Thursday, February 23, 2006

New President Must Fill Large Shoes at Miramax (By Lorenza Muñoz and Claudia Eller, the Los Angeles Times)

Note to the Caption: Daniel Battsek faces obstacles in navigating the competitive specialty film business.
(Damon Winter / LAT)

Daniel Battsek inherits a slimmed-down firm from the legendary Weinstein brothers.

By Lorenza Muñoz and Claudia Eller
Times Staff Writers

February 23, 2006

In Hollywood, the names Bob and Harvey Weinstein resonate as legends.

So far, the name Daniel Battsek mostly goes unrecognized.

Largely unknown outside of independent film circles, the British-born executive has big shoes to fill in following the Weinsteins. This weekend, he is releasing his first film, "Tsotsi," as the new head of Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax Film Corp., which the Weinstein brothers founded and ran for 26 years.

Plucked last fall from Disney's international film ranks in London, Battsek suddenly finds himself a major player in the competitive world of specialty films. The 47-year-old executive is under the gun to quickly reestablish Miramax as the kind of dominant force it was when the Weinsteins released such acclaimed hits as "Shakespeare in Love" and "The English Patient" in the late 1990s.

It won't be easy. Rivals such as Fox Searchlight, the company behind "Sideways," and "Brokeback Mountain" distributor Focus Features have successfully eaten away at a business Miramax once owned.

Other specialty film distributors such as Paramount Classics, Warner Independent Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics also are aggressively in the business, recognizing how lucrative specialty films can be. Still lurking are the Weinsteins, who have launched Weinstein Co.

Battsek, now based in New York, lacks the clout of his more established rivals, as well as the bigger-than-life charisma of Harvey Weinstein, who departed Disney last year with his brother, Bob, in a bitter breakup. The brothers left behind Miramax, which they named after their parents, Miriam and Max.

The Miramax that Battsek inherits is a much slimmed-down operation. Disney is giving him an annual budget of about $300 million — less than half of what the Weinsteins had — to produce, acquire and market six to eight films a year.

Nonetheless, he is confident that his offerings will define a new era for Miramax. "I'm allowing the movies that I release to speak for themselves … and create our identity," Battsek said.

The man who selected Battsek for the job, Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, isn't too worried about the executive's low profile in an industry in which agents, filmmakers and stars scramble to do business with distributors.

"If you are a buyer, sellers tend to find you fairly rapidly — so we are not really concerned," Cook said.

As a young man, Battsek was so eager to get into the movie business that he moved from his native Britain in the 1980s to Australia's more vibrant film community.

He worked as a waiter at an eatery frequented by filmmakers such as Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong. While serving Armstrong, he talked his way into a job with her production company. He eventually moved on to Australia's premiere distribution company Hoyts Film Corp.

Disney veteran Cook got to know Battsek after the executive joined the company in 1992. As head of Disney's international operation, Battsek oversaw Miramax releases in Britain and Europe. His relationship with the Weinsteins goes back to his early days at Britain's Palace Pictures, where he handled such early Miramax hits as "Cinema Paradiso" and "The Crying Game."

"I've always considered Daniel to be a friend, and we continue to have a wonderful working relationship," Harvey Weinstein said.

Cook said he chose Battsek for the job because he is respected within Disney for his taste in movies and his strong filmmaker relationships.

"He has always championed independent films within the company, so he seemed like the logical person to see Miramax into the future," Cook said.

Most important to his boss, Battsek plays well with others. The Weinsteins, whose feistiness was sometimes accompanied by hot tempers, never saw themselves as Disney "cast members" and largely shunned working with other Disney divisions.

Battsek, by contrast, has already partnered with Disney's sports cable channel ESPN to acquire and release the forthcoming soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime," about the celebrated New York Cosmos team in the 1970s.

"It sure felt like he wanted Miramax to be viewed as a good partner for other corners of the Walt Disney Co.," said Geoff Reiss, senior vice president of programming at ESPN's entertainment unit.

