32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2004
Peter Biskind has in recent times become one of my favorite writers on the movies, alongside Roger Ebert, Peter Travers, and David Ansen. His latest, Down and Dirty Pictures, is good but it has a couple of things working against it from the outset. First, it will always be in the shadow of Easy Riders Raging Bulls, Biskind's seminal book on 70's Hollywood which was an excellent work from start to finish. Second, because most of what Biskind chronicles is fairly recent memory, it seems a bit like overload. Diehard film fans will simply be rehashing old news (for them), whereas the stories in Easy Riders were far enough in the past to be almost new again.
The book clearly has elements that are anti-Miramax and, to a lesser extent, anti-Sundance but it shouldn't change your opinion if you are, say, a big Robert Redford fan. That isn't to say that Redford and the Weinsteins don't deserve some criticism, but the intelligent reader should be able to read between the lines and understand that Biskind's perspective is not the last word on the subject. The movies are the thing, after all, and both Sundance and Miramax have produced great ones. What bothers me most is Biskind's grudging praise and all-too-easy condemnations. A few years ago he wrote a negative piece on Sundance for Premiere Magazine - now it seems he's trying to nail the coffin.
I enjoyed this book a lot and I do recommend it, although it is a bit dense and can take some time to get through.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Peter Biskind's last book, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," was a tremendously fun read; "Down and Dirty Pictures" is a sequel of sorts. Whereas "Easy Riders" traced the rise and fall of 1970s film auteurs (Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman), "Down and Dirty" examines the next wave of potentially great filmmakers - the independents of the 1990s. After a fallow period in films during the 1980s where bloated epics ruled the Oscars and vapid blockbusters predominated, the indies of the 1990s were welcome relief, and the story is quite interesting.
Biskind commences his story in 1989 with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" winning awards at Sundance and Cannes film festivals. Although a few indie movies scored some success earlier in the 1980s, "Sex, Lies" marked a turning point whereby general audiences started to take these films more seriously. Of perhaps greater interest, Biskind argues that these indie directors are the direct descendants of the 1970s auteurs in that they also wrote and directed their films from their own personal vision, albeit on a more modest scale. His thesis is seemingly valid and helps place the rise of indie film into historical context. The book traces the ups and downs of a number of these directors, including Steven Soderbergh ("Sex, Lies"), Todd Haynes ("Safe"), Todd Solondz ("Happiness"), and of course wunderkind Quentin Tarantino. Their accounts are quirky and often compelling.
However, the book focuses primarily on two figures - Mirimax and Sundance. Harvey and Bob Weinstein are the ostensible stars here - as they found Mirimax pictures, develop the career of Steven Soderbergh, and then make Tarantino the poster boy for indie film. Stories abound throughout the book about their egomaniacal and allegedly assaultive behavior - from editing movies without the consent of directors (earning Harvey the nickname "Harvey Scissorhands") to intimidating distributors. These segments are often entertaining in a voyeuristic manner, but the repetitiveness wears down the reader; reading a fraction of these episodes conveys adequately the message that the Weinsteins are bullies. The second star of the book is Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute. Redford is depicted as a distant despot - demanding full control of Sundance and its filmmaking processes but leaving for long periods of time to tinker endlessly on his own films. Again, the segments about Redford become somewhat repetitive and pointless.
All trends eventually end, and Biskind argues that the magnificent rise and fall of indie films can be attributed largely to Mirimax and Sundance. In particular, Biskind points the finger at attempts by Mirimax to become a major studio, which left little room at the table for indie films. Overall, Biskind makes some credible arguments, and his writing is always engaging. Unfortunately, the Weinsteins and Redford become caricatures and the stories become a bit tiresome. Film buffs will undoubtedly enjoy "Down & Dirty"; however, it could have used some editing - perhaps the Weinsteins could employee their infamous services here?
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2004
This book was written by Peter Biskind who was the executive editor of Premiere Magazine and is also the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. It is a very readable history of the independent film business from its beginnings as sub-titled foreign movies in art houses to the development of American films made outside of the studio system. Central to this story is the rise of Miramax and the Sundance Institute, Festival and Channel. Sundance was formed to help new talent develop their projects and give advice on script development, shooting and editing problems. Miramax began as a marketing company.
