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Fri December 2, 2011
Movie Interviews

Harvey Weinstein On Hollywood's Heated Oscar Race

Originally published on Fri December 2, 2011 11:30 am

If you think the presidential campaigns are heating up, visit Hollywood — where campaigns of a different sort are kicking into overdrive. It's Oscar season, and studios are orchestrating a blitz of interviews, ads and billboards in an attempt to influence academy voters.

If this season has a commander in chief, it's producer Harvey Weinstein. He is credited with inventing the modern Oscar campaign — famously beating out Saving Private Ryan for best picture with Shakespeare in Love.

He's co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., and, along with his brother Bob, founded Miramax Films. They've won scores of Academy Awards, including last year's Best Picture-winner, The King's Speech. Weinstein joined NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about the business of making movies — and the business of making movies into Oscar winners.


Interview Highlights

On buying the distribution rights and throwing his support behind the romance film The Artist, which, as a black-and-white, nearly silent film, seems like a less likely Oscar pick

"I think sometimes we in the industry have to do ambitious projects. Here was a movie directed no doubt by a French director but shot in Los Angeles, and it's an homage to American movies. When we talk about Oscars, it's almost as a symbol of excellence, and the American public and the worldwide public accept that symbol. So, [when] a movie like The Artist that costs $14 million ... has to go out and compete with movies that cost $140 million ... how does David deal with Goliath?"

On a political lesson that has helped him promote films and get audiences into theaters

"I ... grew up in politics and I used to work for the Democratic Party. When I first got into politics, I met Frank Sedita, who was the mayor of Buffalo ... and he told me: 'When I was young, Harvey, we didn't have media TV advertising or any of those things to get a crowd. ... It's hard to get people's attention. ... What we used to do is throw a little bomb in the middle of the street. Everybody would come out of their houses in the 1920s to see what all the fuss was.' [Sedita would] grab a soapbox, get up and say, 'Hi, I'm Frank Sedita and I'm running for so-and-so.'

"The metaphor to me was: If you can make some noise, perhaps you can find a way to get people away from seeing the stupider movie that week or the movie that the kids want to go to. ... You just say, 'You know what? I'm sorry, guys, I'm going to go and nourish my mind instead.' "

On whether he will run competing campaigns for best actress between Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady

"No, it's not about a campaign, you know, with either of them. All I can tell you is: There's no competition between these guys. They really aren't ... they are artists ... it's not about that."

On more competitive actors and actresses who will include the need for an Oscar campaign in their contracts

"Yes, and sometimes I've had to take out some of the funniest ads in my life: 'For your consideration ...' and then you look at, fill in the name, and you go, 'Oh my god, this is embarrassing. Come on, what person put a gun to my head to make me take the ad out?' "

On his reputation for being "brutal" — or as he's described it, "honest" in an industry where people tell lies

"Where do people get words like 'brutal'? If you sit down with somebody and say, 'Look, I think we can improve this ... that wasn't quite what it should be,' 99 percent of the time when I have to do that, it's quiet and done with great reserve. If there is a raising of a voice, it's only because it's the 20th time and it's exasperating.

"I must admit, even though I'm the product of two Jewish parents, I think the Irish temper got in there somewhere, so I'm going to check Mom's genealogy."

On the value of an Oscar win or an Oscar nomination

"Take My Week With Marilyn, for example. If Michelle Williams gets nominated for an Academy Award, it will spur tremendous interest in the movie. My Week With Marilyn cost $10 million — the whole movie. I mean, the work that everybody did and the sacrifices people made to do that on that kind of budget — it can transform the financial life of the movie.

"More importantly than the fact that everybody makes a profit, which is not a bad thing ... is the fact that if it works, more people, not us only, will make other kinds of movies. They'll have the appetite for it. Last year, when Black Swan, True Grit and King's Speech all grossed over $100 million, it gave studios and independent financiers the confidence to make daring movies and not do the same old you-know-what."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, you may think it is the season of presidential campaigning. But in Hollywood, campaigns of a different sort are heating up. It is Oscar season, with studios orchestrating interviews, ads and billboards aimed at Academy voters. Often the ads have the headline: For Your Consideration. Remember, this is an election.

And it's also a big season for producer Harvey Weinstein. He's credited with inventing the modern Oscar campaign, famously beating out "Saving Private Ryan" for Best Picture by campaigning for "Shakespeare in Love."

He's co-chairman of the Weinstein Company and, along with his brother Bob, founded Miramax Films. They've won scores of Academy Awards, including last year's Best Picture winner, "The King's Speech."

Renee is having a little trouble with her speech. She's out with laryngitis. But before totally losing your voice, she spoke with Weinstein.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Harvey Weinstein joined us to talk about his films and the business of making an art-house movie an Oscar winner.

Good morning.

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Nice to hear you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with "The Artist." It's gotten great reviews. But what was it in this film that had you seeing Oscar gold? I mean it's black and white. It's silent, almost totally. It stars two French actors who are stars there, but unknown to American audiences. It would seem to be hard to find a film less likely to win an Oscar.

