Indie Cinema Forces: Commercial Success

It's no longer a “secret” in Hollywood: There's money to be made out of “small” indie films. In 1986, the blockbuster success of the Vietnam epic Platoon, which amassed over $100 million at the box office before it won the Best Picture Oscar, and the solid returns of A Room With A View and Kiss of the Spider Woman proved that quality art films had commercial viability.

The box-office success of sex, lies and videotape in 1989 was further proof that there was vibrant life outside the mainstream. Sex, lies and videotape was not an avant-garde film, but it was also not the product of consensus moviemaking. The film showcased a talented, self-assured director who came (in Hollywood terms) out of nowhere to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. With production costs of about one million dollar and profit of $25 millions, sex, lies and videotape boasted a better ratio of investment than the hugely successful Hollywood blockbusters. Relative to its cost, the Miramax release was one of the most profitable movie of the entire decade.

In 1992, Howards End, The Crying Game, and The Player were all box-office smashes, in addition to garnering more Oscar nominations than the big studio releases. According to Barbara Boyle, “independent films became fashionable in the 1990s, because the profit ratio on movies like The Wedding Banquet and Four Weddings and a Funeral made investors sit up and take notice.”

When a movie like Dead Man Walking, which received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and a Best Actress Award to Susan Sarandon, grosses in excess of $40 million, Hollywood listens. “Audiences have become more sophisticated and receptive to the personal story that is the hallmark of independent movies,” said Harvey Keitel in 1995. “Even in remote areas that still don't show indie films in theaters, videostores now stock these titles.”

Miramax's Harvey Weinstein was selected as one of Time magazine's 25 most influential Americans in 1997. The official occasion was the success of The English Patient, the romantic epic that Miramax financed when Fox pulled out. Surprisingly, the movie became a big hit and went on to win 9 Oscars, including Best Picture. That year, Miramax copped 12 Oscars, a feat not achieved since Gone with the Wind in 1939. For Weinstein, “The special effects in Miramax movies are words.” With fondness for smart scripts and challenging images, he and his brother Bob hustle in movie-mogul tradition–proving that you don't need bloated budgets if you have savvy taste and good marketing skills.

The highest praise for Weinstein came from Robert Redford in 1997: “This is a man who is truly pioneer and has spirited the entire independent film movement for the last 10 years–fighting as hard as possible so that independent films get seen.” Miramax has turned oddball films–The Crying Game, Like Water for Chocolate, Pulp Fiction–into smashing hits. With all the criticism of Miramax's ultra-aggressive marketing, few would question Harvey's drive, intelligence and enlightened movie mania. And no critic would challenge his claim, “we've taken films out of the art-house ghetto and brought quirky new sensibilities to mass America.”