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Miramax exec has more bluster for Hollywood

CANNES, France -- Harvey. Only one name is necessary.

At the Cannes Film Festival, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films is the most important person, because he holds the keys to the American market for specialized movies. It isn't simply that he guided Italy's "Life is Beautiful" to three Oscars and a "$55 million payday in the U.S. market" - but that he masterminded the campaign to get it into Cannes last year in the first place, overcoming the doubts of festival honcho Gilles Jacob.

The outspoken Weinstein is not shy about describing his role in such scenarios. Here at Cannes on a rainy Monday morning, I was asked to do a question-and-answer session with him, sponsored by the Hollywood Reporter at the American Pavilion. He spoke so bluntly that he began to keep a running count of those he was offending.

Among his targets:

American TV networks, which have never, he claims, shown a French or Italian film in prime time - not even one dubbed into English.

U.S. senators who attack violence in films, but vote against gun registration laws.

20th Century-Fox president Bill Mechanic, who criticized Miramax's spending on its Oscar campaign for "Shakespeare in Love," but "wasn't heard from last year, when they spent 10 times as much on the Oscar campaign for 'Titanic.' "

Cannes boss Gilles Jacob, who didn't want to admit "Life is Beautiful" into last year's official competition, until Weinstein screened it for Jewish leaders and key French film people, convincing Jacob that the comedy did not exploit the Holocaust. It won the Cannes jury prize before going on to conquer the U.S. as well as world markets.

Weinstein made headlines earlier this year when he told the French newspaper Le Monde that Europeans should continue their quota system for limiting the number of American films shown on their TV networks. "Why not?" he asked, when U.S. networks have a "secret boycott" of French and Italian films. He's hopeful, he said, that "Life is Beautiful" will get a network slot "when they hear how well we've dubbed it." Subtitles, of course, are completely out of the question for the American networks.

"But the network executives must have already seen the film," I said, "and they must assume you'll dub it well. Hasn't at least one network programmer already approached you about first rights to the film?"

"Not one."

Weinstein defended his company's aggressive campaigns to win Oscars (he has collected 30), saying, "I don't think we should be criticized for supporting our films."

He entered a guilty plea, however, to charges that his company buys more films than it can release. At this year's Independent Spirit Awards, Miramax got an honorary "Shelf Award" for having the most acquisitions still sitting in vaults somewhere. "It's true," he said. "I'll see a film I like, and sometimes find out nobody is trying to buy it, and I'll buy it, and then sometimes our hopes or plans don't work out."

This year, he said, Miramax plans to acquire only "about two" outside films, down from 10 last year. He confirmed reports that the deal for one of those titles, the Sundance Film Festival hit "Happy, Texas," included a promise to release it by October. His scaled-down acquisition plans didn't keep him from being mobbed after the session by hopeful filmmakers who pressed cassettes, scripts and pitches into his hands.

Weinstein's top priority at this year's Cannes festival, he said, is a successful launch for "Dogma," the controversial Kevin Smith film that has been criticized for possibly being offensive to the Catholic Church. It plays here Friday.

"People who have seen it say it gave them a real spiritual experience," Weinstein said. "That's not what it's about, but still . . . "

Is it true that Disney, Miramax's parent company, objected to the film?

"Not anymore," he said, "because I bought it. I'm releasing it personally. Disney isn't involved."

As for a possible link between violent films and recent shooting tragedies in U.S. high schools, Weinstein wondered if extensive TV news coverage of teenage killers might not be inspiring copycats.

"A few years ago," he said, "major league baseball had an epidemic of players mobbed by fans, of strippers running onto the field, and so on. Baseball simply agreed not to televise such incidents, and now they've dropped off by 95 percent - because you can no longer see yourself on TV."

He suggested that newspapers and TV not use the names and photographs of teenage shooters, "so other kids won't get the idea they can get famous that way."

As for today's film content, he simply sighed, naming three unsuccessful recent Miramax releases that were made for family audiences. (One was made "for my mother Miriam," who counted 156 F-words in a movie and asked me why I was always talking about my commitment to great writing.") The titles were "Wide Awake," "The Mighty" and Maya Angelou's "Down in the Delta" and all three were box-office disappointments. "Even at the Magic Johnson Cinemas, where people were thanking us for releasing Maya's film, 'Patch Adams' was doing all the business," he said.

The Cannes festival wanted to show "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace" on its opening night, but was turned down by filmmaker George Lucas and 20th Century-Fox. I asked Weinstein what he would have done in the same situation.

"I think the festival needs to find a better relationship with the Hollywood studios," he said. "Not on a one-film basis, but continuing."

The relationship is bad right now?

"It could be improved," he said, in an uncharacteristic attack of diplomacy.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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