WEINSTEIN: Well, I think that's the whole point. You know, I think sometimes we in the industry have to do ambitious projects. You know, here is a movie directed, no doubt, by a French director but shot in Los Angeles, and it's an homage to American movies.

You know, when we talk about Oscars, it also is a symbol of excellence, and the American public and the worldwide public accept that symbol. So, on a movie like "The Artist," that costs $14 million and has to go out and compete with movies that cost $140 million, you know, how does David deal with Goliath?

MONTAGNE: How do you promote an independent film that a large percentage of the population might not think it likes, like a film which is black and white and silent, and get people into the theaters?

WEINSTEIN: Well, it's alchemy. I don't know, you know. But, you know I know one thing that as I love cinema and I have such enthusiasm for it, perhaps it's helped me in my job, which is to try and get people to see these movies.

I also grew up in politics. And, you know, I used to work for the Democratic Party. And when I first got into politics, I met a Frank Sedita who was the mayor of Buffalo. I mean he was way past retirement. And he told me that - he said, you know, when I was young, Harvey, we didn't have media, TV, advertising, or any of those things to get crowd. And I would always have to make a speech to get them voting.

You know, people have to meet you, shake your hand. He said it's hard to get people's attention. So he said what we used to do is throw a little bomb in the middle of the street. Everybody would come out of their houses in the 1920s, to see what all the fuss was. He'd grab a soapbox, get up and say, Hi, I'm Frank Sedita.

The metaphor to me was: If you can make some noise, perhaps you can find a way to get people away from seeing, you know, the stupider movie that week, you know, or the movie that the kids want to go to. But you just say, you know what? I'm sorry guys, I'm going to go and nourish my mind instead.

MONTAGNE: You're promoting Michele Williams performance as Best Actress in the film "My Week with Marilyn," which is Michele Williams starring as Marilyn Monroe making a movie. But you also have another movie starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. It's called "Iron Lady.

Are you going to give your two leading ladies competing campaigns for Best Actress?

WEINSTEIN: It's not - no. It's not about campaign, you know, with either of them. All I can tell you is there's no competition, you know, between these guys. They really aren't - they are artists. And so, it's not about that.

MONTAGNE: Now, now, you expect us to believe that there's no competition whatsoever. Don't actors, actresses, don't they sometimes put in their contracts that they need...

WEINSTEIN: Yeah, but this would be...

MONTAGNE: ...an Oscar campaign?

WEINSTEIN: Between my Michele Williams and Meryl Streep, they're not that. Yes, I mean, in answer to your question, yeah there are people. Yes and sometimes I've had to take out some of the funniest ads in my life - you know: For Your Consideration - and then you look at fill in the name and you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEINSTEIN: ...go, oh my God, this is embarrassing. Come on, what person put a gun to, you know, my head to make me take the ad out?

MONTAGNE: Can you give us an example?

WEINSTEIN: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEINSTEIN: No, I'd be - you know, whenever I'd be - it be unemployed if I did.

MONTAGNE: Well, you'd be certainly unpopular, I suppose.

WEINSTEIN: You got that right.

MONTAGNE: Yet, but you don't seem to shy away from that though.

WEINSTEIN: I do shy away from that, because I want to respect, you know, people. I'm not afraid to give an opinion, but I shy away from that.

MONTAGNE: Well, you once said that your reputation for being - people have called it brutal, in terms of what you say to people about their work. You once chalked it up to basically to being honest in an industry where people tell lies.

WEINSTEIN: I mean, where do people get words like brutal? If you sit down with somebody and say, look, I think we can improve this and, you know, that wasn't quite what it should be. I mean 99 percent of the time when I have to do that, it's quiet and, you know, done with great reserve. If there's a raising of a voice, it's only because it's the 20th time and it's exasperating.

And I must admit, even though I am the product of two Jewish parents, I think the Irish temper got in there somewhere. So I'm going to check Mom's genealogy.

MONTAGNE: Most of us have an idea that an Oscar can make a film. I mean the Oscars like you to think that, for sure. How valuable, these days, is an Oscar or even an Oscar nomination?

WEINSTEIN: Well, let's take "My Week with Marilyn," for example. If Michele Williams gets nominated for an Academy Award, it will spur tremendous interest in the movie. "My Week with Marilyn" cost $10 million, you know, the whole movie. I mean the work that everybody did and the sacrifices people made to do that on that kind of budget, it can transform the financial life of the movie.

And more importantly than the fact that everybody makes a profit, which is not a bad thing - that's a good thing - is the fact that if it works, more people, not us only, will make other kinds of movies. They'll have the appetite for it.

Last year when "Black Swan," "True Grit" and "King's Speech" all grossed over $100 million, it gave studios and independent financiers the confidence to make daring movies. You know, and not do the same old you-know-what.

MONTAGNE: Harvey Weinstein, thank you very much for joining us.

WEINSTEIN: Thank you - pleasure.

INSKEEP: What was that word he was fishing for? Harvey Weinstein is co-chairman of the Weinstein Company.

It's morning edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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