Friday Aug 04, 2023
Friday Aug 04, 2023
Friday Aug 04, 2023
This week, we continue out look back at the films released by Miramax in the 1980s, focusing on 1987.
From Los Angeles, California. The Entertainment Capital of the World. It’s the 80s Movie Podcast. I am your host, Edward Havens. Thank you for listening today.
On this episode, we are continuing our miniseries on the movies released by Miramax Films in the 1980s, concentrating on their releases from 1987, the year Miramax would begin its climb towards the top of the independent distribution mountain.
The first film Miramax would release in 1987 was Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls.
And yes, Lizzie Borden is her birth name. Sort of. Her name was originally Linda Elizabeth Borden, and at the age of eleven, when she learned about the infamous accused double murderer, she told her parents she wanted to only be addressed as Lizzie. At the age of 18, after graduating high school and heading off to the private women’s liberal arts college Wellesley, she would legally change her name to Lizzie Borden.
After graduating with a fine arts degree, Borden would move to New York City, where she held a variety of jobs, including being both a painter and an art critic for the influential Artforum magazine, until she attended a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard movies, when she was inspired to become a filmmaker herself.
Her first film, shot in 1974, was a documentary, Regrouping, about four female artists who were part of a collective that incorporated avant-garde techniques borrowed from performance art, as the collective slowly breaks apart. One of the four artists was a twenty-three year old painter who would later make film history herself as the first female director to win the Academy Award for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow.
But Regrouping didn’t get much attention when it was released in 1976, and it would take Borden five years to make her first dramatic narrative, Born in Flames, another movie which would also feature Ms. Bigelow in a supporting role. Borden would not only write, produce and direct this film about two different groups of feminists who operate pirate radio stations in New York City which ends with the bombing of the broadcast antenna atop the World Trade Center, she would also edit the film and act as one of the cinematographers. The film would become one of the first instances of Afrofuturism in film, and would become a cultural touchstone in 2016 when a restored print of the film screened around the world to great critical acclaim, and would tie for 243rd place in the 2022 Sight and Sound poll of The Greatest Films Ever Made. Other films that tied with include Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. A
Yes, it’s that good, and it would cost only $30k to produce.
But while Born in Flames wasn’t recognized as revolutionary in 1983, it would help her raise $300k for her next movie, about the lives of sex workers in New York City. The idea would come to her while working on Born in Flames, as she became intrigued about prostitution after meeting some well-educated women on the film who worked a few shifts a week at a brothel to earn extra money or to pay for their education. Like many, her perception of prostitution were women who worked the streets, when in truth streetwalkers only accounted for about 15% of the business. During the writing of the script, she began visiting brothels in New York City and learned about the rituals involved in the business of selling sex, especially intrigued how many of the sex workers looked out for each other mentally, physically and hygienically.
Along with Sandra Kay, who would play one of the ladies of the night in the film, Borden worked up a script that didn’t glamorize or grossly exaggerate the sex industry, avoiding such storytelling tropes as the hooker with a heart of gold or girls forced into prostitution due to extraordinary circumstances. Most of the ladies playing prostitutes were played by unknown actresses working off-Broadway, while the johns were non-actors recruited through word of mouth between Borden’s friends and the occasional ad in one of the city’s sex magazines.
Production on Working Girls would begin in March 1985, with many of the sets being built in Borden’s loft in Manhattan, with moveable walls to accommodate whatever needed to be shot on any given day. While $300k would be ten times what she had on Born in Flames, Borden would stretch her budget to the max by still shooting in 16mm, in the hopes that the footage would look good enough should the finished film be purchased by a distributor and blown up to 35mm for theatrical exhibition.
After a month of shooting, which involved copious amounts of both male and female nudity, Borden would spend six months editing her film. By early 1986, she had a 91 minute cut ready to go, and she and her producer would submit the film to play at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. While the film would not be selected to compete for the coveted Palme D’Or, it would be selected for the Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel program that would also include Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire, and Chantel Akerman’s Golden Eighties.
