What's So Glorious about 'Inglourious Basterds?'

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

Hollywood watched the opening weekend of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds with baited breath. After all, this one movie could determine whether there's a future for one of Hollywood's most colorful and controversial figures: Harvey Weinstein, the hot-headed, plus-sized exec who bullied American independent film into a real business.

Harvey and his brother Bob sold their legendary – but cash strapped – indie film company Miramax to Disney in 1993. They stayed at the helm until 2005, when they left the company named after their parents altogether and created the Weinstein Company.

But, distracted by pursuits other than movie making and buffeted by a tough economy and changes in the industry, the Weinstein Company has been having serious cash flow problems just like its predecessor. Reportedly at the end of their financial tether, the Weinstein's were banking on Basterds – which is a pretty scary proposition considering that Tarantino's films have never been really big at the box office.

But Inglourious Basterds opened bigger than any Quentin Tarantino film ever. Of course, that's a little like saying it was my highest scoring game in NBA – the bar was set pretty low. The truth is the actual numbers weren't too impressive, but that didn't stop the papers from celebrating anyway. "Basterds earns a glorious $37.6 million," trumpeted the New York Times. "Basterds storms box office," read Variety.

Am I missing something here?

The Weinstein company shared the $70 million cost of making Inglourious Basterds with Universal, and I assume they're sharing the considerable cost of marketing it as well…let's say conservatively that that's another $30 million.

So that's $10 million, and this $100 million movie grossed $37.6 million its first weekend. Split that with the theaters, and then split that between Weinstein and Universal and take off a chunk of that for the director and star Brad Pitt – who've got to have some profit participation – and suddenly things don't look so glorious. Even now that the film has grossed $115 worldwide after the second weekend, the Weinstein's have made back something like $30 million on their $50 million investment.

No doubt over the film's life, after its theatrical run, and DVD sales and pay per view and money from Bear Jew action figures, Inglorious Basterds will make money for the Weinsteins, and then some. But how is it, as the New York and LA Times claimed, "a hit?"

Certainly, the respectable grosses here and abroad takes some of the pressure off Harvey and Bob – but I can't see how it saves them. The best case scenario is that it gives them some breathing room and allows them to restructure the debt.

Especially considering all the schadenfreude that was being spewed before the film came out, why all the foaming at the mouth now about Basterds box office? Well, certainly, Hollywood's a town that loves to kick a man when he's down and drink his champagne when he's flush. But more than that, things are tough in the business – perhaps people look at an ass-kicker like Harvey and think, "If this guy can't make it, how can i?" Or maybe since the corporations and all their attendant blandness have descended on Hollywood, no one can stand the idea losing the last, larger than life old school mogul. Either way, it appears that Harvey Weinstein will be around making movies a bit longer, at least until his weight and high blood pressure sends him to that big screening room in the sky.

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's thoughts or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman