Courting Controversy: Mirimax, Kids, and Shining Excalibur

Kids (1995)

Alisa Perren’s Indie, inc.: Miramax and the transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s, looks to Miramax, a company known for distributing “indie” films, in order to illustrate how one company was able to transform the independent film industry (and beyond). Perren works with a variety of case studies, but one in particlar stood out to me. The 1995 release of Kids exemplifies the unique marketing and business techniques utilized by Miramax. Kids is a controversial film from start to finish. For example, one character, a boy named Telly, has taken to having unprotected sex specifically with virgins, despite being HIV+ (and aware of it). The films centers on drug and alcohol-abusing, sexually-active, skateboard-loving New York City teenagers during the height of the AIDs epidemic.  Intensely provocative content like Kids was certainly not new territory for Miramax, but the film marked an important moment in the company’s transformation.

Production logo of Shining Excalibur Films

Miramax was founded in 1979 by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The company steadily worked its way to become a leading independent film distribution and production company, eventually making a deal with Disney in 1993. Though Disney purchased the company as a subsidiary, the Weinstein’s retained some rights over production and distribution practices. This meant, however, that by the time Kids was set to be released by Miramax in 1995, Disney had bought the ability to prevent it. Disney, a company known for distributing primarily family-friendly content, would not allow such an explicit film to be released under their name. Unfortunately, Kids was given the rating of NC-17, which the Weinsteins rejected in favor of no rating. Disney can’t release unrated films according to the Motion Picture Administration of America guidelines. This left the Weinsteins in a sticky situation. They would either have to give up their independent edge, creative expression, profit, and actor relationships by not releasing the film or violate their contract with Disney. In order to prevent any of these negative consequences, the Weinsteins created the one-hit-wonder distribution company Shining Excalibur (the name being a not-so-subtle hint at their dedication to independent film) only a month after Kids screened at the Cannes Film Festival. They were able to release the film through this company and walk the delicate line between independent film and Hollywood. But was this gamble an effective business strategy?

A production photo of Rosario Dawson (left) and Chloe Sevigny (right) on the set of Kids

With a production budget of $1,500,00, Kids managed to rake in $7,412,216 at the domestic box office and $13,000,000 at the international box office. The film had a decent showing, largely spurred by the films controversial status being covered by the media, but it was certainly not the Weinsteins’ most successful purchase. The true success lies in the Weinsteins ability to court controversy. In terms of maintaining business relationships, the Weinsteins were able to reassert publicly their mission statement, a commitment to artistry and creative vision without breaking contract with Disney. They emphasize controversy to draw in their target audience, without stepping on the toes of Disney execs. Kids did not garner much critical acclaim, but did jumpstart the career of budding actors Rosario Dawson, Chloë Sevigny, and Jon Abrahams. Neither Dawson or Sevigny had any prior acting experience when they landed their roles in Kids. Much of Mirimax’s success revolved around the ability of the Weinstein brothers to spot up-and-coming talent and give it a platform. Kids is such a compelling case study because it captures the importance of building a company ideology in the modern marketplace. Niche marketing has an ever-increasing presence not only in the film industry, but also in the marketplace as a whole. In order to successfully target such a specific demographic, a company must commit to an ethos. Brand narratives become increasingly necessary. Companies face the constant struggle of retaining customer loyalty. For Miramax, it was important to not simply say “we’re independent”, they had to constantly prove to their customers that it was true, even when traversing a marketplace ridden with large media conglomerates.

Perren, Alisa. Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s.: University of Texas Press, 2013. Print. Texas Film and Media Studies Series.

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