They and others helped some filmmakers complete and market a feature length movie. Also at this time other people from film schools developed feature length pictures using their own resources. Usually these pictures were made with the film makers own funds or funds borrowed from their friends or parents
Miramax a distributing company that bought films and released them in the United States began buying these pictures usually at the cost of production with a promise of back end participation if the film made money. Harvey and Bob Weinstein ran the company. Harvey would take a budding auteur's artistic vision and recut it to make it more commercial. This usually was done after first screening it before a preview audience and a sometimes bitter consultation with the artist. The result was that suddenly pictures which had no chance of recovering their production expenses began to turn a profit after Miramax bought the picture and bore the expense of post production, publicity and advertising. Miramax then took on the awards ceremonies spending the money and time to get nominations and awards for their most worthy actors, directors and pictures. This became possible when every Academy member was sent a videotape (later the DVDs we've heard so much about) of the films in contention. This meant that independent pictures that only got a limited play or no play in some cities could be seen and voted on by all the academy members. A second aspect to this was that the press also received a videotape or DVD and they could be lobbied to publicize the independent pictures nominated. Also of course the Golden Globes Awards voted on by the Foreign Press Association became a tracking award for the Academy Awards because of the distribution of tapes and later DVDS. One thing that wasn't clear in the book was how a film gets nominated in the first place. Also hinted at is the fact that many Academy members are older than the typical moviegoer, but the book does not tell us what this means as far it effects the films and talent voted on.
The Sundance Film Festival also became an important showcase for new filmmakers to market their films. Soon the studios took notice that a small film could be a significant profit center and started or bought their own independent film subsidiaries. Sony Classics, Focus Films (Universal), Fox Searchlight, October Films and others all became studio subsidiaries. Of course the biggest fish of the group, Miramax, was bought by Disney and given an acquisitions budget of Eight Hundred Million Dollars !!! This turned the business on its head. In the beginning most independent films were made for less than a million dollars. The indie movement came of age and pictures that would have had only limited release in art houses located in the big cities started to have wider releases into the malls across the country. Acting stars like Gwenth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Billy Bob Thornton were created almost overnight and so were star directors like Quentin Tarrentino and Steven Soderberg. Under the studio system it would have taken these people twenty years, if ever, to reach the status they did in a few years under the independent film system powered by Miramax and to some extent Sundance.
However the system changed when Miramax began to produce films on its own instead of buying the offerings of new talent and marketing them. The expenditures for production were ten or twenty times the cost of a true independent film and acting stars and star directors were needed to guarantee box office return. Miramax boxed itself into the same financial straitjacket the studios are in. It became more and more of a producer than a marketing organization which could take a new filmmakers first film and market it profitably thus giving the nascent filmmaker a chance at a second film and a career. Also established talents were less likely to work for scale as bigger profits were realized. However the possibility of doing more serious work and achieving artistic recognition through the awards has kept established actors and directors interested in doing independent films which have more creative freedom and are thus more likely to generate awards than the studio genre fare.
Briskind's thesis is that the studio subsidiaries production costs and marketing budgets have become so swollen that what was once an industry giving new talent a chance has become a miniature studio system with its own stars and directors. It is no longer concerned with the small budget personal films of first time directors but driven to make commercial films which need greater and greater returns to sustain the overhead. The result; the first time filmmaker is being squeezed off even the art house screens or his or her work is not given long enough runs to gather an audience.
Even Sundance became commercially minded shifting its orientation from helping new talent to sometimes looking for properties to produce. It also became a market place for the commercial interests to scout new talent for their systems.
