Mike Fleming

What started as a wide open contest all those months ago remains a still impossible to predict one with just four weeks to go as The King’s Speech has erased The Social Network’s once-thought impenetrable lead. And if a photo finish is needed between these two front runners, could a third movie, a true spoiler, sneak in? The Deadline Team of Nikki Finke, Pete Hammond, and Mike Fleming have spent recent days interviewing the studio moguls to gauge their perspective on this very close Oscar race.

With recent Producers, Directors, and Screen Actors Guild wins and a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations (a number that only 11 other films in the Academy’s 83-year history have ever exceeded), The Weinstein Co’s The King’s Speech is gaining momentum after The Social Network became the front runner by dominating critics awards and winning the Golden Globe. And with it, Harvey Weinstein climbs back into a place where he thrives, smack in the middle of a Best Picture Oscar race, his 20th to date. He won with The English Patient (1996) and Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Chicago (2002), but hasn’t been in the winner’s circle since he left Miramax and focused most of his attention on the ups and downs of his successor indie start-up. On a picturesque snowy day at the Stein Erikson in Deer Valley, Weinstein took time away from Sundance Film Festival dealmaking to talk to Deadline’s Mike Fleming about his two contenders, The King’s Speech and also The Fighter (Weinstein Co has foreign):

DEADLINE’s Mike Fleming: Explain why The King’s Speech is a Best Picture candidate?
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: The King’s Speech is a classic movie. To me, Oscar movies are the best achievement in motion picture. You look back years from now and say, ‘How great was that movie? When John Ford, an American director, put a mining town in Wales and won an Oscar for How Green Was My Valley, that was an achievement. Or A Man For All Seasons which is a classic motion picture that isn’t about today, or tomorrow. The King’s Speech will fall into that category. It’s about friendship, inspiration, and courage. I’m so sick of hearing the question of what’s relevant in this campaign. Just focus on what’s good. If you like True Grit, vote for that because it’s the best achievement in motion picture. If it’s Black Swan or The Social Network, do that. But putting tags on these movies, or finding the zeitgeist, is an insult to Academy members. And I’m hearing the backlash and them say, ‘I’m sick of being told what is relevant or what will get ratings for the network special.’ It’s ‘What’s great?’ Oscars are like Major League Baseball: as meaningful as Ty Cobb’s or Babe Ruth’s statistics when we look back. The Oscar is the greatest yardstick for motion pictures. To cheapen it with slogans, I find that horrendous.

DEADLINE: What do you mean, ‘slogans’?
WEINSTEIN: They say, ‘It’s not relevant. True Grit‘s not relevant. The King’s Speech is irrelevant.’ It’s crazy. It reminds me of when people used to say, ‘Let’s make movies in the 1960s because Easy Rider worked’. They made 27 movies like Strawberry Statement about the ’60s, and none of them worked. There’s always this thing, ‘What’s relevant?’ ‘What’s now?’

DEADLINE: By relevant, are you referring to the Facebook hipness of The Social Network versus a movie set on the eve of WWII?
WEINSTEIN: No. But even what you just said, I watch Casablanca and never think of it as a WWII movie. Its love story is as timeless as the song As Time Goes By. When Casablanca won Best Picture in 1940, maybe there was the same thing like The King’s Speech – some hip out-of-the-headlines movie that year that talked about something cool and new. True Grit is a classic movie, a Western for god’s sake. But it’s as contemporary as anything out there because of the way the Coen Brothers made it. It’s all about how Tom Hooper sees that period, and how the Coen Brothers see that period.

