Brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein are back on top. With their French comedy "The Intouchables" earning $356 million worldwide, a sweep at last year's Oscars capped by five wins for the "The Artist," and the announcement that the Producer's Guild of America will honor Harvey and Bob with their Milestone Award -- past recipients have included Clint Eastwood, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Walt Disney -- The Weinstein Company is riding high after one hell of a slump. We talked with Harvey, 60, about being the perpetual outsider, the secret to his success, and his dancing lessons with the hottest French actor since Jean Dujardin: Cesar Award-winning Omar Sy.
Thelma Adams: So, Harvey, it's only July and you've already set your sights on a best foreign-language film Oscar for the French feel-good bromance "The Intouchables," about a wealthy invalid and his street-smart caretaker, starring Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy. What gives?
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Intouchables' and 'Polisse']
Harvey Weinstein: Not only is it one of the most successful movies ever to come out of France, we just beat last year's foreign-film Oscar winner "A Separation." It's the No. 1 comedy in the world. Period. I estimate the movie will do minimum of $400 million and we're only just beginning in America. We definitely think this is an Oscar movie, and we think that Omar, like Jean Dujardin before him, is in this race.
TA: You have a reputation for picking Oscar winners. What's it about "The Intouchables" that makes you think 'Academy thoroughbred'?
HW: I saw in "The Intouchables" a true story that was also really fun and smart. We read the script. The script is the key. The success we have is based on the text. I love reading. I love the touch and smell of books. Scripts I read as e-books. The script was my first introduction to "The Intouchables," and I was in based on [the] screenplay.
TA: Given your love of books, is your rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story something out of Dickens or Balzac?
HW: I fall back on Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey. We're the stranger that rides into town on horseback. Occasionally we get the girl. More often than not we end up with the horse. This is Bob and my relationship with Hollywood. We ride into town, they ask 'Who the hell is this guy?' we get shot at, we get back up on the horse. The challenge is getting back up on the horse.
TA: It hasn't always been easy. After you sold Miramax to Disney, there were some tough years. You even lost control of the company you'd named after your parents.
HW: We had 20 years in a row of incredible success and then we hit a roadblock. After 10 years of preparation, we didn't get to do "Lord of the Rings" because Disney wouldn't give me the money, and Michael Eisner. It broke my spirit. With Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," Disney didn't want us to distribute. They thought we were destroying the presidency. And then the cable channel. These three things came and I hit a time in my life where I wasn't concerned about movies. And then I regained it. We had four years in the desert, and then four years of fantastic films, and this year will be the most fantastic yet.
TA: Your upcoming slate is your strongest in years: Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," "Lawless" with Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf, Brad Pitt in "Killing Them Softly," "The Silver Linings Playbook," and "The Master." Let's take a moment to look backward at the start of your run. It's common knowledge that Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" in 1989 was a watershed moment in independent cinema. Its breakout success put the Sundance Film Festival on the map. The film is now in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. It's less widely known that Miramax bought and distributed it. And, along with "My Left Foot," that year defined Miramax as a visionary company that saw the economic viability of indie films when most of the practitioners were still wearing scratchy socks and fighting "the man."
HW: My brother Bob was rabid about "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." We bid more than anybody. If someone was bidding X, we bid three times as much. Bob was riding his passion on that movie. "Sex, Lies" came along, and then Quentin Tarantino emerged with "Reservoir Dogs"… Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith -- they all started at Sundance. The festival also brought back the documentary that people actually go to, and that can be attributed to the festival and its head, Robert Redford. If it weren't for that, we wouldn't have the success we have with "Bully," which we're rereleasing in a back-to-school roll-out as schools reopen.
TA: A lot of readers who are accustomed to independent films like "The Artist" or "The King's Speech" or "The Hurt Locker" winning the Oscar don't realize that it's only been in the last 20 or 30 years that American independents have competitively entered the mainstream. Your career has been truly revolutionary. While it's now expected that indies will dominate the Oscars, that wasn't the case before "My Left Foot," "The English Patient," and "Shakespeare in Love."
HW: It was a very studio-driven world. The idea of the indie film was foreign. The idea that a movie like "The Artist" would have been in the Academy Awards race (or "The Intouchables") would have been inconceivable. Everybody at Columbia Pictures would vote on the Columbia movies. Paramount would vote for Paramount movies. We broke through with "Il Postino," and I think we can do the same for "Intouchables."
TA: Did your underdog Oscar success with French stars and a French director on "The Artist" give you a template for how you'll proceed with "The Intouchables?"
HW: In the Oscar race, it's similar to "The Artist," in that you have to put your hand on the till. We're trying to slow down the release. And then when Omar gets here in August -- and he's sounding more and more like Rex Harrison every day -- he will take over and build it. This is a long-term strategy because I've never had a movie where people walk out feeling this good.
TA: How significant is winning that Oscar, both in terms of box office and prestige?
HW: The Academy Awards are great for one thing: to take movies that are obscure and get them out to audience. "The Artist" was a 14 million-euro movie. It's black-and-white and silent. You'd be committed to make a movie like this, but not only did the Academy Award bring it to life around the world, when it was rereleased in France, it had almost more admissions than the first time around. That's the power of the Oscar. It's the ultimate, fantastic, good seal of a movie.
On that note, Harvey, not known for being light on his feet, had to cut the interview short for his dancing lesson. "I'm doing the 'Earth, Wind, and Fire' dance and Omar is going to teach me." For a peek at Sy tearing up the parquet in the "Intouchables," click on this clip:
Will Harvey be angling for a spot on "Dancing With the Stars?" Always open to an opportunity, Harvey says that he "could be, if Omar's the teacher. You know who should go? Omar! He would be brilliant on 'Dancing With the Stars.'" Another promotional idea is born!
See the trailer for 'Intouchables':