Friday, March 30, 2007

Miramax's newest star

Daniel Battsek, taking the Weinstein brothers' place, has become a force in Hollywood.
By Claudia Eller
Times Staff Writer

March 30, 2007

Ben Affleck owes a lot to Miramax.

He launched his big-screen acting career at the iconic movie outfit, shared an original screenplay Oscar for 1997's "Good Will Hunting" and starred in eight of the company's films.

It would have been easy for Affleck to disown his Miramax family when his cinematic godfather, Harvey Weinstein, was forced out of the company two years ago in an ugly battle with parent Walt Disney Co. Instead, Affleck is back in the fold, happy to be making his directorial debut there with "Gone Baby Gone."

One big reason: Daniel Battsek, Miramax's new patriarch. Despite having Weinstein's roomy shoes to fill, Battsek not only has held the company together, he also has it flourishing and attracting top talent.

"I would have been very intimidated to take the job," Affleck said. "No one could have anticipated, not even me, the success Daniel would have."

In the 18 months since Battsek took charge, the 48-year-old Brit has firmly established himself as the new face of Miramax Film Corp. while shoring up the company's stature in the cutthroat specialty film world. He's also kept Miramax in the awards game to the point of outscoring predecessor Weinstein, who for years was the one to beat at Oscar time.

This year, Miramax earned six Oscar nominations with "The Queen," capped by Helen Mirren's best actress win. "Venus" star Peter O'Toole also received a best actor nomination. The new Weinstein Co. had one nomination, for best foreign language film, and didn't win.

Battsek's rivals have taken notice of his strides and admit they are getting nervous.

"My worst fears have been fulfilled," said James Schamus, head of Focus Features. "He has more or less instantly become a credible and aggressive competitor in the domestic, specialized marketplace."

Next up for Battsek are two provocative dramas, starting with today's release of "The Lookout," writer Scott Frank's directorial debut. Also upcoming is director Lasse Hallstrom's "The Hoax," starring Richard Gere as author Clifford Irving, who caused a scandal in the early 1970s with a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes.

Production will soon start on the movie version of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Doubt," and two films based on acclaimed novels: the Holocaust drama "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" and "Coram Boy," about orphans in an 18th century British hospice.

Battsek was a stranger to Hollywood when he was tapped to run Miramax in the fall of 2005 after Disney's nasty divorce with Weinstein and his brother, Bob.

Battsek had been overseeing Disney's international distribution operation in London since the early 1990s. He spent the first decade of his career championing independent films for Australia's distribution outfit Hoyts Film Corp and Britain's Palace Pictures. But he was largely unfamiliar with the mainstream movie business.

"It's kind of a weird feeling to work in this business as I have for 20-odd years and suddenly you feel like you've been working on a little island a long way away — which of course you have," Battsek said. "You realize the beating heart of the business is here."

For Battsek, the toughest part has been getting himself known, especially to the talent and agents in Los Angeles. To make the rounds, he ventures every two weeks or so from his New York headquarters to Miramax's West Coast office in Los Angeles. Between the two cities, Battsek oversees about 70 executives.

Battsek has quickly allayed the concerns of those who couldn't imagine Miramax without the Weinsteins, who founded the company named after their parents, Miriam and Max, and ran it for 26 years.

The brothers' quirky personalities and pop culture sensibilities defined the company that long dominated the independent film scene. They made their names with such offbeat hits as "Pulp Fiction," "Scream" and "Scary Movie," and such best-picture Oscar winners as "Shakespeare in Love," "The English Patient" and "Chicago." Harvey Weinstein became a celebrity in his own right, making the unknown Battsek's succession that much harder.

"He had to lay to rest the ghost of Harvey," said Andy Harries, producer of "The Queen."

Indeed, Battsek is now known as "the anti-Harvey." His quiet, deliberate style is the flip side of the frenetic scrappiness and combativeness that made Weinstein a legend.

"I love Harvey, but he's big and boisterous," Affleck said. "Daniel is polite, reasonable and measured."

