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Miramax chiefs part ways with Disney

On this day in 2005, after a yearlong negotiation process, the Walt Disney Company ends its productive but sometimes contentious relationship with Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the founders of Miramax Films.

Sons of a New York City diamond cutter, Harvey and Bob Weinstein founded their own company in 1979 in order to distribute films that major studios would dismiss as non-commercial. The name “Miramax” came from a conjunction of the first names of their parents, Miriam and Max. After scoring their first hit in 1982 with The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, the brothers truly broke through in the late 1980s with acclaimed films such as Pelle the Conqueror (an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film in 1989) and Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature, sex, lies and videotape (1989). Soon, Miramax had confirmed its reputation for both distributing and producing some of the most talked-about films on the market, including Scandal (1989) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), both rated X, and The Crying Game (1992).

In 1993, seeking greater financial stability, the Weinsteins sold Miramax to Disney for a reported $80 million sum. Despite the apparent disconnect between Disney’s family-friendly reputation and the edgy, adult-oriented content of most Miramax films, the Weinsteins seemed to be comfortable with the new arrangement, including their relationship with Disney’s top executives at the time, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Miramax started out strong, turning a shelved Columbia Tri-Star project, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), into the highest-grossing independent film in history ($108 million).

With the money rolling in thanks to critical and commercial hits like Good Will Hunting (1998), Life is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love, Miramax launched a major new division, Miramax/Talk Media, in 1998. Helmed by the former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, the venture included the monthly Talk magazine and other film, television and book projects. In 2000, the Weinsteins signed a new contract with Disney that reportedly guaranteed them a yearly budget of $700 million and control of Miramax until the fall of 2005, with an option to extend until 2007. Well before that, however, troubles began to brew: Talk magazine was a disappointment, and publication was suspended in 2002.

Miramax began making bigger-budget films (including Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York), not all of which found success at the box office, and (according to a New York Times article announcing the Weinsteins’ split from Disney in March 2005) discord developed between the brothers and Eisner, Disney’s chief executive.

As reported in the Times, the final straw came when Disney refused to distribute Michael Moore’s politically charged documentary feature Fahrenheit 9/11, which Miramax had financed. Made for $7 million, the movie would rake in some $119 million at the box office; it was distributed by Lion’s Gate. The Fahrenheit 9/11 controversy blossomed just as the Weinsteins were in the midst of negotiations with Disney about the extension of their contract after 2005. After a year of fractious negotiations, a deal was announced on March 29. By its terms, Disney retained the Miramax name and its library of 550 films. Harvey and Bob Weinstein would take Dimension Films, the profitable division that produced hits such as Scream and Scary Movie, as well as about $130 million to start a new film production company.

According to the Times article, Miramax produced nearly 300 movies over the 12 years the Weinsteins spent at Disney. Together, those movies generated some $4.5 billion in domestic ticket sales and won 53 Academy Awards (including Best Picture honors for The English Patient in 1997, Shakespeare in Love in 1999 and Chicago in 2003) out of 220 nominations.

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