Bryan Burrough for Vanity Fair: How Harvey Got His Groove Back

February 3rd, 2011

Vanity Fair

After several years in the wilderness, Harvey Weinstein has come roaring back (if a bit less loudly) into the moviemaking sweet spot, winning raves for The King’s Speech, The Fighter, and Blue Valentine. But his bitter war with Disney over Miramax, the crushing blow of losing the company (named after his parents) a second time, and his attempt to build a multi-media empire—all have left their scars. Bryan Burrough learns about the darkest hours of a man who, love him or hate him, may be the last true impresario.

By Bryan Burrough
March 2011

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Harvey Weinstein, right, with his mother, Miriam, and brother, Bob. During Harvey’s negotiations to buy Miramax back from Disney, Miriam asked, “Should I call [Disney C.E.O.] Bob Iger? If you want to close this, Harvey, I can do it for you.”

On a chill Sunday evening last autumn, a select group of powerful New Yorkers filed into a screening room at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch slouched in an aisle seat with his wife, Wendi, rising just to accept a hug from Katie Couric. Leveraged-buyout king Henry Kravis sat a row in front of them, managing a weak smile as his rival Steve Schwarzman, clad in a battered barn jacket and worn jeans, eased into an adjacent seat. In the back, painter Julian Schnabel kibitzed with Jamie Rubin and Christiane Amanpour, turning in his seat every now and then to whisper with Debra Winger. In a darkened corner the evening’s co-hosts, Julianne Moore, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, and Christine Baranski, huddled together.

By and by the host, Harvey Weinstein, raised a microphone and in a scant seven sentences introduced the film’s star, Colin Firth, who introduced the movie, The King’s Speech. It was a glamorous evening, and a glamorous film, the kind of night—and the kind of film—that Weinstein once hosted regularly, that is, until his last few years in the wilderness, when he lost millions of dollars and, by his own admission, his love for making movies. Standing in front of the Murdochs and Kravises was the Harvey Weinstein people remember, the Harvey Weinstein whom, despite his infamous temper and penchant for infighting, people missed, the downtown impresario, the indie king, the man who with his brother, Bob, produced some of the best movies of the last 20 years, from Pulp Fiction to Shakespeare in Love to The English Patient. Here was the Harvey many had felt was gone forever.

This, at least, is the public Harvey Weinstein. The other Harvey, the one who has returned to actually making films, is on display a few nights later, sitting in a crowd of nobodies at the Clearview Chelsea theater, on West 23rd Street. The occasion is the first test screening of Submarine, a British coming-of-age movie he took on last September after successful showings at the Toronto Film Festival. The New York audience’s reception is a disappointment, subdued at best, sullen at worst, and when Harvey stalks out into the lobby, he barely makes eye contact with the film’s director, a young Londoner named Richard Ayoade.

“It’s amazing, the humor just doesn’t translate,” Weinstein fumes to a circle of aides. “In Toronto they were on helium they were laughing so hard. These people, they don’t get it. They don’t get it. I just don’t get it. It’s like they need permission to laugh.” Weinstein riffs through changes he can make to the film, which will be released sometime this year. Maybe a “place card” to establish the Welsh setting. Maybe toning down some of the heavy British accents. “We’ll take down some of the dialogue, like we did in My Left Foot. Anyway, there’s a problem with the film. This is the process. I’ll fix it.”

A moment later he shoots me a look, and a smirk, that pretty much says it all: after all the bad movies and bad decisions and bad, well, everything of the last five years, Harvey Weinstein is finally back.

Love him or hate him, and there are plenty in both camps, Weinstein is first and foremost a creature of New York, a personification of the city’s best and worst traits: smart, arrogant, foulmouthed, temperamental, undeniably creative. At the point where Manhattan fashion and film and media and politics intersect, he is simply “Harvey,” a single-name icon after all these years. Most nights he can still be seen gliding through downtown streets in his gleaming, chauffeur-driven black Escalade, same black suit as in his heyday, same rumpled white shirt, same sumptuous belly straining at the lowest buttons. But he’s not the same Harvey, not really, not after all that’s happened. His long climb back, into what appears to be a promising third act, has made him a bit humbler, a bit chastened.

Everyone in the entertainment world knows his story. A middle-class kid from Queens, a onetime concert promoter who emerged with his brother in the early 1990s as the leading maker and marketer of independent films, Weinstein made his name during an unprecedented streak, from 1992 to 2003, when his beloved Miramax studio produced at least one best-picture nominee every year. The contradiction that made him so fascinating was how a man who produced such wonderful films—Trainspotting, Cold Mountain, Good Will Hunting, to name a few—could produce such boorish behavior. In Hollywood, everyone seems to have a favorite Harvey tirade. The time he told The New York Observer he was “the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” The time he screamed at Terry McAuliffe, then chairman of the Democratic Party, over some now forgotten bit of political trivia: “You motherfucker! I’ll rip your balls off!” (Weinstein denies this happened.)