Briskind makes the point that independent films where once artistic vision was the primary focus have now been so commercialized that money considerations dominate what gets made to the detriment of the artists vision. The studio subsidiaries now scoop up anyone that makes a successful first film but there are no second chances, in terms of financing, for those who show promise but tried and failed. Briskind has documented his thesis with fact after fact and quote after quote. However this book is not just a fact tomb. He has profiled and analyzed many of the players large and small praising and skewering the most dedicated (those that refuse to commercialize their artistic instincts) to the mightiest like Harvey Weinstein and Robert Redford. However all this said, Briskend dosen't say with enought force that the independent film subsidiaries have greater subject matter diversity and creative freedom than the major studios who are constrained by the demands of a mass audience and that things are better now for new talent because of Miramax and Sundance.
This was a fascinating and insightful book on the subject matter, well written and well documented. Any one interested in films should read this book.Edsopinion.com
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Peter Biskind's deft prose is on the scene once again even if his subject matter doesn't live up to his classic work EASY RIDERS RAGING BULLS. The young maverick filmmakers of the 1970s make a decent parallel to the young maverick independents of the 1990s, the problem the author runs into is that today's directors lack the personalities of the old timers. Without the outrageousness of guys like Coppolla, Evans, and Hopper, Biskind has to rely on the megalomania of Harvey Weinstein to carry the whole book, and it almost becomes his biography in the process.
The story begins with Robert Redford's troubled Utah ski resort and his attempts to drive business to that remote location. At first, moving the U.S. film festival there does no good and Redford is ready to dump the whole enterprise after nearly ten years. Steven Soderbergh then puts the festival on the map with his inexpensive indie hit SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and suddenly Redford is a genius. Biskind goes on to show how poorly Soderbergh is treated by Redford from then on, even to the point of letting Soderbergh develop QUIZ SHOW only to step in and direct it himself.
Redford is a selfish control freak, but Biskind cannot really develop this through the book, because Redford is so colorless that too many stories on him would put us to sleep. Instead Biskind uses Harvey Weinstein to keep us awake with his love of movies and bombastic style. Harvey is a throwback to the days before the EASY RIDERS when studio heads were tyrants and tyrants are always fun to read about even when they're horrible to work for.
A few other characters are interesting for the short time they're profiled. It's fun to read about Quinten Tarantino's development and the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck collaboration, but those passages end too soon. Biskind does his best to weave all the material into an entertaining narrative, but the characters themselves let him down with their blandness. It's probably not fair for me to compare this to Biskind's earlier work. He'll probably never find a subject that interesting again, but I cannot help it.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Biskind's book focuses on how independent film became just another product for the movie studios during its rise in the 80's and 90's. His focus, though, is on two of the most important movers and shakers in the independent world; Harvey and Bob Weinstein the founders and driving forces behind Miramax films and Robert Redford's Sundance Institute and film festival for independents. What makes Biskind's book unique is its inside information (frequently provided by people who are afraid of going on the record for fear of being black listed by the Weinsteins).
His portraits provide a harsh, naked glimpse at the greed and ego (terms used to describe Bob and Harvey Weinstein by one former exec)that drive these important creative/business forces. He also focuses on the passion and love of film that helps provide these individuals with peace of mind about how, who and why they do business the way they do. We also get glimpses of other creative forces that have emerged from into the spotlight; Tarantino is portrayed as brilliant, manipulative and as much a credit hog as Orson Welles was claimed to be early in his career
One telling moment that says it all about how money and fame change people--Tarantino's lawyer faxes screenwriter Roger Avery an addition to this contract. In the new contract Avery will be paid a substanial sum if he will forego his screenwriting credit on Pulp Fiction he will, in return, continue to make residuals on the film and be given a co-story credit. Why? Because Tarantino feels his film would look better if it concluded with a single credit "Written and directed by Tarantino" . Avery signs because he needs the money and because his own project Killing Zoe will sink without the additional income. What disturbs him is that Tarantino didn't lobby for this himself--he had an outside party do it even though they started together as clerks in the same video store and have known each other for years.
In another section a discussion focuses on how Redford's Sundance organization tried to squash another festival that would focus on first films directed by individuals without a deal. Some of these films were also rejected for competition in Sundance due to politics more than an estimation of creative worth. The competition wasn't healthy in their eyes; evidently more options and better films has been supplemented by the business of Sundance.
