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Harvey Weinstein Builds Business with The Reader

The Weinstein Co. was looking doomed to many, but The Reader's Oscar nominations could give it the boost it needs

Say what you will about Harvey Weinstein, the flamboyant (some use stronger language) movie impresario. But the 56-year-old co-head of the Weinstein Co. knows what makes Oscar tick. This is a guy who seemed to rule the Academy Awards for years, with 12 nominations for Best Picture over a 17-year period. His films, which were then being produced by his company Miramax, won five gold statues during that time, the most recent for Chicago in 2002.

He's at it again. The three-year-old company he and his brother Bob run surprised tons of people in Hollywood when their post-Nazi-era film The Reader, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, walked off with a Best Picture nomination. Will it win? Probably not. You may as well start engraving Slumdog Millionaire's name on that gold statue right now. But The Reader's nomination could well give just enough lift to Bob and Harvey's company to take it off the death watch list, where many in Hollywood have had it for months.

Until now, The Reader, in which Winslet plays a 35-year-old former concentration camp guard who seduces a 15-year-old boy, has been doing nice solid business playing on 367 screens and earning $10 million in U.S. box-office receipts. But Oscar nominations have a way of jump-starting a film's chances—not to mention giving the studios new bragging rights for a round of newspaper ads. And with the film's five overall nominations—including one for Winslet—Harvey is beefing up for bigger business. Next week, he says, he'll expand the flick to play on 1,100 screens. "And we'll go to 2,000 if that goes well," says Weinstein on the phone from London, where he was hosting a screening of his company's Vicky Cristina Barcelona with Penelope Cruz, who also received a nomination for her role in that movie.

Counting on Europe

However, according to Weinstein, the big payday for The Reader, which he says was made for $23 million (others have said it cost more than $30 million), will come in places like France, Italy, and Germany, where it is scheduled to open over the next two months. At least in Weinstein's eyes, it's all very reminiscent of another Holocaust flick, 1998's Life Is Beautiful, which was nominated for Best Picture as well—it won for Best Foreign Language Film—and went on to gross more than $220 million worldwide. In Germany, the novel on which The Reader is based "is a textbook," he says. "The Holocaust is a touchy subject, and then you throw in the sexual stuff, and it's really difficult."

Which is where the Best Picture nomination comes in, of course, giving Weinstein some added cred when the marketing starts gearing up overseas. Most so-called Oscar specialists figured The Reader's nomination slot was a lock for the Batman flick The Dark Knight. Indeed, The Reader took some awful body blows from critics, including those in New York and Los Angeles, on its way to getting the nomination. According to the Internet site Rotten Tomatoes, only 60% of the reviewers liked The Reader, compared with more than 90% for three other Best Picture nominees—(Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and Frost/Nixon)—and 70% for the fourth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. What about The Dark Knight? Reviewers liked it 90% of the time.

Of course, the question is, how did Harvey do it? "You know, people used to call me a magician, but it's really all about the movie," he says. "We had a good movie and we just screened it and screened it, and people really liked it. We heard the sniffles in the audience." Of course, it didn't hurt that the book on which the film is based was already a hot commodity. Oprah Winfrey made it a book club selection, and it sold more than 2 million copies. "You have to think some of those 2 million folks were [Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences] members," says Weinstein.

Understanding Oscar

Of course, Weinstein, who all but invented the notion of campaigning for Oscar nominations while he and brother Bob ran Miramax, made some pretty deft moves as well. The first was releasing the film in December, even though one of its producers, Scott Rudin, was so upset that it would compete against Rudin's other Winslet flick, Revolutionary Road, that he took his name off the picture. Turns out Weinstein knew something about Oscar's competitive landscape.

Still, he swears he didn't pull any stunts to get The Reader noticed. "Sure, I used to do that kind of thing, like making beautiful box sets," he says. "But the academy rules have changed. Now, I'm not spending what [Universal's] Milk or Frost/Nixon—any of those [companies]—are spending."

Still, don't underestimate the guy. He took some clever steps along the way. Weinstein opened The Reader first in a single venue, New York's 92nd Street Y, and his publicity folks sent along Bernhard Schlink, who wrote the novel, to participate in the standing-room-only discussion that followed. Some academy members were likely in the audience. Director Stephen Daldry, a favorite among the director members of the academy, also did a Q&A session after a showing in Los Angeles.

However Weinstein got the nomination, he and brother Bob could use a little bit of good luck. For months folks have been waiting to write their latest company's obituary. It's had some seriously bad films, including the likes of the blood-splattered bomb Grindhouse and the lame comedy The Promotion. And recently it was forced to sell off a majority stake in its money-losing Genius Products DVD business to a private equity firm that required the Weinstein Co. to renegotiate its arrangement for distribution fees from Genius. The companies are private and Harvey isn't talking, but it's doubtful the distribution fees increased.

The Reader is no blockbuster in the making for the Weinstein Co., but it will do good business. And maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of a winning streak for Harvey and Bob. Even as he spoke on the phone, Harvey was getting ready to head off to Rome, where his company is making Nine, a musical starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, and Penelope Cruz that's scheduled to be released this Thanksgiving. It's also being directed by Rob Marshall, who directed a little movie called Chicago that won six Oscars and grossed more than $170 million in the U.S. alone.

So maybe Harvey is back. Maybe his company won't fold. It's hard to tell. But one thing is certain: The man knows Oscar.

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