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And the Oscar for Best Mogul Goes to...

By Ron Grover It's Oscar season again in Hollywood -- or, as insiders like to say, "It's Harvey-hating time." Harvey, of course, is Harvey Weinstein, the larger-than-life co-head of Miramax Film. The prestige film unit of Walt Disney (DIS), which Harvey runs with his brother Bob, has its annual hammerlock on Oscar nominations. This year, Miramax films, which include Chicago and The Gangs of New York, collected 40 Academy Award nominations, by far the most of any studio.

Its not the sheer number of nominations he garners each year that makes Weinstein the object of Hollywood's special brand of loathing, though. It's the way he plays the game. Many don't like his methods. But to my mind, his critics are sour because he plays better than anyone else.

Each year, in seems, Miramax and Weinstein seem to run afoul of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' rather arbitrary rules against lobbying, campaigning, or otherwise cajoling their 5,607 members into how they should vote. Harvey famously launched a massive lobbying blitz in 1999 that yanked the little statute out from under Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, sending it instead to Miramax's Shakespeare in Love. Last year, he was said to be behind the whispering campaign that tried -- unsuccessfully -- to steal the Oscar from Universal's A Beautiful Mind by claiming that Professor John Nash, on whose life film was based, was gay and anti-Semitic.

"EXTREMELY VULGAR." Harvey is once more up to his elbows in controversy. This time, it's for putting Miramax muscle behind an opinion piece written by Oscar-winning director Robert Wise. In the piece, Wise -- a former Academy president -- strongly pushes Martin Scorsese, director of Miramax's The Gangs of New York, for the Best Director award. Wise's commentary appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News and The Long Beach Press-Telegram, and then was republished as an ad by Miramax that was placed in the trades.

Since Mar. 14, it has been the talk of Hollywood. Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson told the LA Times the piece was "extremely vulgar," while Academy President Frank Pierson called it an "outright violation of Academy rules."

It probably is all that. But pardon me for saying, good for you, Harvey. Sometimes Hollywood simply takes itself too seriously. What Miramax is doing -- what Miramax always seems to be doing -- is generating buzz for its films any way that it can. And last time I checked, that's exactly what a Hollywood mogul gets paid his megabucks to do.

DOUBLE STANDARD? Heck, that's why the Academy Awards were first started, back in 1929. When 250 of Hollywood's finest lunched at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel back then and gave the first award to the film Wings, the entire affair was set up to generate some press attention to lure folks to theaters.

Miramax, which declined to comment for this piece, hasn't denied it was behind the Wise column. In fact, studio-marketing consultant Murray Weissman admits he ghost-wrote the piece for Wise. But those close to Miramax say Wise and others approached the studio to rebut a Variety column by two-time Oscar-winning writer William Goldman, who lambasted Scorsese's work in The Gangs of New York, calling the film "a mess." Goldman also called Scorsese a "giant ape director" who steamrolled his writers and made a film that wasn't coherent in several places.

Miramax also argued that Wise's column is no less appropriate than Julia Roberts' publicly supporting Denzel Washington last year, or Warren Beatty talking up Halle Berry's chances. As for Academy President Frank Pearson calling the Wise commentary a "violation," Miramax officials have none-too-subtly reminded folks that Pearson himself hosted a party a few months back to help the foreign film Y Tu Mama Tambien's chances for its own foreign-film nomination.

AGE-OLD CUSTOM. The difference of course, is that this is Harvey Weinstein we're talking about. And, like it or not, most of Hollywood has Oscar envy when it comes to Miramax. They resent the unit that has Tinseltown's best record in collecting those little gold statutes, be it for films such as The English Patient or for individuals as in the improbable Best Actor award it won for Roberto Begnigni.

So Harvey lobbies for his films. Who doesn't? It has been happening for years. George C. Scott railed against the practice when he won for Patton in 1970. The trades -- The Hollywood Reporter and Variety -- get big chunks of advertising revenues from those "For Your Consideration" ads. Of late, most studios have been booking the stars of their films to show up at studios and shake some hands at screenings for their films. As for the Wise commentary -- well, Weinstein just thought it up first.

The exec doesn't help his case much by the way he acts. Like the media moguls of old, Weinstein screams, yells, and lives large. The 50-year-old weighs nearly 250 pounds and smokes several packs of Carltons a day. He's driven places in a black Mercedes he calls the Batmobile, which is outfitted with four phones and visors that flip down to become mini movie screens. He can be given to fits of rage, say those who have worked for him, many of whom no doubt consider using their annual bonus to buy Maalox and psychotherapy sessions.

STAND BY YOUR MAN. Probably the most surprising thing about this brouhaha is that Miramax is promoting Scorsese, with whom Weinstein frequently battled during production of Gangs. The two locked horns over Scorsese going overbudget, with Weinstein at one point jetting off to Italy to harangue the director on location for his spending and falling behind schedule.

"I found Harvey really imposing on me," Scorsese was quoted as saying after the film was finished. "The pressure was hard, very hard." Scorsese's publicist, Lois Smith, says the director isn't happy with the publicity the Wise commentary has brought him.

Still, give Weinstein credit. When he and Scorsese agreed to make Gangs, the Miramax mogul promised he would support his director. And that he has done. Scorsese may not win the award, despite a groundswell of support for a man who likely should have won it for Raging Bull or Goodfellas.

The early betting has this year's Best Director statute going to Rob Marshall, who made the musical Chicago -- yes, another Miramax film. That's because Marshall has already won the Director's Guild top prize, usually a precursor to the Oscar winner. But whoever wins, Weinstein will have done his job. Hollywood's most aggressive mogul has managed again to get the last ounce out of the films he put on the screen. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online

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