By now, pretty much everyone who cares will know that the legendary independent movie distributor Miramax has finally closed down. The closing of Miramax, the studio built by Harrvey and Bob Weinstein and named after their parents, had been anticipated for a while in this era of downsizing studios, and of course, Miramax had long lost its reputation as a maverick dealer in edgy indie fare. Once Disney took ownership (and especially after the Weinsteins left), it became difficult to see Miramax as an “independent.” Its films were instead labeled with the sometimes-pejorative distinction “Indiewood.” But as Miramax closes its doors, I’ve found myself thinking about how their films provided me with something like an ad hoc cinematic education, one that helped shape my decision to study film.
Like many people, including Owen Gleiberman, I first became aware of Miramax via Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, a film I happened to see several times because my religious college had overbooked the dorms and was forced to put several of us up in a local hotel. And with three free months of premium cable, I had a chance to see the film several times, to begin to grasp, barely, that Soderbergh was trying to do something different, to mesh thoughtful, interesting (and, yes, potentially voyeuristic) material with a pop sensibility.
It would be several years later that Miramax would make its biggest impression on me, though. And although Miramax helped ditsribute Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, two films I loved, it was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red (the trailer, oddly, is not anything like the film) that made me want to study films professionally. Weeks after seeing the film, I was enrolled in a Feminist Film Theory course at Purdue (along with other coursework), and many of the questions about chance and coincidence depicted in the film began to motivate my early scholarship (work that briefly focused on another underrated Miramax film, Smoke).
The Feminist Film course at Purdue gave me a framework for reading both Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and, more crucailly, the marketing apparatus created by Miramax (and others?) that promoted the film as one with a “surprise twist.” Although I criticized Miramax in the paper, that moment was the beginning of a slow realization that the framing materials around a film, the trailers, marketing elements, and so-called ancillary materials matter. In fact, for me (and I’d guess many others), Miramax had become a frame that shaped our anticipation of what a film would be (this perception was only reinforced when the filmmaker Kayo Hatta discussed her negotiations with Harvey over the editing of Picture Bride during a talk she gave at Purdue many years ago).
So although Miramax became somewhat more conventional with its offerings–I’ve never been able to generate the interest to watch Gangs of New York, for example, and have fallen well behind Focus Features and others when it comes to more current indie fare–they helped contribute significantly to the debates about what counts as independent, indie, or Indiewood cinema. The end of Miramax comes in an era when the definitions of independent film and the roles of film festivals such as Sundance in fostering indie voices are being redefined. But it’s worth thinking about the remarkable energy those early Miramax films generated as we look ahead in the rush to define what’s next.