That was Harvey Weinstein then and, though such outbursts seem rare these days, probably still is. An aide tells the story of a “slight” tantrum he recently threw on the set of a movie filming outside London, after which he apologized for “being an asshole,” at which point someone piped up, “Yeah, but you’re our asshole, and we’re glad you’re back.” Ask his peers about Weinstein these days and you hear that kind of thing a lot. Where once he was viewed as a spitting, cursing blowhard, today, at 58, Weinstein is often described in warmer terms, as a throwback to the passionate, sometimes vulgar studio heads of yore, such as Harry Cohn and Jack Warner. Having sold Miramax to the Disney Company in 1993, then leaving in a rancorous dispute with its C.E.O., Michael Eisner, in 2005, he was surprised to find much of Hollywood actually cheering him on when he tried to buy back Miramax last year.

“I think just about everybody was rooting for them,” says Tom Freston, the former Viacom C.E.O., “because, while Harvey is sort of the anti-Hollywood, underneath all the bluster people really do root for him because he is sort of emblematic of the Hollywood of yesteryear, the big, burly guy who steps on a lot of toes, who does it his own way. It harks back to the reasons many of us got into this business.”

“There are still detractors, there are still people who remember the hell,” says Bryan Lourd, the Creative Artists Agency talent agent. “But, look, everyone needs a healthy distributor for high-end art films because there are, like, two and a half of them right now. These things, these rarefied bets on the art business, have to work or we’re all going to be living in a world of superhero movies or three-minute video clips from our retarded cousin in Baton Rouge. The world needs Harvey.”

If there is a lesson to be drawn from Weinstein’s lost years, it is that hoary old bromide: Be careful what you wish for. Seven years ago, all Harvey and Bob wanted was their freedom—freedom from Disney’s smothering supervision, freedom to make the films they wanted, freedom to branch out into the thrilling new world of multi-media. After a solid year of tortured negotiations, every twist and turn of which was chronicled in the Hollywood press, they finally burst free in mid-2005, leaving behind Miramax to start a new firm, the Weinstein Company, a vehicle that would not only let them make their own movies but give Harvey free rein to pursue his multi-media dreams. They would plunge into the Internet and fashion and publishing and television.

With Wall Streeters and hedge-funders tossing around billion-dollar investments like confetti, everyone wanted to be in business with the Weinsteins. And rightly so. During the time they ran Miramax, they had produced hands down the highest-quality movies of the era, for which they were showered with 249 Academy Award nominations and 86 wins, including 3 Oscars for best picture. They had all but created the world of modern independent cinema, and if Harvey’s temper and the brothers’ incessant squabbling made them unpopular in some circles, they had nevertheless emerged as genuine legends, the last great flamboyant impresarios of a Hollywood slowly being taken over by suburban accountants.

No sooner had they founded the Weinstein Company in a sleek suite of offices above Manhattan’s Tribeca Grill than the money came flooding in—more than $1 billion in all, raised for them by Goldman Sachs. Nearly $500 million came from the sale of stock to a slew of gold-plated investors, including Dirk Ziff, Mark Cuban, Vivi Nevo, and Todd Wagner; another $500 million was available in a credit line for the brothers to use however they saw fit. Opening their doors for business in October 2005, Harvey and Bob announced an ambitious slate of more than a dozen new movies to be released in the next year.

There was just one small problem, of which almost no one, least of all their investors, had the first clue:

Harvey didn’t want to make movies anymore.

By his own admission today, he was burned out. He had just gone through a difficult divorce from his wife of 17 years, Eve; he married his second wife, the British fashion designer Georgina Chapman, in 2007. But it was the Disney divorce that left the real scars.

“Fahrenheit 9/11—that started it,” Harvey says with a sigh, shifting uneasily in a tiny chair as we finish breakfast outside his office. Release plans for Michael Moore’s flamethrowing anti-Bush-administration documentary had triggered a long, drawn-out fight between the brothers and Michael Eisner, all through 2003 and 2004. Eisner, worried about political fallout, refused to allow Disney to release the film. Ultimately the Weinsteins forked over $6 million of their own money to buy it back, then released it themselves. The movie earned more than $200 million, making it the highest-grossing documentary of all time, but the struggle took a toll on Harvey. “The whole thing,” he says with obvious pain, “it was just disastrous.”

Then there was Disney’s refusal to allow him to make The Lord of the Rings—too expensive—and its refusal to back a Miramax cable channel. By the time Harvey finally gained his freedom, he wanted to do just about anything except make a film. “I really lost interest in making movies,” he says. “I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I was interested in everything other than movies, frankly.” His ambivalence showed. None of those first Weinstein Company films—The Matador, The Libertine, TransAmerica—earned much money, or notice.

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