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Monday November 4, 8:54 AM

Miramax Sets Ambitious Year-End Slate Of Films

By Bruce Orwall

THE WEEK OF Dec. 20, only Santa Claus will be busier than the executives at Miramax Films -- and even Santa might be under less pressure to deliver than Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein.

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The Walt Disney Co. unit that week plans to release four of its most important 2002 films in one brief eight-day period, a virtually unheard-of load for a studio looking to cash in on the holiday movie bonanza. Miramax is traditionally a strong player in the year-end sweepstakes because, as the longtime leader of the so-called independent film market, many of its movies have Oscar aspirations.

But this year, the studio's lineup is especially heavy because one film that should have been out by now, the Martin Scorsese-directed "Gangs of New York," came in late and over budget, raising the financial stakes and adding another big title to the company's holiday plan. Adding to its troubles, Miramax lost a showdown with rival DreamWorks SKG over which studio would release its Leonardo DiCaprio movie on Christmas Day -- Miramax's "Gangs" or DreamWorks' "Catch Me if You Can."

The Miramax film instead will be released Dec. 20. Christmas Day will bring the release of another Miramax gamble -- an Italian, live-action version of "Pinocchio" from "Life Is Beautiful" star and director Roberto Benigni, which has been dubbed into English. On Dec. 27, two other important Miramax films will go into limited release before wider distribution in January: the musical "Chicago," starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger; and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," about the offbeat television producer Chuck Barris. And that doesn't include the Christmastime arrival of "The Hours," a release from Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures that Miramax co-financed.

The upshot is that Mr. Weinstein, long seen as one of the most strategic and tight-fisted executives in the film business, for the moment looks more like a big spender who has been outflanked by competitors. It all comes at a moment when Miramax's profit for the 2002 fiscal year ended Sept. 30 dropped 12% from 2001.

The company nonetheless says it made a healthy profit of $140 million for 2002, but that figure is derived using old accounting standards that are still in place when Disney calculates profit participation for Mr. Weinstein and brother Bob, who together run the company. Disney, which owns 100% of Miramax, books an unspecified profit from Miramax that is somewhat less because it reflects the newer movie-business accounting standards. In 2002, Mr. Weinstein says, the uneven performance of new releases was balanced by what he calls "my three favorite initials: DVD." The company saw strong digital-videodisc sales for both valuable library titles, like "Pulp Fiction" and "A Hard Day's Night," and low-brow video fare like its "Air Bud" kids series.

Now, Miramax is under the gun to show that it is still a leader in the high-end entertainment that put it on the map to begin with, and even Mr. Weinstein admits that "Gangs," especially, is under intense pressure to perform. "Hopefully, the movie is award-worthy, and if it is, this is the perfect place for it," Mr. Weinstein says. "If not, Meryl and I will be running a restaurant somewhere in Rockaway," he adds, referring to Miramax Co-President Meryl Poster.

But Mr. Weinstein insists that Miramax hasn't veered too far from its normal flight path with this year's Christmas rush. "Looks are deceiving," he says. "All of those critics who think we've bloated our budgets, we'll end up disappointing them." Each of the films, he says, has been a strategic bet in which Miramax's risk is limited, primarily by the sale of foreign distribution rights to partners.

Despite rumors that "Gangs" cost in excess of $120 million, he says its production budget is "just shy of $99 million." But Miramax sold off foreign distribution rights for $68 million, and it splits the remaining $31 million with parent Disney. With trademark bombast, Mr. Weinstein says he would wager $1 million against any comer -- with the loser paying the proceeds to charity -- that the publicly stated production figure is accurate.

When big marketing costs are factored in, Miramax figures the picture must gross more than $55 million domestically for Disney to break even. Yet even that modest target may be difficult to achieve despite the presence of stars like Mr. DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. The picture is said to be harshly violent, and only one of Mr. Scorsese's films in recent years -- "Cape Fear" in 1991 -- sold more than $55 million worth of tickets domestically.

"Pinocchio," meanwhile, is seen as a tough sell in Hollywood simply because it may be too artsy for a family audience, which also could lack patience for a dubbed foreign film. Miramax is on the hook for about half of the $45 million budget. Mr. Weinstein says Miramax has covered the risk in other ways, too, in part by retaining DVD and videotape rights in Italy, where the film is already in release and performing strongly. Lori Sale, Miramax's executive vice president for world-wide promotions, says "Pinocchio" will get a lift in the U.S. from promotions with McDonald's Corp. and F.A.O. Inc.'s FAO Schwarz toy stores.

Ms. Poster says the studio believes "Chicago" has solid prospects. Miramax was responsible for about half of "Chicago"'s $45 million production budget, and it likely needs to generate about $50 million in domestic ticket sales to break even.

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