Harvey’s Hellhole: The Rise and Fall of Miramax Zoe

Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. With Bastille Day happening on Thursday, this month’s column takes you back to that brief time in the ‘90s when Harvey and them decided to bring more French films to the stateside art houses.

Back in the ‘90s, the Mouse House wanted to have a closer relationship with the French. 

It more or less began with the grand opening of Euro Disney, located right in Paris, back in 1992. From the jump, the place was plagued with problems. For starters, most of the French hated it, declaring it a beacon of cultural imperialism and American consumerism. Some folks were straight-up savage about it —Parisian theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine called it “a cultural Chernobyl.”

Locals stayed away. And due to the European recession at that time, the park faced financial difficulties. A month after its opening, it was reported that 25% of the park’s workforce — approximately 3,000 people — quit, citing poor working conditions. Two years later, the park was saddled with $3 billion worth of debt.

You’d think Disney would slow its roll about getting in bed with the French again after all of that. But, in October 1994, Disney announced that it was creating a boutique company within Miramax (which had just distributed Krzysztof Kieślowski’s acclaimed, mostly-made-in-France Three Colors trilogy) to distribute more French films in the U.S. They provided about $6 million in funds, and promised  to invest $20 to $30 million more each year in European co-productions. 

And that’s how Miramax Zoe was born.

The first film was supposed to be La Reine Margot (aka Queen Margot), Patrice Chereau’s blood-stained, 1994 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s historical novel, starring Isabelle Adjani in the title role. But Miramax itself handled the distribution when the studio forked over several hundred thousand dollars to re-cut the film. After it had a less-than-sparkling reception at Cannes, Harvey Weinstein went full Harvey Scissorhands and demanded 23 minutes worth of cuts, dwindling the movie’s 161-minute length to 145 minutes.

Belle de Jour, Zoe’s inaugural release, was actually a re-release. Luis Bunuel’s 1967 erotic drama, starring that French screen goddess Catherine Deneuve as a bored housewife who gets a side hustle as a high-class prostitute, hit theaters during the summer of 1995. Martin Scorsese, who was on a restoring-and-reviving streak during that decade, added his seal of approval by “presenting” the film, according to  the poster. Belle was practically Zoe’s way of announcing itself as a foreign-film distributor that specialized in bold, edgy, adult, undeniably French pictures.

However, Zoe’s subsequent releases mostly consisted of romantic period dramas and bawdy comedies— accessible art-house fare, basically. The first contemporary film brought over here was 1995’s The Horseman on the Roof, a 19th-century love story starring Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez that currently isn’t streaming anywhere. The following year was Zoe’s biggest; along with the re-release of Purple Noon (another Scorsese presentation), the 1961 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (which the Weinsteins would bring to the screen again in 1999), we also got the sex farce French Twist, the time-traveling comedy/fantasy The Visitors (which was remade in the U.S. as 2001’s Just Visiting) and the costume satire Ridicule. The posters for Ridicule and Twist continued in the same vein of Belle’s poster, featuring the naked back of a female star, turning her head to look straight at ya.

As these films were becoming less profitable at the box office, Zoe’s late-‘90s releases were few and far between. With the exception of the 1998 biopic Artemisia, they were mainly re-releases. Another Deneuve throwback from 1967, the Jacques Demy musical The Young Girls of Rochefort, came out in 1998. And Scorsese once again used his clout to get Leos Carax’s 1991 grungy romance The Lovers on the Bridge, starring Binoche and Carax regular Denis Levant, its long-overdue, U.S. theatrical run in 1999.

At the start of the 21st century, Zoe snapped up the North American rights for two French hits: the 2000 thriller With a Friend Like Harry and the 2001 Francis Veber farce The Closet. But Zoe’s biggest success came when it released Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical, feel-good Amelie in November 2001. Audrey Tautou’s quirky title character won the hearts of French and American moviegoers, as the $10 million film became the highest grosser in France that year and made $174 million worldwide. It was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film. 

But Amelie ended up being the last Zoe release. I don’t know if it had something to do with France falling out of favor with Americans after the country’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq (remember freedom fries?), or if it was simply Miramax concentrating more on prestige flicks that could get them Oscars. But, after seven years of business, Miramax Zoe just disappeared.

While there are still distributors willing to bring French cinema over to these shores, it was refreshing to see Miramax snap them up and give them the deluxe treatment for a few years. It is kinda wild that Euro Disney is still around — albeit under a different name (Disneyland Paris). But Miramax Zoe, much like Miramax itself, is something we really don’t bring up anymore.

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