There's positives as well--the story focuses on how the Weinsteins and Redford helped refocus Hollywood away from producing cookie-cutter blockbuster fare as they did after the success of Star Wars and the formular driven movies that came in its wake. Success breeds imitation and sometimes that imitation debases and destroys the creative process.
Biskind is also quite honest about how Miramax attempted to distract and tempt him away from writing this book by dangling the carrot of a deal with their publishing division. He was tempted to take the deal but stuck to his guns.
This fascinating portrait demonstrates that Redford and the Weinsteins despite their faults helped to refocus American film away from the blockbuster schlock that dominated the industry for a long period of time. The positive effect is that films with meaning and that were cutting edge were, again, being given their due even if they were frequently compromised by those very people providing them with an outlet. Ultimately, it's always about balancing art and commerce. As Biskind points out, commerce usually wins but sometimes the art sneaks out for a night on the town.
This isn't a perfect book and while there's a lot of fair balance, Biskind is upfront about proving his thesis. There's lots of suspects in the mugging of American film and sometimes the very people doing the mugging are also solving the crime.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2004
"Down and Dirty Pictures" is Peter Biskind's sort-of sequel--in spirit, for certain--to his previous film book, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls."
In "Easy Riders," Biskind bemoaned how the "personal" film movement of the 1970's gave way to blockbusters such as "Star Wars." In a similar vein, "Down and Dirty" explores how the independent (or "indie") films of the 1980's were co-opted by the Hollywood studio system.
Biskind has enough blame to fill 484 pages (minus footnotes and index), but he reserves most of his wrath for two prime suspects. The first is Robert Redford, whose Sundance Film Festival began with the best of intentions. Redford wanted to give a shot to struggling filmmakers without having to deal with indifferent studio heads. But Redford eventually lost interest in his own endeavor--getting filmmakers' hopes up and then leaving them hanging, as he went off to pursue his own Hollywood projects.
But most of Biskind's bile is reserved for Harvey Weinstein--who, with his brother Bob, started a company called Miramax in the late 1970's. Miramax began by grabbing any piece of film it could and milking it for every last dollar. (Weinstein once squeezed two Monty Python concert films into three.)
But a low-priced flick titled "sex, lies, and videotape" forever changed the fortunes of both Miramax and indie films. Pooh-poohing the art-house approach, Weinstein purchased "sex, lies," released it like a major studio flick, and ended up making studio-sized profits.
The outstanding grosses of "sex, lies"--and "Pulp Fiction," five years later--initially seemed to boost indie efforts. But disillusioned indie directors soon realized that their little movies didn't have enough pizazz to make nine-figure profits.
The book isn't perfect. Biskind mixes metaphors as though he was a human Cuisinart. And in his efforts to cast villains, Biskind often tries to have it both ways. (He dismisses Miramax's "The Cider House Rules" as "tepid" and then chastizes Miramax for not giving it more support.)
But as with his previous tome, "Down and Dirty Pictures" demonstrates both Biskind's passion for film and his ability to tell a riveting story. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in modern film history.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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This book is a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. It is a very good example of investigative journalism and also an example of poor editing. Please don't include everything you learned. Maybe he needed Harvey Weinstein to edit the book!
What is good is a very detailed (perhaps too much so) look at the evolution of independent films from "Sex, Lies, & Videotapes" to the current state of independent films approaching the Hollywood route. There is no question he did exhaustive research and while he has been criticized for doing a hatchet job on Miramax and Redford, there are too many stories with the same theme for the portrait painted to not be substantially correct IMO. If you are a fan of film, whether you are a casual weekend fan of Hollywood fare or a student of serious film, there is something here for you. But generally this will be of interest if you enjoy following the business side of films and how the personalities affect this. However, the book also does a great job overlaying the careers of Steve Soderberg, Quentin Tarantino and Damon/Affleck in enough detail for the fans of "stars". The Damon/Affleck section is particularly interesting as it showed two kids viewed as actors making a conscious effort to tap into the indie craze to get their break in the business. In many respects it's like the old Stallone/Rocky story of having the screenplay and forcing Hollywood to use the author as the star.
