a notice underneath her warns that No One Under 18 Will Be Admitted To The Theatre, The Girl in a Swing would gross $102k, good enough for 35th place nationally that week. And that’s about the best it would do. The film would limp along, moving from market to market over the course of the next three months, and when its theatrical run was complete, it could only manage about $747k in ticket sales.
We’ll quickly burn through the next two Millimeter Films releases, which came out a week apart from each other and didn’t amount to much.
Animal Behavior was a rather unfunny comedy featuring some very good actors who probably signed on for a very different movie than the one that came to be. Karen Allen, Miss Marion Ravenwood herself, stars as Alex, a biologist who, like Dr. Jane Goodall, develops a “new” way to communicate with chimpanzees via sign language. Armand Assante plays a cellist who pursues the good doctor, and Holly Hunter plays the cellist’s neighbor, who Alex mistakes for his wife.
Animal Behavior was filmed in 1984, and 1985, and 1987, and 1988. The initial production was directed by Jenny Bowen with the assistance of Robert Redford and The Sundance Institute, thanks to her debut film, 1981’s Street Music featuring Elizabeth Daily. It’s unknown why Bowen and her cinematographer husband Richard Bowen left the project, but when filming resumed again and again and again, those scenes were directed by the film’s producer, Kjehl Rasmussen.
Because Bowen was not a member of the DGA at the time, she was not able to petition the guild for the use of the Alan Smithee pseudonym, a process that is automatically triggered whenever a director is let go of a project and filming continues with its producer taking the reigns as director. But she was able to get the production to use a pseudonym anyway for the director’s credit, H. Anne Riley, while also giving Richard Bowen a pseudonym of his own for his work on the film, David Spellvin.
Opening on 24 screens on October 27th, Animal Behavior would come in 50th place in its opening weekend, grossing just $20,361. The New York film critics ripped the film apart, and there wouldn’t be a second weekend for the film.
The following Friday, November 3rd, saw the release of The Stepfather II, a rushed together sequel to 1987’s The Stepfather, which itself wasn’t a big hit in theatres but found a very quick and receptive audience on cable.
Despite dying at the end of the first film, Terry O’Quinn’s Jerry is somehow still alive, and institutionalized in Northern Washington state. He escapes and heads down to Los Angeles, where he assumes the identity of a recently deceased publisher, Gene Clifford, but instead passes himself off as a psychiatrist. Jerry, now Gene, begins to court his neighbor Carol, and the whole crazy story plays out again. Meg Foster plays the neighbor Carol, and Jonathan Brandis is her son.
Director Jeff Burr had made a name for himself with his 1987 horror anthology film From a Whisper to a Scream, featuring Vincent Price, Clu Gulager and Terry Kiser, and from all accounts, had a very smooth shooting process with this film. The trouble began when he turned in his cut to the producers. The producers were happy with the film, but when they sent it to Miramax, the American distributors, they were rather unhappy with the almost bloodless slasher film. They demanded reshoots, which Burr and O’Quinn refused to participate in. They brought in a new director, Doug Campbell, to handle the reshoots, which are easy to spot in the final film because they look and feel completely different from the scenes they’re spliced into.
When it opened, The Stepfather II actually grossed slightly more than the first film did, earning $279k from 100 screens, compared to $260k for The Stepfather from 105 screens. But unlike the first film, which had some decent reviews when it opened, the sequel was a complete mess. To this day, it’s still one of the few films to have a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and The Stepfather II would limp its way through theatres during the Christmas holiday season, ending its run with a $1.5m gross.
But it would be their final film of the decade that would dictate their course for at least the first part of the 1990s.
Remember when I said earlier in the episode that Harvey Weinstein meant with the producers of another British film while in London for Scandal? We’re at that film now, a film you probably know.
My Left Foot.
By November 1988, actor Daniel Day-Lewis had starred in several movies including James Ivory’s A Room With a View and Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He had even been the lead in a major Hollywood studio film, Pat O’Connor’s Stars and Bars, a very good film that unfortunately got caught up in the brouhaha over the exit of the studio head who greenlit the film, David Puttnam.
The film’s director, Jim Sheridan, had never directed a movie before. He had become involved in stage production during his time at the University College in Dublin in the late 1960s, where he worked with future filmmaker Neil Jordan, and had spent nearly a decade after graduation doing stage work in Ireland and Canada, before settling in New York City in the early 1980s. Sheridan would go to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where one of his classmates was Spike Lee, and return to Ireland after graduating. He was nearly forty, married with two pre-teen daughters, and he needed to make a statement with his first film.