DEADLINE: The Social Network was a juggernaut with critics awards and the Golden Globes. How hard is that early momentum to overcome?
WEINSTEIN: We just have to give Academy members permission to vote their heart, as opposed to what somebody else is voting. Just vote for what you believe. That could be Black Swan, or True Grit, or The Fighter. They’re all excellent movies. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s about what happened before. What happened before is irrelevant. It’s what’s happening at this moment, now, and how you feel. The best thing for educated Academy members is for them to put their movies in the player and watch them again. Vote after the second viewing. The King’s Speech cost $14 million. How can we compete against movies that cost three times what we spent? And, yet, making that movie for $14 million is astonishing, more a Houdini act of conjuring than producing. To me, it’s about the words. Just like when I grew up and it was Robert Bolt’s screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia: ‘Why do you like the desert, Lawrence?’ ‘Because it’s clean.’ These are lines I will never forget in my whole lifetime. The King’s Speech is like that, and I think it will take its place alongside The Man For All Seasons, and some of the great movies that entertained and informed me. John Travolta said it best — I don’t know if he’s allowing me to say this — but he said the reason I’m voting for The King’s Speech is because it inspired me and we need inspiration. I feel the same way right now. We need inspiration.

DEADLINE: You are in a favorable position in one respect: you have a picture building gross at a time when the Oscar race is really building steam. Was this your strategy to wait until the nominations came out?
WEINSTEIN: 100%. I’ve been keeping my powder dry. The first time the movie went even semi-wide was last week when it was on 1,400 screens. This week, it’s on 1,600 screens. And by the weekend, we will gross $57 million. We’ll be higher than The Queen, and we haven’t even gone really wide yet. We will overtake The Social Network. The movie will outgross The Social Network. We’ll go wide, and then very wide, because we believe in the movie.

DEADLINE: When very wide?
WEINSTEIN: Academy week. We’ll be on 2,500 screens Friday, off the nomination. And we’re going to do something special on Valentine’s Day for this movie that we’re still working out.

DEADLINE: You’ve been waging Oscar campaigns for a long time. What’s the biggest challenge now in positioning your film with voters?
WEINSTEIN: Frankly, we don’t have the same amount of money as some of the other studios are spending. When I was at Miramax, we could go toe-to-toe moneywise. Here, we’ll be outspent 4-to-1 by a lot of movies. By The Social Network, certainly. I think The Fighter is spending. When I was at Miramax, we could get in the ring. Now, I’m going to have to get a sling-shot to knock out some of these Goliaths.

DEADLINE: How do you compensate?
WEINSTEIN: Every morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘Think of a good idea today.’ They are outspending us by a huge huge amount. I can only hope it’ll be like those big elections, where guys spent $130 million on a campaign and lost to the guy who spent much less.

DEADLINE: You are positioning yourself as the underdog.
WEINSTEIN: Moneywise? I think anyone who can count can see it. I once asked Warren Beatty to judge between Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, because everyone said we were outspending them. He did something phenomenal, counted the ads. And, not by much, but Private Ryan did outspend us. Here, it’s not even close. Anybody can see the amount of ads, leaflets, and books that come to your house.

DEADLINE: You and Scott Rudin are the faces of this Oscar race. How is it you two always end up adversaries?
WEINSTEIN: I’m revealing this to Deadline: Scott and I have worked this whole thing out. I’ve gone to dinner with him three times this week, and I’ve got to tell you, he makes the greatest Baked Tagliolini I’ve ever had, better than Cipriani. We sit around the campfire, me and Scott, and go, ‘How can those writers be such suckers and believe this about us?’ Because we’ve worked it out. I said, ‘Scott, you win the critics’ awards. I’ll win the big one.’ Do you realize the publicity value Scott brought The Reader when he withdrew? I could never have afforded that P&A. We secretly work these things out. And I’m helping him on The Social Network. I’m the classic case of that guy who can’t even figure out the Blackberry standing as a symbol for all those ignorant people.

DEADLINE: There’s a famous story that when you clashed on The Hours over whether to hide Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in the ads, Scott sent you cartons of cigarettes after you’d quit smoking.
WEINSTEIN: The nose thing on The Hours was definitely a source of contention with Scott. But listen, the movie worked. It won. Scott left me out of the Golden Globe acceptance speech that year, but I’m sure that was unintentional. At least, I’d like to think so. I’m hoping. He told me it was. Maybe he got nervous. I guess the implication of the cigarettes was that he wanted me to smoke again after three years or not smoking. But I take it in the spirit in which it was intended. Scott has a great sense of humor. I think he was kidding. He’s a tremendous producer, and I have a lot of respect for him. And a fierce competitor. But we’ve worked it out, like I said. I’m not doing a movie next year, he is, and I will take the following year. We’re going to alternate because this is just too much.

