Since establishing The Weinstein Company from the ashes of his Miramax brand in 2005, Harvey Weinstein has continued to use the awards season to the benefit of his film releases. It was bumpy going at first with failed attempts like “Bobby” and “The Great Debaters,” but with 2008's “The Reader,” things finally started to pick back up. Eight Best Picture nominations and two back-to-back wins later, he's out in front with another project right in his wheelhouse: “The Imitation Game.”
The Alan Turing biopic, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, landed eight Oscar nominations in January and has grossed $134 million worldwide. And it's adding theaters still, using the fuel of the circuit to stoke the fire at the box office. Meanwhile, Weinstein has turned up the heat on the campaign surrounding the film, calling for recognition of issues inherent in the material, as he's done with everything from “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Philomena” to “My Left Foot” and “The Thin Blue Line” in the past.
It's paying off for audience awareness, but will it pay off at the Academy Awards, too? He sure seems confident that it will. Read through the back and forth below for his thoughts on sticking up for films like “American Sniper” and “Selma,” observing the boom of an awards season cottage industry and a couple of Oscar predictions of his own.
“The Imitation Game” is now playing in theaters.
HitFix: First off, congratulations on positioning this film as another hit. I remember reading the script back when it topped The Blacklist and the buzz around it. Your interest in the project started very early, correct?
Harvey Weinstein: Yes. One of the executives in my London office, Negeen Yazdi, was really passionate about it and lit all our fires, and mine, too. It was a great subject matter and it's devastating that you find a piece of history that quite honestly, until I started reading about it, I had no idea that this story even existed. I knew about Enigma, I just didn't know the details of Turing.
Is that something that lights your fire in general, educating audiences on history through films?
I think that for me that fascination with true life characters in movies probably started when I did “My Left Foot” with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Sheridan almost 25 years ago. I had no idea. I did not know the story of Christie Brown until I read it and was amazed at where you could take a true story. I always say that my fascinations in movies are these incredible true life stories, and then again they're also creative process stories. And then I love, like, Quentin's movies, so I get to do a variety of things and I like that.
You showed a lot of faith dropping $7 million on this at the European Film Market, considering there wasn't a complete film yet and, on these shores anyway, some unproven talent at the helm. Why is that?
I think first of all I loved [Morten Tyldum's last film] “Headhunters,” so that was faith. And then number two, I got to watch a few minutes of footage of Benedict and Keira and I just thought they had the right tone. I think you could read this script, as we had, and if you just didn't have an actor who skirted the line between being incredibly unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time, the movie is a disaster. The great thing about Benedict is he can thread the needle and put that through the movie in ways that other actors can't. And I watched Keira's performance and I think it's one of her most exceptional, if not the most exceptional, how she's playing nobody's fool. I mean it was a truly modern woman dealing with the reality of a different time period. So it really was watching them that convinced me that, the scenes I saw, they could probably do the whole thing brilliantly and that Morten had it well under hand, which he did.
I've seen a couple of interviews lately where you've been sticking up for “American Sniper” and it seems like this year the issue of historical accuracy in films is really blowing up. Has it felt like it's jumped the shark for you at all, that there's too much discussion about historical accuracy in films?
Every once in a while I wish somebody would stick up for me, but it doesn't seem to be the case! They let me go unrewarded in this situation. Like, I don't hear, “Wow, the people from 'Selma' stood up for Harvey,” or the people from “American Sniper” say, “Wow, 'The Imitation Game' is pretty amazing, too.” So anyhow, my love of movies trumps all. My mom told me a long time ago, don't look for rewards when you say something nice, just do it because you like it. But I do think it's ironic sometimes. But nonetheless, look, I think “American Sniper” has taken a bunch of unfair shots and so has “Selma.” And I think so has “The Imitation Game.” Just do the research. It's just so sexy to just attack and I think that me going out there and saying, “Hey, it's sexy to attack,” hopefully Clint [Eastwood] will say the same thing about three other movies and Ava [DuVernay] will say something, too. And I mean, you talk about diversity, there's no question that you have to put “The Imitation Game” in that category, too.