The film would get into some trouble when it was invited to screen at the Toronto Film Festival a few months later. The movie would have to be approved by the Ontario Film and Video Review Board before being allowed to show at the festival. However, the board would not approve the film without two cuts, including one scene which depicted the quote unquote graphic manipulation of a man’s genitalia by a woman. The festival, which had a long standing policy of not showing any movie that had been cut for censorship, would appeal the decision on behalf of the filmmakers. The Review Board denied the appeal, and the festival left the decision of whether to cut the two offending scenes to Borden. Of all the things I’ve researched about the film, one of the few things I could not find was whether or not Borden made the trims, but the film would play at the festival as scheduled.
After Toronto, Borden would field some offers from some of the smaller art house distributors, but none of the bigger independents or studio-affiliated “classics” divisions. For many, it was too sexual to be a straight art house film, while it wasn’t graphic enough to be porn. The one person who did seem to best understand what Borden was going for was, no surprise in hindsight, Harvey Weinstein. Miramax would pick the film up for distribution in late 1986, and planned a February 1987 release.
What might be surprising to most who know about Harvey Weinstein, who would pick up the derisive nickname Harvey Scissorhands in a few years for his constant meddling in already completed films, actually suggested Borden add back in a few minutes of footage to balance out the sex with some lighter non-sex scenes. She would, along with making some last minute dialogue changes, before the film opened on February 5th, not in New York City or Los Angeles, the traditional launching pads for art house films, but at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, where the film would do a decent $8k in its first three days.
Three weeks after opening at the Opera Plaza, Miramax would open the film at the 57th Street Playhouse in midtown Manhattan. Buoyed by some amazing reviews from the likes of Siskel and Ebert, Vincent Canby of the New York Times, and J. Hoberman of The Village Voice, Working Girls would gross an astounding $42k during its opening weekend. Two weeks later, it would open at the Samuel Goldwyn Westside Pavilion Cinemas, where it would bring in $17k its first weekend. It would continue to perform well in its major market exclusive runs. An ad in the April 8th, 1987 issue of Variety shows a new house record of $13,492 in its first week at the Ellis Cinema in Atlanta. $140k after five weeks in New York. $40k after three weeks at the Nickelodeon in Boston. $30k after three weeks at the Fine Arts in Chicago. $10k in its first week at the Guild in San Diego. $11k in just three days at the TLA in Philly.
Now, there’s different numbers floating around about how much Working Girls made during its total theatrical run. Box Office Mojo says $1.77m, which is really good for a low budget independent film with no stars and featuring a subject still taboo to many in American today, let alone 37 years ago, but a late June 1987 issue of Billboard Magazine about some of the early film successes of the year, puts the gross for Working Girls at $3m.
If you want to check out Working Girls, the Criterion Collection put out an exceptional DVD and Blu-ray release in 2021, which includes a brand new 4K transfer of the film, and a commentary track featuring Borden, cinematographer Judy Irola, and actress Amanda Goodwin, amongst many bonus features. Highly recommended.
I’ve already spoken some about their next film, Ghost Fever, on our episode last year about the fake movie director Alan Smithee and all of his bad movies. For those who haven’t listened to that episode yet and are unaware of who Alan Smithee wasn’t, Alan Smithee was a pseudonym created by the Directors Guild in the late 1960s who could be assigned the directing credit of a movie whose real director felt the final cut of the film did not represent his or her vision. By the time Ghost Fever came around in 1987, it would be the 12th movie to be credited to Alan Smithee.
If you have listened to the Alan Smithee episode, you can go ahead and skip forward a couple minutes, but be forewarned, I am going to be offering up a different elaboration on the film than I did on that episode.