Now for the negative. His earlier book "Easy Rider/Raging Bull" covered the 70s film explosion in great depth. It appears he was trying to recreate the magic in this book. While the evolution of independent films is a worthwhile subject, what he ended up with is a book about Miramax with brief interludes about other stories that can almost be distractive. Just look at the title where he tries to throw too much explanation. To me, this is an unauthorized biography of Miramax. That's OK. There's plenty to cover there and he did it quite well. But to continue the charade by occasionally throwing in visits to the mess @ Sundance just distracts the reader. Maybe he thought it would help sell books by throwing some dirt on Redford.
This book is a real commitment. It is long, detailed reading that takes time. But the payoff is worth it. It easy to see while you are reading that there will be many upset executives and I doubt he will have as much access if he makes another attempt at a Hollywood subject. Overall, I recommend this book for serious readers of Hollywood or the business of Hollywood
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2006
Mr Biskind's previous book, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" was far better, simply because the people he wrote about (directors like Friedkin, Scorsese, Altman, etc.) were more interesting people and filmmakers. I never had the feeling that the author really cared about the movies he was writing about. This book is really about Miramax and Harvey Weinstein and once you've understood that Harvey Weinstein is a savvy producer but also a monster prone to uncontrollable fits of rage, you've understood 70% of the book's content. There are some interesting passages, mainly about Tarantino and Soderbergh, but the same story could have been told in a much shorter form. I often had the impression that the publisher badly wanted a 400 pages book, even if 250 pages would have been more than enough.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2004
When Peter Biskind's Easy Riders Raging Bulls came out, I thought I had had my fill of the 70s New Hollywood, but that book made me see the period afresh without the usual mythologizing. The American independent film boom of the nineties, which became symbolized for the mainstream media by The Sundance Institute and Festival and Harvey and Bob Weinstein's Miramax, is the subject of this equally well written, well researched and engrossing tome. This is a particularly brave book because so many players have a vested interest in keeping the idea of "independent cinema" alive even if the truly innovative and maverick filmmakers remain a minority in America film, while much of the highly touted product promoted by Miramax and New Line is as exciting, dangerous or refreshing as a prestige picture from the factory system of the 30s and 40s (but with less staying power). Unlike Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the filmmakers here emerge as nicer, more earnest, generally focused on their craft and less in love with the perks of success. Biskind saves most of his critique for the mini-majors like Miramax, the passive-agressive tendencies of a certain New Hollywood superstar, and the cynical goldrush mentality that has turned a nice little film festival into an uber-Cannes nightmare for desperate young filmmakers. A great book that I hope signals a sea-change in the current state of entertainment journalism. Yeah right. Well, it is still a great book anyway.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and a contributor to Vanity Fair, has penned the tell-all to end all tell-alls about Tinseltown. With reportorial zeal he traces the rise of independent (indies) films beginning roughly with the 1990s. His focus is on the Sundance Institute and Miramax Films, the sires of the indies.
Harvey Weinstein, it will come as a surprise to few, is presented as a brash, egotistical bully (those are kind adjectives). Along with his brother, Bob, he rose from a concert promoter in Queens to one of Hollywood's most powerful - Miramax is now a major force giving birth to many Oscar nominated films.
In the author's words both Weinsteins "had volcanic tempers. They were wizards of abuse, excelling in the exotic art of public humiliation, lashing staffers in front of their peers."
Robert Redford, the founder of Sundance, also receives attention. He, as described by Biskin, is a control freak who "who was not in a position to run the institute himself, but neither, it seemed, was he able to let anyone else run it." Alas ladies, our handsome matinee idol does have chinks in his armor.
"Down and Dirty Pictures" in addition to being a superbly detailed history of the rise of the indies is also a spicy gossip laced read with celebrity quotes from Matt Damon to Uma Thurman to Anthony Minghella. It's sometimes hilarious, sometimes sobering; it is always fascinating reading.
- Gail Cooke