Movie Mogul Makes Debut as a Macher

By Nathaniel Popper

Published October 03, 2003, issue of October 03, 2003.
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In the brouhaha over the Anti-Defamation League’s decision to honor Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a dinner last week, hardly anyone commented on the surprisingly prominent presence of film mogul Harvey Weinstein on the dais.

While Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax Films, is a famously large personality — a staple at all the glitzy film and theater openings in New York — he has not been a player on Jewish communal or Israel-related issues.

“I haven’t seen him being very active in organized Jewish life,” said Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant in Los Angeles and New York who advises other celebrities on their involvement with Jewish philanthropies. “He is both philanthropic and very active politically, but he has stuck to the sidelines with Jewish issues.”

A dinner honoring Berlusconi, one of Europe’s most right-wing leaders, particularly one honoring him for his support of President Bush’s Iraq policy, might seem a particularly strange place for Weinstein, a prominent Democratic donor, to debut as a Jewish communal macher — especially just weeks after the Italian leader made comments sympathetic toward World War II fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The Miramax founder has played a leading role in several Democratic campaigns in New York, including Hillary Clinton’s race for the Senate and Mark Green’s failed bid to become mayor two years ago; on the West Coast, Weinstein has put his muscle behind California liberals like Senator Barbara Boxer and gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington.

ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum attributed Weinstein’s involvement to his past commitment to the organization. “He’s been generally a supporter of the ADL,” Shinbaum said. “He’s spoken out on what the ADL has done.”

But a web of connections — particularly Weinstein’s business ties to the Italian premier — suggests a different perspective on why the Miramax founder might have chosen the ADL event to make a prominent appearance. Berlusconi owns Medusa Films, Italy’s largest movie production and distribution company, a division of his media conglomerate Mediaset.

In his talk at the ADL dinner, Weinstein joked about shooting the Miramax film “Gangs of New York” at the famous Italian studio Cinecitta. Though he did not mention it, Medusa has purchased a number of Miramax films for distribution in Italy and has helped with the financing of Miramax Italian productions such as “Malena.”

According to David Rooney of Variety magazine, who wrote from Italy for 12 years, Medusa is far from the only distributor of Miramax films in Italy. But, he said, “it makes good sense to have a good relationship with a good distributor, and in Italy Medusa is the most powerful. They lead the market by a wide margin in terms of production and distribution. They are also one of the leaders of the exhibition sector.”

Weinstein did not return calls seeking comment.

Berlusconi’s vast business holdings have generated serious questions about conflicts of interest that may arise when a country’s main politician is also its main media provider. Through Medusa, a company headed up by Berlusconi’s daughter Marina, the Italian leader controls about 25% of the country’s film market.

Critics point to the relationship of Medusa and Berlusconi to Italian movie star Roberto Benigni — also a Miramax star — to illustrate what they say is the troubling way in which the Italian leader’s business interests appear to serve his political fortunes. Benigni was formerly a leading voice of leftist dissent to Berlusconi. After Medusa recently bought the distribution rights to Benigni’s film “Pinocchio,” however, the movie star suddenly disappeared from the political scene and went on record commending Berlusconi as an “extraordinary businessman.”

At the ADL dinner, Weinstein did not talk much about Berlusconi’s politics, in contrast to other speakers, such as the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who praised the Italian leader for supporting Bush. Instead, Weinstein focused on the growth of Italian cinema during the Berlusconi years.

Weinstein also spoke about how the ADL itself has been a valuable partner for Miramax. According to Weinstein, in 1997, Miramax had the rights to Benigni’s film “Life is Beautiful” and was trying to enter it into the Cannes Film Festival. Weinstein recalled that when Cannes rejected the application, he “called up Abe Foxman” and shortly thereafter “we were at Cannes.”

Weinstein prefaced the story by saying: “Abe will probably kill me for telling this.”

After Cannes, the ADL released a statement recommending “Life is Beautiful” to American filmgoers. This plug had film insiders wondering aloud when the ADL had entered the business of reviewing films. The murmuring intensified when the organization released another statement, two years later, praising the Miramax film “Chocolat,” which had no obvious Jewish theme.

In the midst of Miramax’s campaign to get the movie “Chocolat” nominated for an Oscar, after critics complained that the movie had little heft, an ADL press release announced: “After seeing the film, Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, said, ‘Chocolat’ is a film I urge all Americans to see. It is powerful because it addresses and challenges prejudice and intolerance in a sensitive and entertaining manner.”

At the time, Miramax’s president, Mark Gill, told The Boston Globe that the “ADL endorsement was useful to us because our competitors were out there saying that our movie was only a trifle.”

The master of ceremonies at the Berlusconi dinner, CNBC newswoman Maria Bartiromo, explained that Miramax was a major supporter of the event, as she cued a projectionist in the back.

Many in the crowd were expecting a Miramax-produced tribute to Berlusconi. Instead what appeared on the screen in the banquet hall was a promotional montage with clips from every Miramax film made in Italy. Many in the crowd appeared uncertain of how to react, responding with clusters of hesitant applause when images from a favorite movie appeared.

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