Look, it's back and forth; it's how the pendulum works and what can we say? I mean it's just part of what we do. In the case of “The Imitation Game,” the criticism was based on the New York Review of Books article. And then when we did the research on that article, it was so unresearched. It was like, “Let's throw a bomb in the room,” and then you cannot believe the people who buy into it, like, respected columnists – people who are first class at what they do. Because it's in the New York Review of Books it's like, “Oh my God, it must be gospel.” Then we find out that the reporter didn't know about an interview that took place in 1930 where Alan Turing talks about his fascination with the Snow White syndrome, which was the suicide, the apple, the razor, the whole thing. Wow. Talk about leaving – I used to have guys who were in high school who used to say, “I'm going to prove my point and leave stuff like that out on a paper,” and the teacher would catch us, whatever, and we'd be sitting with a dunce cap on our head all day. So here's the New York Review of Books. It shook my faith in the system to discover that big, gaping hole.
What about the umbrage taken, particularly in the UK, with the idea of dramatically positioning Turing as someone whose actions – not turning in a spy – make him a traitor? Do they have a point?
Eventually he admitted what was going on and realized that they knew what was going on and they set up that guy. So he came to terms with it [in the film]. It wasn't like he spent the entire war not saying it. It was a matter of months and he came clean. He was in a situation where he was being blackmailed. And the greater good is Turing cracking the code. Let's face it, the Russians were our allies. So it wasn't like he was harboring a German spy. He was harboring a Russian spy who was on our side. I mean, looking back through the eyes of Communism and whatever that meant, whatever that's supposed to mean, whatever that still means and was he harboring an ally or was he harboring the enemy – were the Russians the enemy? They were allies. It seemed to be at the time that this happened about a million Russians lost their lives in Stalingrad and they were fighting, I believe, the Germans. So I think it's a thin ice argument.
What I find interesting is this movement by Stephen Fry and Benedict in London. I think there's over 100,000 petitions now [calling for the pardon of 49,000 British men persecuted for homosexuality in the 1950s]. I don't know when they're going to turn them in, but everybody who signs that petition is major. There's no delineation. I think there's people who want diversity, who are rallying to “The Imitation Game.” And I love when people say that we're playing “the gay card.” The gay card has been in the movie from day one. No one's been hiding from anything.
In fact the film has been accused of skirting the issue of homosexuality, too.
Whatever. I guess we can't please everybody! But we went from “Bully” to “Paris is Burning” to “The Crying Game,” you know? We won every award there is in the area of diversity, filmmakers from Miramax to The Weinstein Company. What are they saying, we're Johnny-come-new to this issue? Or is it just the story of the moment that “he's playing the gay card?” It's ridiculous. I mean we've been playing the truth card and never hidden what this movie is about because it's got so many different levels to it. But I think that in a way the argument that these guys have put forth, and Benedict has been saying this for a year and Stephen Fry and some of the others in England – that's what movies do sometimes. That's what movies have done since “Gentleman's Agreement.” So many movies. I mean that's kind of, like, one of the great benefits about making great movies about important subject matter. It can change the world. “Bully,” that documentary that we did, changed so many schools. So many things happened. I watched “Fed Up,” that the guys from RADiUS did about sugar and people's diets and I see kids at school and my own kids reacting to that in such a positive way.
I've always known when we were going to win for Best Picture and I feel the same way with “The Imitation Game.” You can ask anybody in my company. They told me I was crazy, right after we lost the Golden Globe to “The Social Network,” I said, “We're going to win the Oscar [for “The King's Speech”]. And I felt that way with “The Artist. The guys at Wild Bunch, Vincent Maraval, will tell you, from the minute I saw the movie before Cannes I said, “This will win.” I feel now that “The Imitation Game” all of a sudden has the momentum. I think people are starting to say, “Well wait a second. What is the best achievement in motion pictures? What is a movie that has all of it? Yes, “Birdman” has got some great things and “Boyhood” has got great things and “Theory” has got great things and all these movies have great things. But I start to hear people saying “The Imitation Game” has a great issue, an important movie, great acting, you know, great achievement, a $15 million budget that looks like a $50 million movie. Maybe it's not the best in any category but it's the accumulative best. I've been hearing that loud and clear and it's starting to get louder and louder and louder and I'm going to go off and predict that I think the movie is going to win.
It absolutely still seems like a possibility in a race that isn't decided. I've felt for a while that this is a film particularly helped by the preferential ballot as well. It's the kind of movie that stays near the top of a lot of ballots.
That, of course, is the other thing. That's why I felt we would win with “The Artist,” because I felt the preferential ballot really favors a movie like that. The people who want this are fervent and I think that's absolutely, Kris, where the preferred ballot does help. And maybe if we didn't have a preferential ballot it wouldn't win, but I think because we do it will.