Battsek also is leveraging his long-standing relationships with such high-profile directors as "Shakespeare in Love's" John Madden and "The English Patient's" Anthony Minghella to keep them with Miramax.

"He gets personally involved in things," Madden said. "It's not just a business relationship with him."

Battsek also cemented his ties to Scott Rudin, one of Hollywood's top producers, for whom he handled the international release of "The Village." Rudin, who is moving from Paramount Pictures to Disney and is making four films with Miramax, said Battsek brought strong gut instincts and a measured thoughtfulness to the job.

"He is not interested in the crazy rhythms of the town," Rudin said. "He is prepared to live with his own decisions."

Battsek's first test, "Tsotsi," which opens in limited release in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, could be a tough sell for mainstream audiences.

The story follows six days in the life of a young South African street thug who faces his own demons after discovering a baby in the backseat of the BMW he carjacked from the infant's mother. The film, which has opened in South Africa, is an Oscar nominee for best foreign film.

Given the difficult subject matter, Battsek decided to screen the movie extensively to critics, tastemakers and others to build word of mouth. Rather than positioning "Tsotsi" as a movie about slum life, Miramax's campaign touches on universal themes of redemption and hope. Battsek believes that the film can break out beyond the "cinephile" audience.

"Tsotsi" director Gavin Hood said Battsek was cleverly promoting the movie using its messy, human themes and was wise not to sanitize its untidy finale.

"He felt that America was ready for a film that would encourage debate as opposed to 'Hey, the good guys won,' " Hood said. "He said, 'We don't want to tamper with your ending.' "

Beyond "Tsotsi," Battsek is assembling a diverse slate of films, including the British drama "Venus" starring Vanessa Redgrave and director Lasse Hallstrom's "The Hoax," starring Richard Gere.

Battsek hopes to play on his strengths in the marketing and distribution of quirky films to broaden the appeal of his new movies beyond the art house crowd.

All the outsider has to do now is learn how to play the Hollywood game.

"He will have to prove himself," Minghella said. "But it's not like he's a first-timer plucked from nowhere."



An indie feast

Here are upcoming Miramax movies and their release dates.

"Tsotsi" — A drama set in South Africa about the life of a slum dwelling gangster who finds redemption. Feb. 24

"Kinky Boots" — A comedy about two workers in a shoe factory. April 14

"Keeping Up With the Steins" — A comedy starring Jeremy Piven about a family coming together with a boy's bar mitzvah. May 12

"Once in a Lifetime" — Documentary about the rise of the legendary soccer team, the New York Cosmos. No date

"Heart of the Game" — A documentary about a girls' basketball coach and a young girl who fights a legal battle to keep playing in college. June 14

"The Night Listener" — A Robin Williams thriller about a radio personality and the young boy with whom he develops a relationship. No date

"The Hoax" — Directed by Lasse Hallstrom about the discredited autobiographer Clifford Irving and his published tale about billionaire Howard Hughes. No date

"The Queen" — A humorous portrait of the British royal family immediately following Princess Diana's death. Produced by Scott Rudin. No date

"Venus" — Starring Peter O'Toole and Leslie Phillips, it is a drama about a youngster who comes to live with her relatives. Produced by Scott Rudin. No date

Co-productions with Paramount Classics

"There Will Be Blood" — Paul Thomas Anderson's period drama loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil!" Executive producer is Scott Rudin. No date

"No Country for Old Men" — A Joel and Ethan Coen drama about a hunter who finds corpses, a stash of heroin and $2 million in cash. Produced by Scott Rudin. No date

2007 Miramax releases

"Gone Baby Gone" — A Ben Affleck-directed drama based on Dennis Lehane's novel. Production begins in May.

"The Lookout" — Directed by Scott Frank; starring Jeff Daniels. Going into production next month.

Source: Miramax

link to the original

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