And away we go…
Those of us born in the 1960s and before remember a show called All in the Family, and we remember Archie Bunker’s neighbors, George and Louise Jefferson, who were eventually spun off onto their own hit show, The Jeffersons. Sherman Hemsley played George Jefferson on All in the Family and The Jeffersons for 12 years, but despite the show being a hit for a number of years, placing as high as #3 during the 1981-1982 television season, roles for Hemsley and his co-star Isabel Sanford outside the show were few and far between. During the eleven seasons The Jeffersons ran on television, from 1975 to 1985, Sherman Hemsley would only make one movie, 1979’s Love at First Bite, where he played a small role as a reverend. He appeared on the poster, but his name was not listed amongst the other actors on the poster.
So when the producers of the then-titled Benny and Beaufor approached Hemsley in the spring of 1984 to play one of the title roles, he was more than happy to accept. The Jeffersons was about to start its summer hiatus, and here was the chance to not only make a movie but to be the number one listed actor on the call sheet. He might not ever get that chance again.
The film, by now titled Benny and Buford Meet the Bigoted Ghost, would shoot in Mexico City at Estudios America in the summer of 1984, before Hemsley was due back in Los Angeles to shoot the eleventh and what would be the final season of his show. But it would not be a normal shoot. In fact, there would be two different versions of the movie shot back to back. One, in English, would be directed by Lee Madden, which would hinge its comedy on the bumbling antics of its Black police officer, Buford, and his Hispanic partner, Benny. The other version would be shot in Spanish by Mexican director Miguel Rico, where the comedy would satirize class and social differences rather than racial differences. Hemsley would speak his lines in English, and would be dubbed by a Spanish-speaking actor in post production. Luis Ávalos, best known as Doctor Doolots on the PBS children’s show The Electric Company, would play Benny. The only other name in the cast was boxing legend Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who was making his proper acting debut on the film as, not too surprisingly, a boxer.
The film would have a four week shooting schedule, and Hemsley was back to work on The Jeffersons on time. Madden would get the film edited together rather quick, and the producers would have a screening for potential distributors in early October.
The screening did not go well.
Madden would be fired from the production, the script rewritten, and a new director named Herbert Strock would be hired to shoot more footage once Hemsley was done with his commitments to The Jeffersons in the spring of 1985. This is when Madden contacted the Directors Guild to request the Smithee pseudonym. But since the film was still in production, the DGA could not issue a judgment until the producers provided the Guild with a completed copy of the film.
That would happen in the late fall of 1985, and Madden was able to successfully show that he had directly a majority of the completed film but it did not represent his vision.
The film was not good, but Miramax still needed product to fill their distribution pipeline. They announced in mid-March of 1987 that they had acquired the film for distribution, and that the film would be opening in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Nashville, St. Louis, and Tampa-St. Petersburg FL the following week.
Miramax did not release how many theatres the film was playing in in those markets, and the only market Variety did track of those that week was St. Louis, where the film did $7k from the four theatres they were tracking that week. Best as I can tell from limited newspaper archives of the day, Ghost Fever played on nine screens in Atlanta, 4 in Dallas/Fort Worth, 25 screens in Miami, and 12 in Tampa-St. Pete on top of the four I can find in St. Louis. By the following week, every theatre that was playing Ghost Fever had dropped it.
The film would not open in any other markets until it opened on 16 screens in the greater Los Angeles metro region on September 11th. No theatres in Hollywood. No theatres in Westwood. No theatres in Beverly Hills or Santa Monica or any major theatre around, outside of the Palace Theatre downtown, a once stately theatre that had fallen into disrepair over the previous three decades. Once again, Miramax didn’t release grosses for the run, none of the theatres playing the film were tracked by Variety that week, and all the playdates were gone after one week.