He would find that story in the autobiography of Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, whose spirit and creativity could not be contained by his severe cerebral palsy. Along with Irish actor and writer Shane Connaughton, Sheridan wrote a screenplay that could be a powerhouse film made on a very tight budget of less than a million dollars.
Daniel Day-Lewis was sent a copy of the script, in the hopes he would be intrigued enough to take almost no money to play a physically demanding role. He read the opening pages, which had the adult Christy Brown putting a record on a record player and dropping the needle on to the record with his left foot, and thought to himself it would be impossible to film. That intrigued him, and he signed on. But during filming in January and February of 1989, most of the scenes were shot using mirrors, as Day-Lewis couldn’t do the scenes with his left foot. He could do them with his right foot, hence the mirrors.
As a method actor, Day-Lewis remained in character as Christy Brown for the entire two month shoot. From costume fittings and makeup in the morning, to getting the actor on set, to moving him around between shots, there were crew members assigned to assist the actor as if they were Christy Brown’s caretakers themselves, including feeding him during breaks in shooting. A rumor debunked by the actor years later said Day-Lewis had broken two ribs during production because of how hunched down he needed to be in his crude prop wheelchair to properly play the character.
The actor had done a lot of prep work to play the role, including spending time at the Sandymount School Clinic where the young Christy Brown got his education, and much of his performance was molded on those young people.
While Miramax had acquired the American distribution rights to the film before it went into production, and those funds went into the production of the film, the film was not produced by Miramax, nor were the Weinsteins given any kind of executive producer credit, as they were able to get themselves on Scandal.
My Left Foot would make its world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival on September 4th, 1989, followed soon thereafter by screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13th and the New York Film Festival on September 23rd. Across the board, critics and audiences were in love with the movie, and with Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance. Jim Sheridan would receive a special prize at the Montreal World Film Festival for his direction, and Day-Lewis would win the festival’s award for Best Actor. However, as the film played the festival circuit, another name would start to pop up. Brenda Fricker, a little known Irish actress who played Christy Brown’s supportive but long-suffering mother Bridget, would pile up as many positive notices and awards as Day-Lewis. Although there was no Best Supporting Actress Award at the Montreal Film Festival, the judges felt her performance was deserving of some kind of attention, so they would create a Special Mention of the Jury Award to honor her.
Now, some sources online will tell you the film made its world premiere in Dublin on February 24th, 1989, based on a passage in a biography about Daniel Day-Lewis, but that would be impossible as the film would still be in production for two more days, and wasn’t fully edited or scored by then.
I’m not sure when it first opened in the United Kingdom other than sometime in early 1990, but My Left Foot would have its commercial theatre debut in America on November 10th, when opened at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York City and the Century City 14 in Los Angeles. Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times would, in the very opening paragraph of her review, note that one shouldn’t see My Left Foot for some kind of moral uplift or spiritual merit badge, but because of your pure love of great moviemaking. Vincent Canby’s review in the New York Times spends most of his words praising Day-Lewis and Sheridan for making a film that is polite and non-judgmental.
Interestingly, Miramax went with an ad campaign that completely excluded any explanation of who Christy Brown was or why the film is titled the way it is. 70% of the ad space is taken from pull quotes from many of the top critics of the day, 20% with the title of the film, and 10% with a picture of Daniel Day-Lewis, clean shaven and full tooth smile, which I don’t recall happening once in the movie, next to an obviously added-in picture of one of his co-stars that is more camera-friendly than Brenda Fricker or Fiona Shaw.
Whatever reasons people went to see the film, they flocked to the two theatres playing the film that weekend. It’s $20,582 per screen average would be second only to Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, which had opened two days earlier, earning slightly more than $1,000 per screen than My Left Foot.
In week two, My Left Foot would gross another $35,133 from those two theatres, and it would overtake Henry V for the highest per screen average. In week three, Thanksgiving weekend, both Henry V and My Left Foot saw a a double digit increase in grosses despite not adding any theatres, and the latter film would hold on to the highest per screen average again, although the difference would only be $302. And this would continue for weeks. In the film’s sixth week of release, it would get a boost in attention by being awarded Best Film of the Year by the New York Film Critics Circle. Daniel Day-Lewis would be named Best Actor that week by both the New York critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, while Fricker would win the Best Supporting Actress award from the latter group.
But even then, Miramax refused to budge on expanding the film until its seventh week of release, Christmas weekend, when My Left Foot finally moved into cities like Chicago and San Francisco. Its $135k gross that weekend was good, but it was starting to lose ground to other Oscar hopefuls like Born on the Fourth of July, Driving Miss Daisy, Enemies: A Love Story, and Glory.