DEADLINE: Scott recently told me that one reason he withdrew from The Reader was that the movie didn’t clarify the point that Kate Winslet’s character committed suicide because she learned to read, and when she absorbed books on the Holocaust, she understood the enormity of the genocide and her part in it, so the guilt was too much. It was clear in Bernhard Schlink’s novel but Scott felt it wasn’t in the movie and, as a Jewish filmmaker, he couldn’t bear that.
WEINSTEIN: He’s the only one who thought that. Everyone else pretty much got it. The movie grossed $120 million, it was nominated for five Oscars, Kate won Best Actress and was celebrated all over the world, including Germany. If Scott missed that point…

DEADLINE: You think that point was clear?
WEINSTEIN: I definitely did, and ironically, that was never one of the points Scott brought up when he was leaving the movie. The first time I read that point was in your piece because Scott had always told me it was about the release date. He said he needed more time on the movie, but it was really that he had a lot of movies on his plate that year, The Reader and Revolutionary Road and Doubt. My deal with Scott was always that we could release the movie at that time, but there were delays on the film. In my mind, nobody was wrong and nobody was right. But it turned out to be a good decision to release The Reader on time, actually, when The Reader does $120 million, and cost $25 million, was a hit on video, sold to TV for a good price. Even though Anthony Minghella had passed away, to me that was an Anthony project. I felt custodial of it because my relationship with Anthony was so strong. I think in a way this movie ignited me, just lit me up. My reemergence in this industry with the kind of enthusiasm I have right now, I owe that to Scott Rudin. Because, when he couldn’t do it anymore, I had to step up to the plate.

DEADLINE: Are we going to see the whispering campaigns and the planted Oscar race badmouthing stories in the final weeks here?
WEINSTEIN: I don’t think so. I think the Academy is so sophisticated that when those kinds of whispers happen, everybody yawns, and moves on. It doesn’t mean anything. When we did The English Patient, they said the guy has Nazi sympathies. We weren’t making a documentary. We had a story that came from a novel. Just have the people see the film. Then they see the movie and think, ‘What in God’s name?’ And it’s clear to them that’s a publicist scraping the bottom of the barrel. And then it just goes away.

DEADLINE: When these things happened in the past, a lot of fingers pointed your way. Is that fair?
WEINSTEIN: No. It’s complete nonsense. And I strongly resent it. I’ve never done it. You’ve known me a million years, have I ever gotten on the phone with you and said, ‘Mike, this movie’s anti-Semitic,’ ‘Mike, this movie’s anti-abortion.’? I’ve never said it. You can produce journalist after journalist, and I keep saying, ‘Who’s the one I called and said it to? Who’s the one my staff called and said it to?’ There have been mistakes, yes, but never with that pointed antagonism. [In the past, when Nikki Finke has reported Oscar badmouthing about rival films coming from his old Miramax, Harvey blamed it on his outside Oscar consultants.]

DEADLINE: How did you come to be involved with The King’s Speech?
WEINSTEIN: Right after I read the script that was classical, emotional, inspirational. It made me cry and I had the same feeling when I read The English Patient, and Shakespeare In Love, and The Aviator. I put up half the money, supervised production. Everybody else was minority partners, a group of them. We put up the biggest stake and all day-to-day decisions on the production side were ours and Tom Hooper’s. We had back and forth input into casting, music, special effects, everything. Our input and advice was asked for.

DEADLINE: How much was the casting of Colin Firth because you’ve worked with him before?
WEINSTEIN: We go back further than that, and that history is a very important piece of the puzzle. In 1993, I cast Colin as a lawyer in Hour of the Pig. He lost the case, but he won my heart. We did The English Patient together, and I fought to get him in the movie. We did Shakespeare in Love, and there I had to go balls out. He had another movie, but I really wanted him to play Lord Wessex because that character couldn’t be standard arch-villain. I really wanted Joe Fiennes to have a mountain to climb, and that mountain was Colin Firth. It made it gray, instead of black and white, and he gave it integrity. Then we did two Bridget Jones movies together, A Single Man, The Importance of Being Earnest. We’ve done 10 movies together in 17 years. He’s part of my family and my life.

