Towards the end of 2004 I was sitting in the offices of the Walt Disney Company in London, awaiting a job interview and thinking: "How ironic." For a company that had gone out of its way to cultivate an image of wholesomeness, I was staring at a lifesize cardboard cutout of Mr. Orange from Reservoir Dogs, a film largely known for a lot of blood, a lot of swearing and Michael Madsen cutting off a cop's ear to the soundtrack of Steeler's Wheel's Stuck In The Middle With You.
The year before, Disney had bought Miramax, Bob and Harvey Weinstein's fiercely independent film studio. Under Disney's ownership, Miramax would go on to release more from the Tarantino oeuvre, including the equally messy Pulp Fiction, as well as the likes of Trainspotting and From Dusk 'Till Dawn. Hardly in the realm of family values-based entertainment Disney built its name around.
Under its parent, Miramax maintained a high level of critically astute output, including The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Il Postino, Shakespeare in Love, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and No Country for Old Men. Now Disney is selling Miramax to a group of investors for $660 million, ending a period of uncertainty for the studio that began with it laying off staff and putting a stop to new production at the beginning of this year. What the new owners – who include includes Rob Lowe – will do with the studio remains to be seen.
For Disney, it's clear why they made this move: "Our current strategy," said Disney CEO Robert Iger, explaining the divestment, "is to focus on the development of great pictures under the Disney, Pixar and Marvel brands". In other words, movies that can be merchandised on children's clothing, Thermos flasks and lunch boxes.
The sad truth is that the economics of modern cinema caught up with Miramax. Contrary to belief, mainstream film production can no longer be subsidized by secondary sales of films on DVD and Blu-ray Disc or to TV networks. Last year, American consumers spent more money on cinema tickets than on watching movies at home. That might sound encouraging, but home entertainment has provided a valuable subsidy too the film industry, ever since VHS rentals first appeared in the late 1970s. Even with the prospect of online distribution replacing discs and tapes, the future is looking bleak for a breadth of film-making in the mainstream business.
Thus, Hollywood is increasingly relying on bankability, on blockbuster sequels and TV remakes, such as the execrable "big screen version" of The A-Team (Liam Neeson – what were you thinking…?). "Cinema," Francis Ford Coppola told a film festival last year, "is falling apart." Miramax may just be the first crack.