Today, you can find two slightly different copies of the film on a very popular video sharing website, one the theatrical cut, the other the home video cut. The home video cut is preceded by a quick history of the film, including a tidbit that Hemsley bankrolled $3m of the production himself, and that the film’s failure almost made him bankrupt. I could not find any source to verify this, but there is possibly specious evidence to back up this claim. The producers of the film were able to make back the budget selling the film to home video company and cable movie channels around the world, and Hemsley would sue them in December 1987 for $3m claiming he was owed this amount from the profits and interest. It would take nine years to work its way through the court system, but a jury in March 1996 would award Hemsley $2.8m. The producers appealed, and an appellate court would uphold the verdict in April 1998.
One of the biggest indie film success stories of 1987 was Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.
In the early 1980s, Rozema was working as an assistant producer on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation current affairs television show called The Journal. Although she enjoyed her work, she, like many of us, wanted to be a filmmaker. While working on The Journal, she started to write screenplays while taking a classes at a Toronto Polytechnic Institute on 16mm film production.
Now, one of the nicer things about the Canadian film industry is that there are a number of government-funded arts councils that help young independent Canadian filmmakers get their low budget films financed. But Rozema was having trouble getting her earliest ideas funded. Finally, in 1984, she was able to secure funding for Passion, a short film she had written about a documentary filmmaker who writes an extremely intimate letter to an unknown lover. Linda Griffiths, the star of John Sayles’ 1983 film Lianna, plays the filmmaker, and Passion would go on to be nominated for Gold Hugo for Best Short Film at the 1985 Chicago Film Festival.
However, a negative review of the short film in The Globe and Mail, often called Canada’s Newspaper of Record, would anger Rozema, and she would use that anger to write a new script, Polly, which would be a polemic against the Toronto elitist high art milieu and its merciless negative judgements towards newer artists. Polly, the lead character and narrator of the film, lives alone, has no friends, rides her bike around Toronto to take photographs of whatever strikes her fancy, and regularly indulges herself in whimsical fantasies. An employee for a temporary secretarial agency, Polly gets placed in a private art gallery. The gallery owner is having an off-again, on-again relationship with one her clients, a painter who has misgivings she is too young for the gallery owner and the owner too old for her.
Inspired by the young painter, Polly anonymously submits some of her photographs to the gallery, in the hopes of getting featured, but becomes depressed when the gallery owner, who does not know who took the photos, dismisses them in front of Polly, calling them “simple minded.” Polly quits the gallery and retreats to her apartment. When the painter sees the photographs, she presents herself as the photographer of them, and the pair start to pass them off as the younger artist’s work, even after the gallery owner learns they are not of the painter’s work. When Polly finds out about the fraud, she confronts the gallery owner, eventually throwing a cup of tea at the owner.
Soon thereafter, the gallery owner and the painter go to check up on Polly at her flat, where they discover more photos undeniable beauty, and the story ends with the three women in one of Polly’s fantasies.
Rozema would work on the screenplay for Polly while she was working as a third assistant director on David Cronenberg’s The Fly. During the writing process, which took about a year, Rozema would change the title from Polly to Polly’s Progress to Polly’s Interior Mind. When she would submit the script in June 1986 to the various Canadian arts foundations for funding, it would sent out with yet another new title, Oh, The Things I’ve Seen.
The first agency to come aboard the film was the Ontario Film Development Corporation, and soon thereafter, the National Film Board of Canada, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council would also join the funding operation, but the one council they desperately needed to fund the gap was Telefilm Canada, the Canadian government's principal instrument for supporting Canada's audiovisual industry. Telefilm Canada, at the time, had a reputation for being philosophically averse to low-budget, auteur-driven films, a point driven home directly by the administrator of the group at the time, who reportedly stomped out of a meeting concerning the making of this very film, purportedly declaring that Telefilm should not be financing these kind of minimalist, student films. Telefilm would reverse course when Rozema and her producer, Alexandra Raffé, agreed to bring on Don Haig, called “The Godfather of Canadian Cinema,” as an executive producer.
Side note: several months after the film completed shooting, Haig would win an Academy Award for producing a documentary about musician Artie Shaw.