Nonetheless, Battsek began answering his doubters almost immediately, scoring a best foreign language Oscar with his first acquisition, "Tsotsi." Battsek's boss, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, said even he was surprised at how quickly the executive rebooted Miramax.

"We're miles ahead of where we thought we'd be," Cook said.

Producer Scott Rudin, who was instrumental in helping Battsek land "The Queen" and is his closest ally at Miramax, said the executive hadn't let the job change his approach.

"He made a decision not to adapt his style to what people expected," Rudin said. "He's not a flash movie executive."

Battsek hit his stride with "The Queen," in which Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II in the days after Princess Diana's death. Producer Harries said Battsek had passed on the script when he was a Disney executive in Europe because he didn't believe it was right for that studio. But it fit his vision for Miramax.

Even before one frame of film was shot, Mirren said, Battsek was engrossed in pushing the movie forward. But, she said, he knew when to back off and let the filmmakers do their jobs.

"He brought a noninterventionist attitude and wasn't breathing down our necks," Mirren said. "That's trust."

Director Stephen Frears said Battsek showed a rare kind of support and patience when the editing of the film dragged on.

"You're so relieved when someone gets it right," Frears said.

The film, which cost Miramax $5 million for domestic distribution rights, has earned $56 million in North America. Focus Features' Schamus gives much of the credit to Battsek's deft marketing and distribution touch.

"If you want a picture perfect example of how to release a specialized film and exploit every possibility of its breakout, all you have to do is look at 'The Queen,' " Schamus said.

That doesn't mean that Battsek doesn't stumble, and he readily admits that some of Miramax's films underperformed last year. He had high hopes for a girls basketball documentary, "The Heart of the Game," but it grossed less than $500,000.

"What I took away from the preview was that there was an audience that will really love this movie if we can get it to them," Battsek said. "And we didn't manage to get it to them."

And, by his own admission, his calm demeanor can mask a highly competitive executive who doesn't mind playing hardball. "If you were negotiating with me or if you were in my office and I wanted something to happen and you weren't making it happen, you'd know about it," Battsek said.

Former HBO Films executive Keri Putnam, Battsek's Los Angeles-based production president, said she knew her boss wasn't happy "when he goes a little quiet."

Still, it takes a lot to unnerve Battsek.

"The Lookout" director Frank recalls that when Battsek first visited him on the movie's Winnipeg, Canada, set he warned the executive that the dark, R-rated movie would be tough to market. The film chronicles a young man who, after becoming mentally impaired in a car accident, gets caught up in a bank heist.

" 'I know I've just given you a huge headache,' " Frank told Battsek.

Battsek shot back, "I don't care. Just make your movie, and I'll worry about selling it."

Miramax Films' upcoming releases

"The Lookout," a crime drama written and directed by Scott Frank about a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who after becoming mentally impaired in a car accident gets caught up in a bank heist. (March 30)

"The Hoax," directed by Lasse Hallstrom, starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, who wrote a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. (April 6)

"Golden Door," a modern fable about a family of Italian peasants who leave their monotonous life in the desolate Sicilian countryside to come to the land of plenty in America. (May)

"Eagle vs. Shark," a wry comedy about the romance of two misfits. (June)

"Becoming Jane," a romantic drama starring Anne Hathaway about Jane Austen's early years. (August)

"Gone Baby Gone,"
a dark crime thriller set in Boston based on a novel by Dennis Lehane that marks the directorial debut of actor Ben Affleck. (Sept. 28)

"City of Men," based on a Brazilian television series and produced by Fernando Mereilles ("City of God"). (October)

"Smart People," from producer Michael London ("Sideways"), starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church in a romantic dramedy about a widowed professor, his new love interest and an adopted brother. (end of the year)

Undated co-productions with Paramount Vantage for which Miramax has foreign distribution rights:

"There Will Be Blood," a period drama starring Daniel Day Lewis and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Produced by Scott Rudin. (To be released in the fourth quarter.)

"No Country for Old Men," directors Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's book, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem. Rudin is the executive producer. (To be released in the fourth quarter.)