And even though the film continued to rack up award win after award win, nomination after nomination, from the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild and the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review, Miramax still held firm on not expanding the film into more than 100 theatres nationwide until its 16th week in theatres, February 16th, 1990, two days after the announcement of the nominees for the 62nd Annual Academy Awards. While Daniel Day-Lewis’s nomination for Best Actor was virtually assured and Brenda Fricker was practically a given, the film would pick up three other nominations, including surprise nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Jim Sheridan and co-writer Shane Connaughton would also get picked for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Miramax also picked up a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape, and a Best Foreign Language Film nod for the Italian movie Cinema Paradiso, which, thanks to the specific rules for that category, a film could get a nomination before actually opening in theatres in America, which Miramax would rush to do with Paradiso the week after its nomination was announced.
The 62nd Academy Awards ceremony would be best remembered today as being the first Oscar show to be hosted by Billy Crystal, and for being considerably better than the previous year’s ceremony, a mess of a show best remembered as being the one with a 12 minute opening musical segment that included Rob Lowe singing Proud Mary to an actress playing Snow White and another nine minute musical segment featuring a slew of expected future Oscar winners that, to date, feature exact zero Oscar nominees, both which rank as amongst the worst things to ever happen to the Oscars awards show.
The ceremony, held on March 26th, would see My Left Foot win two awards, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, as well as Cinema Paradiso for Best Foreign Film. The following weekend, March 30th, would see Miramax expand My Left Foot to 510 theatres, its widest point of release, and see the film made the national top ten and earn more than a million dollars for its one and only time during its eight month run.
The film would lose steam pretty quickly after its post-win bump, but it would eek out a modest run that ended with $14.75m in ticket sales just in the United States. Not bad for a little Irish movie with no major stars that cost less than a million dollars to make.
Of course, the early 90s would see Miramax fly to unimagined heights. In all of the 80s, Miramax would release 39 movies. They would release 30 films alone in 1991. They would release the first movies from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. They’d release some of the best films from some of the best filmmakers in the world, including Woody Allen, Pedro Almadovar, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Atom Egoyan, Steven Frears, Peter Greenaway, Peter Jackson, Neil Jordan, Chen Kaige, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Lars von Trier, and Zhang Yimou. In 1993, the Mexican dramedy Like Water for Chocolate would become the highest grossing foreign language film ever released in America, and it would play in some theatres, including my theatre, the NuWilshire in Santa Monica, continuously for more than a year.
If you’ve listened to the whole series on the 1980s movies of Miramax Films, there are two things I hope you take away. First, I hope you discovered at least one film you hadn’t heard of before and you might be interested in searching out. The second is the reminder that neither Bob nor Harvey Weinstein will profit in any way if you give any of the movies talked about in this series a chance. They sold Miramax to Disney in June 1993. They left Miramax in September 2005. Many of the contracts for the movies the company released in the 80s and 90s expired decades ago, with the rights reverting back to their original producers, none of whom made any deals with the Weinsteins once they got their rights back.
Harvey Weinstein is currently serving a 23 year prison sentence in upstate New York after being found guilty in 2020 of two sexual assaults. Once he completes that sentence, he’ll be spending another 16 years in prison in California, after he was convicted of three sexual assaults that happened in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2013. And if the 71 year old makes it to 107 years old, he may have to serve time in England for two sexual assaults that happened in August 1996. That case is still working its way through the British legal system.
Bob Weinstein has kept a low profile since his brother’s proclivities first became public knowledge in October 2017, although he would also be accused of sexual harassment by a show runner for the brothers’ Spike TV-aired adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Mist, several days after the bombshell articles came out about his brother. However, Bob’s lawyer, the powerful attorney to the stars Bert Fields, deny the allegations, and it appears nothing has occurred legally since the accusations were made.
A few weeks after the start of the MeToo movement that sparked up in the aftermath of the accusations of his brother’s actions, Bob Weinstein denied having any knowledge of the nearly thirty years of documented sexual abuse at the hands of his brother, but did allow to an interviewer for The Hollywood Reporter that he had barely spoken to Harvey over the previous five years, saying he could no longer take Harvey’s cheating, lying and general attitude towards everyone.
And with that, we conclude our journey with Miramax Films. While I am sure Bob and Harvey will likely pop up again in future episodes, they’ll be minor characters at best, and we’ll never have to focus on anything they did ever again.
Thank you for joining us. We’ll talk again soon, when Episode 119 is released.
Remember to visit this episode’s page on our website, The80sMoviePodcast.com, for extra materials about the movies we covered this episode.
The 80s Movies Podcast has been researched, written, narrated and edited by Edward Havens for Idiosyncratic Entertainment.
Thank you again.