DEADLINE: Tom Hooper told me in Toronto there was no way he would drop the use of the word “fuck” in that therapy scene that earned The King’s Speech an R rating. Deadline’s reports have you exploring a PG-13 version.
WEINSTEIN: Well, it hurt us. I think the movie could do even bigger box office than $100 million if we could free ourselves of the rating. The rating is really difficult. The movie is outdoing us in the UK for one simple reason: the rating in England got overturned to essentially a PG-13. Mom, Dad, and the kids are all going to see the movie in England just like True Grit, which is a PG-13 film. You’re getting everybody seeing True Grit. I’ve got four daughters, and all four would never be caught dead at a Western. But because there’s a 14-year old girl and the movie is rated PG-13, they all went with six of their girlfriends. But my daughters can’t see The King’s Speech because it’s rated R. I showed it to my daughter anyhow, and she loved the movie, and so have her girlfriends. I’ve heard from so many educators that this is crazy. I believe the MPAA is sympathetic to the movie, but the rules are the rules. And look, I won with Blue Valentine. I can’t go back, hat in hand, again.  We were hoping that, as happened in England, the MPAA would see the movie in context and change the R to PG-13. That’s what happened on Blue Valentine. They rated the movie NC-17, we didn’t make any changes to the movie, and they reduced it to an R. But we didn’t get the contextual rating we wanted. Tom’s got a couple of ideas that don’t involve cutting that will serve the same purpose. I’ll leave that as a bit of a mystery as we examine it further. We are trying to find every way possible to have the film seen by as wide an audience as possible.

DEADLINE: I once interviewed Daniel Day-Lewis and, when he described your complicated relationship, he recalled how angry you made him when you used a handsome photo of him on the one-sheet for My Left Foot instead of him in character.
WEINSTEIN: I said, ‘Daniel, let’s just get them into the goddam theater. They’ll forgive us, because the movie’s a masterwork and your performance is brilliant.’ And in certain situations, that’s the way it has to be. I don’t impose my view. And even though Daniel and I disagreed on My Left Foot, I had to prevail upon him to look at the higher good for the movie. One of the proudest achievements of my career is the marketing of My Left Foot. I had five studio heads who told me it would never work, that at that point in my young career the best thing I could do is sell to HBO and get out of the movie. It worked all over the world because of how brilliant the movie was, but also because of tenacity.

DEADLINE: Your most unlikely Best Picture win was Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan. Word is that Spielberg is still smarting over the loss. In the cold light of day, is Shakespeare In Love the better movie?
WEINSTEIN: No. They’re both great. Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece. When I write my book, which will be never, I’ll tell a great story about how I got out there for that film. I called Hillary Clinton after I saw Saving Private Ryan and said it’s one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. I called Steven Spielberg, wrote him a letter, and said his movie unlocked the mystery of my Dad. My father was a soldier during World War II stationed in the Middle East, and there are things he never talked about. When I saw that movie, I understood why, and I only wish he’d been alive to have that father-to-son conversation after. Of course, I have to fight for my corner. But Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, one of my heroes. That was just me being competitive, fighting for a movie I believed in and hoping the movie would win, just like they hoped they would win. In retrospect, both are incredible movies, and in their heart of hearts, those people know I was just being competitive.

DEADLINE: Pulp Fiction was a game-changing film in establishing your company, but it lost to Forrest Gump for Best Picture. Knowing what you do now about campaigning, could you have done anything to change that outcome?
WEINSTEIN: If I could have figured out a way to recast Tom Hanks with a much lesser actor in Forrest Gump, that’s about the only thing that could have been done differently. If Tom is amenable, I’m willing to finance a redo, with some TV actor. And then we can put those pictures head-to-head again. Look, for me, Pulp Fiction is the House That Ruth Built. Quentin is Babe Ruth, he built the company. It didn’t win the Oscar, but it did win the Palm d’Or. We won a biggie with that one. And it came from Clint Eastwood, one of the all-time best directors. Go watch Hereafter again, and Invictus, which made me cry. Getting that award from Clint Eastwood was like an out-of-body experience.