Circling back to some points you were making earlier, you know, you do this a lot, where you take on a movie that has a cause and an issue and the campaign becomes as much about that issue as the work itself. We're seeing ads calling for voters to “honor the man,” Alan Turing, for instance. With something like awards, with a 7,000-person vote and inherent politics, maybe expecting a meritocracy is naive. But is that what it should be instead, honoring subject matter above artistic merit?
No. In order to win Best Picture it's got to have all the ingredients to win. I think artistic merit is first and foremost because we're in an art form. But if something's got something important to say, if something can be a game changer for people, if something can be a crusade, as long as it meets the artistic merit, then that's not going to hurt it, that's going to help it. That's going to be something that makes even more of an impact. Not that Hollywood gets to pat itself on the back, it's just that when people feel good about what they do – last year I think everybody felt good that “12 Years a Slave” won. And also that [Alfonso] Cuarón won for “Gravity.” I think Richard [Linklater] is definitely – I know I'm saying it against my own guy – but I think Linklater looks like a lock for director as a reward for “Boyhood.” It's an amazing achievement, what he did as a director. I don't think anybody questions that. I've always thought of the best movie of the year as “the best achievement in motion pictures.” So I don't know, I just think sometimes when somebody has it all, that's what happens. What changed was independent films. It used to be these giant epics would win, mostly because they had more people who were Academy members, either in the cast or behind the camera. And that's now what makes the Academy Awards so exciting, too, is the fact that you can be transcendent.
Speaking of awards, obviously you've built a lot of your success on being able to use the Oscar season as part of your business model and after all these years, it has become a bit of a cottage industry. I'm curious about your thoughts on that and how that part of the industry has grown to what it is. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Is it a mixed bag?
What could be wrong with an industry that honors merit? Do you know what I'm saying? I'm so pleased because normally we're about our lowest common denominator. We make movies for the four quadrants, so to speak, and we have to dumb stuff down. For what reason, I have no idea, because when you look at an Academy season, you watch “The Imitation Game” gross $100 million, whatever, you just say, “You've got to be kidding me.” Or you watch “The King's Speech” do $140 million. It's harder to do quality films than it is to do those other movies. This I assure you. It's the hardest thing you can do in this industry and there are many people who do it well. My so-called competition – I don't even feel that way about them. I'm proud of them. I'm proud of those companies, the Fox Searchlights, the Sony Classics. We have the occasional dust-up over buying a movie at Sundance, but these people are super committed to great, quality filmmaking. But most of the time, honestly, in Hollywood, in the movie industry, we're not committed to that.
It's like there's a season called the Oscar season where all of a sudden we take a pause and all of a sudden it's about honoring something. People feel good about their work and people who are actors pour their heart and soul in, sometimes for very little financial reward. What's wrong with that? Why can it not only be in February and January? Why can't it be in April and August and September? But it's not. It's just not. And at least every time this happens it just makes an engine that could, or shouldn't, by rules, war. And I am for empowering that and it's been an economic model that's fed the people who work in my company. I am proud of that. I am proud of the economics, that we can take these movies and make them work. And we've made our share of commercial movies, too. It is easier to make those movies work. So easy. It's TV spots. It's not that much publicity. It's blasting a high concept and being as entertaining as possible, but even if they're not that good, you can still make a lot of money with them. Here it has to be good. It makes me work harder, it makes the audience work harder, it makes you guys who cover this stuff work harder, and that's a good thing.
And by the way, you mentioned Sundance. I think we all noticed that you didn't pick anything up this year. Why was that?
Well, I mean, we have a lot of great movies that we've produced this year. We have Jake Gyllenhaal and Antoine Fuqua's “Southpaw.” We have Bradley Cooper in “Adam Jones,” that John Wells directed. We have “Tulip Fever” that Justin Chadwick directed. We have “Carol” that Todd Haynes directed. We have Quentin Tarantino's “Hateful Eight.” We just said, “OK, we have a great slate and unless – let's try to be disciplined and really work on the movies we made and spread time.” It's a knock on the company and there's some justification for it, so I think we want to deal with it. We want to just be able to say the movies we made and acquire we just give full-time to those and take a page out of what people say about us sometimes and say, “You know what, we have a long ways to go to improve, too.”
Well good luck with the rest of the “Imitation Game” roll-out, and good luck at the Oscars, too. You're on the record!
Thank you, Kris. It's a pleasure.