Once they had their $350k budget, Rozema and Raffé got to work on pre-production. Money was tight on such an ambitious first feature. They had only $500 to help their casting agent identify potential actors for the film, although most of the cast would come from Rozema’s friendships with them. They would cast thirty-year-old Sheila McCarthy, a first time film actress with only one television credit to her name, as Polly.
Shooting would begin in Toronto on September 24th, 1986 and go for four weeks, shooting completely in 16mm because they could not afford to shoot on 35mm. Once filming was completed, the National Film Board of Canada allowed Rozema use of their editing studio for free. When Rozema struggled with editing the film, the Film Board offered to pay for the consulting services of Ron Sanders, who had edited five of David Cronenberg’s movies, including Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, which Rozema gladly accepted.
After New Years 1987, Rozema has a rough cut of the film ready to show the various funding agencies. That edit of the film was only 65 minutes long, but went over very well with the viewers. So much so that the President of Cinephile Films, the Canadian movie distributor who also helped to fund the film, suggested that Rozema not only add another 15mins or so to the film wherever she could, but submit the film to the be entered in the Directors' Fortnight program at the Cannes Film Festival. Rozema still needed to add that requested footage in, and finish the sound mix, but she agreed as long as she was able to complete the film by the time the Cannes programmers met in mid-March. She wouldn’t quite make her self-imposed deadline, but the film would get selected for Cannes anyway. This time, she had an absolute deadline. The film had to be completed in time for Cannes.
Which would include needing to make a 35mm blow up of the 16mm print, and the production didn’t have the money. Rozema and Raffé asked Telefilm Canada if they could have $40k for the print, but they were turned down.
Someone suggested they speak with the foreign sales agent who acquired the rights to sell the film at Cannes. The sales agent not only agreed to the fund the cost from sales of the film to various territories that would be returned to the the various arts councils, but he would also create a press kit, translate the English-language script into French, make sure the print showing at Cannes would have French subtitles, and create the key art for the posters and other ads. Rozema would actually help to create the key art, a picture of Sheila McCarthy’s head floating over a body of water, an image that approximately 80% of all buyers would use for their own posters and ads around the world.
By the time the film premiered in Cannes on May 10th, 1987, Rozema had changed the title once again, to I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. The title would be taken from a line in the T.S. Eliot poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which she felt best represented the film.
But whatever it was titled, the two thousand people inside the theatre were mesmerized, and gave the film a six minute standing ovation. The festival quickly added four more screenings of the film, all of which sold out.
While a number of territories around the world had purchased the film before the premiere, the filmmakers bet big on themselves by waiting until after the world premiere to entertain offers from American distributors. Following the premiere, a number of companies made offers for the film. Miramax would be the highest, at $100,000, but the filmmakers said “no.” They kept the bidding going, until they got Miramax up to $350k, the full budget for the film. By the time the festival was done, the sales agent had booked more than $1.1m worth of sales. The film had earned back more than triple its cost before it ever opened on a single commercial screen.
Oh, and it also won Rozema the Prix de la Jeunesse (Pree do la Jza-naise), the Prize of the Youth, from the Directors Fortnight judges.
Miramax would schedule I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing to open at the 68th Street Playhouse in New York City on September 11th, after screening at the Toronto Film Festival, then called The Festival of Festivals, the night before, and at the Telluride Film Festival the previous week. Miramax was so keen on the potential success of the film that they would buy their first ever full page newspaper, in the Sunday, September 6th New York Times Arts and Leisure section, which cost them $25k.
The critical and audience reactions in Toronto and Telluride matched the enthusiasm on the Croisette, which would translate to big box office its opening weekend. $40k, the best single screen gross in all Manhattan. While it would lose that crown to My Life as a Dog the following week, its $32k second weekend gross was still one of the best in the city. After three weekends in New York City, the film would have already grossed $100k. That weekend, the film would open at the Samuel Goldwyn West Pavilion Cinemas, where a $9,500 opening weekend gross was considered nice. Good word of mouth kept the grosses respectable for months, and after eight months in theatres, never playing in more than 27 theatres in any given week, the film would gross $1.4m in American theatres.
