Harvey Weinstein and the birth of Miramax Films: From the April 2015 Buffalo Spree

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I wrote this piece on Harvey Weinstein for the April Spree, and in a wonderfully unexpected surprise, I received an email from Harvey himself, complimenting the piece. VERY unexpected.

“Our outsider status is very important to us,” Miramax Films founder and indie heavyweight Harvey Weinstein told New York Magazine in 1998, referring to himself and brother Bob. “It keeps us human, normal.”

It is fitting, then, that Miramax, the company that revolutionized and transformed independent cinema, began life not in Los Angeles or New York, but in the human, normal city that is Buffalo. How “outside” was Miramax? Its first home was a hockey arena. (The dearly departed Memorial Auditorium, to be exact.) Harvey—one of the few behind-the-scenes figures in moviedom who is on a first-name basis with the world at large—infamously attended the University at Buffalo from 1969 through 1973. Stories from the time period that followed—first came the concert promotion business called Harvey and Corky Productions (cofounded with “Corky” Burger), followed in 1979 by the birth of Miramax—have taken on mythic status. Yes, Harvey Weinstein lived and walked the streets of Buffalo during his man-who-would-be-king days.

Writes Peter Biskind in 2004’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, “Across the country in Buffalo, two frizzy-haired, unprepossessing brothers from Queens named Weinstein … were preparing to move their tiny film company, Miramax, named after their parents, Miriam and Max, down to New York City where the action was. … In the late 1970s, Harvey Weinstein had acquired the Century Theater in downtown Buffalo, and to keep the seats warm when it was not being used for concerts, he and Bobby, as his brother was then known, began showing movies.” They were “bottom-feeders,” writes Biskind, of the soft-core flicks and concert films. In 1981, they even put together a slasher film of their own.The Burning, produced by Harvey and cowritten by Bob, was a modest success. (More on The Burning later.)

From these inauspicious beginnings came (take a deep breath) My Left Foot, Paris is Burning, Truth or Dare, The Double Life of Veronique, Delicatessen, Reservoir Dogs, The Crying Game, Strictly Ballroom, The Piano, The Three Colors Trilogy, The Crow, Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Heavenly Creatures, Bullets Over Broadway, Exotica, Priest, Il Postino, Kids, Chunking Express, Dead Man, Trainspotting, Swingers, Sling Blade, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Life is Beautiful, Velvet Goldmine, Shakespeare in Love, The Lovers on the Bridge, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Amélie, In the Bedroom, Gangs of New York, Chicago, City of God, The Hours, The Station Agent, Kill Bill, The Aviator, and so many more.

These are not all classic films, and many suffered at the hands of recut-mad “Harvey Scissorhands.” (Here’s looking at you, 54.) But they are all of great importance in the history of modern cinema, and independent cinema specifically. These culture-defining works can trace their lineage, in some ways, back to Buffalo.

This is no great revelation; tales of Harvey in the Queen City are oft told, and Weinstein mentions his Buffalo era with great fondness and startling frequency. (The first paragraph of a Harvey-authored guest column for Variety after January’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy saw the mogul remembering his love of “Tom Toles’ cartoons from the Buffalo News (I went to school in Buffalo).”)

But the long-term effects of this knowledge—that the Harvey Weinstein was here, in Buffalo—cannot be overstated. When Harvey gave a lecture at UB in September 2000 on the occasion of his receiving a SUNY Doctorate of Humane Letters, the Center for the Arts was mobbed with film-crazed students like myself. I was one of the many Media Study majors whose life was changed (or seemed to be changed at the time) by Pulp Fiction. Some had scripts in hand, and the looks on their faces when Harvey referenced the legal issues that prevented him from accepting unsolicited screenplays was priceless. Even so, for those who went on to a career in the entertainment world, the thought of Harvey stomping down Main Street was both reassuring and a tad absurd. It would be like a kid in Wheatfield hearing that Wayne Gretzky got his started playing hockey at Sabreland. (I’m dating myself with that one.)

Harvey and Bob were famously ousted by then-Miramax owners Disney in 2005. The Miramax of the present is untouched by the hands of Harvey, who instead runs the successful Weinstein Company, a studio whose recent slate included The Immigrant, Begin Again, St. Vincent, The Imitation Game, and the delightful family film Paddington, among others. Harvey himself is as powerful, feared, and cunning as ever before. So it is quite interesting to return to The Burning, the Weinstein brothers’ Friday the 13th rip-off. It’s a fun, lovably gory thing, notable for featuring the pre-fame likes of Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. But what I found most intriguing was the scenery, as the film was shot in North Tonawanda and Buffalo. After thank yous to the Statler Hotel, Mickey Rats, and Dial Cleaners, the final words of the end credits (not counting the copyright info) are as follows: “FILMED IN WESTERN NEW YORK.”

I like to think that the Harvey and Bob Weinstein of 2015, while born in Queens, were formed in Western New York. And I think Harvey, the human, normal outsider who made Hollywood bow to his wishes, would agree.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY