Taking the Art out of Arthouse – Miramax’s Advertising

Alisa Perren’s work Indie Inc. discusses in depth the history of the film distributor Miramax, as well as several other independent or “indie” distributors. While reading the text, I found the description of Miramax’s marketing tactics and their interaction with the “indie” label very intriguing.

Miramax’s competition with major Hollywood studios necessitated that the company plan its marketing strategy very carefully, as Miramax had neither the funds nor power to compete with major studios head-on.  Miramax also needed to manage two very disparate target audiences with its promotions. As an indie distributor with aspirations of larger success, Miramax courted both the traditional film-savvy arthouse audiences as well as broader mainstream audiences with less discerning tastes. The “arthouse” label was a draw for Miramax’s niche audience, but served as advertising poison in Miramax’s attempts to market their films as mainstream works. As a countermeasure to the inherent difficulties of Miramax’s position, the company employed some very savvy marketing techniques.

Despite being an independent film studio, Miramax sought to avoid being branded as an “arthouse” company.  Miramax’s advertising played to mainstream audiences and attempted to duck any possible label of inaccessibility. Miramax became vehemently insistent on the need to avoid an overly “artsy” reputation, clashing with sex, lies and videotape’s creator Soderbergh over his own trailer for his own film. Miramax denied Soderbergh his trailer on the grounds that it was “art-house death” (Perren 34). The actual trailer attempts to sell audiences with constant promises of sex in a decidedly more mainstream atmosphere. Miramax similarly marketed Pulp Fiction by playing up the film’s sex and violence to generate mainstream interest. As Perren observes, “the company readily hinted at sexual themes and situations that were not necessarily apparent within the films themselves” (Perren 34). Miramax further employed sex as an advertising tactic via manipulation of the ratings system to generate press. Miramax deliberately played up its films’ sexiness in advertisements, yet cried foul when slapped with an X rating, employing the much-dreaded arthouse credentials as a shield.

The fascinating duality of Miramax’s advertising policies, as well as the company’s overall trajectory, challenged my assumptions of what constituted an “indie” film. I had regarded “indie” films as very small-scale and inaccessible productions despite having no real evidence or experience on which to base my assumptions. I certainly did not expect the “indie” label to apply to films marketed on such a grand scale; I was quite shocked to learn that Pulp Fiction could be considered an “indie” film! My own unfair perception of indie movies seems to be exactly the type of mainstream ignorance Miramax sought to avoid when marketing their films.  I would have assumed an indie, arthouse film to lie outside my areas of interest, yet I seem to have watched and enjoyed several. Miramax certainly seized upon a wise tactic to maximize viewership by denying its own roots in arthouse film when interacting with mainstream audiences. However, I cannot help but wonder if such advertising misdirection cheapens the value of the actual films. Unfortunately, such advertising seemed to be a necessary sacrifice in order to reach larger audiences. Is it acceptable to mislead consumers with advertising when doing so exposes consumers to a product of true quality?

Perren, Alisa. Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s. University of Texas Press, 2012.
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Comments

  1. I think it’s interesting that you describe Miramax as an “independent film studio” rather than as an independent distributor. Granted, the Weinsteins’ voracious appetite for new products makes this distinction a blurry one, at best. Still, your characterization of the company as a studio seems like a useful reminder of the extent to which film and television have successfully managed to keep movie-goers focused on film-making and movie theaters rather than on distribution, which, as we know from Littleton and Perren, is the least glamorous, most bare-knuckled aspect of the industry.

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