Ironically, the film did not go over as well in Rozema’s home country, where it grossed a little less than half a million Canadian dollars, and didn’t even play in the director’s hometown due to a lack of theatres that were willing to play a “queer” movie, but once all was said and done, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing would end up with a worldwide gross of more than CAD$10m, a nearly 2500% return on the initial investment. Not only would part of those profits go back to the arts councils that helped fund the film, those profits would help fund the next group of independent Canadian filmmakers. And the film would become one of a growing number of films with LGBTQ lead characters whose success would break down the barriers some exhibitors had about playing non-straight movies.
The impact of this film on queer cinema and on Canadian cinema cannot be understated. In 1993, author Michael Posner spent the first twenty pages of his 250 plus page book Canadian Dreams discussing the history of the film, under the subtitle “The Little Film That Did.” And in 2014, author Julia Mendenhall wrote a 160 page book about the movie, with the subtitle “A Queer Film Classic.” You can find copies of both books on a popular web archive website, if you want to learn more.
Amazingly, for a company that would regularly take up to fourteen months between releases, Miramax would end 1987 with not one, not two, but three new titles in just the last six weeks of the year. Well, one that I can definitely place in theatres.
And here is where you just can’t always trust the IMDb or Wikipedia by themselves.
The first alleged release of the three according to both sources, Riders on the Storm, was a wacky comedy featuring Dennis Hopper and Michael J. Polland, and supposedly opened in theatres on November 13th. Except it didn’t. It did open in new York City on May 7th, 1988, in Los Angeles the following Friday. But we’ll talk more about that movie on our next episode.
The second film of the alleged trifecta was Crazy Moon, a romantic comedy/drama from Canada that featured Keifer Sutherland as Brooks, a young man who finds love with Anne, a deaf girl working at a clothing store where Brooks and his brother are trying to steal a mannequin. Like I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Crazy Moon would benefit from the support of several Canadian arts foundations including Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board of Canada.
In an unusual move, Miramax would release Crazy Moon on 18 screens in Los Angeles on December 11th, as part of an Oscar qualifying run. I say “unusual” because although in the 1980s, a movie that wanted to qualify for awards consideration had to play in at least one commercial movie theatre in Los Angeles for seven consecutive days before the end of the year, most distributors did just that: one movie theatre. They normally didn’t do 18 screens including cities like Long Beach, Irvine and Upland.
It would, however, definitely be a one week run.
Despite a number of decent reviews, Los Angeles audiences were too busy doing plenty of other things to see Crazy Moon. Miramax, once again, didn’t report grosses, but six of the eighteen theatres playing the film were being tracked by Variety, and the combined gross for those six theatres was $2,500.
It would not get any award nominations, and it would never open at another movie theatre.
The third film allegedly released by Miramax during the 1987 holiday season, The Magic Snowman, has a reported theatrical release date of December 22, 1987, according to the IMDb, which is also the date listed on the Wikipedia page for the list of movies Miramax released in the 1980s. I suspect this is a direct to video release for several reasons, the two most important ones being that December 22nd was a Tuesday, and back in the 1980s, most home video titles came out on Tuesdays, and that I cannot find a single playdate anywhere in the country around this date, even in the Weinstein’s home town of Buffalo. In fact, the only mention of the words “magic snowman” together I can find for all of 1987 is a live performance of a show called The Magic Snowman in Peterborough, England in November 1987.
So now we are eight years into the history of Miramax, and they are starting to pick up some steam. Granted, Working Girls and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing wasn’t going to get the company a major line of credit to start making films of their own, but it would help them with visibility amongst the independent and global film communities. These guys can open your films in America.
Thank you for joining us. We’ll talk again next week, when we continue with story of Miramax Films, from 1988.
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.