Well-respected former Fox executive Mike Lang is making an impression at the head of the newly re-independent Miramax Films. He talks to Jeremy Kay about exploiting the library, rebooting production and working with the Weinsteins
Think of Miramax and the name Mike Lang might not spring immediately to mind. Not yet, anyway. And that may be how the enterprising, diplomatic and — by some accounts — brilliant former Fox and Disney executive wants things to stay. What is certain, however, is that ever since Lang was installed as CEO last December, he and his staff at the company’s Santa Monica offices have been working tirelessly to ensure the Miramax name flies high again, just as it did in the days when its pugnacious co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein held sway.
Disney cast out the Weinsteins in 2005 and held on to the prized name and a 700-strong library which included Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare In Love and Chicago, to name a few. Under Daniel Battsek, the company had success with titles such as The Queen, No Country For Old Men and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, but the cost of the specialised business was spinning out of control and the studio lost patience.
Last summer Lang served as an adviser to Filmyard Holdings as it extricated Miramax from the Disney fold for what is understood to be $583m, and assumed $300m in receivables as part of the deal.
The track record of the former Fox Entertainment executive vice-president of business development and strategy, allied with his oversight of due diligence on the transaction and uncanny ability to secure debt financing in the midst of the financial crisis, so impressed the Filmyard consortium’s construction mogul Ron Tutor that Lang was eventually handed the reins at Miramax. Since then, he has wasted little time in plotting a new era at the company.
“Miramax is open for business,” Lang told Screen last month as he was about to board a plane for MIP-TV. “One of the reasons I’m going to Cannes early is because we want people to understand Miramax is open, not only to distributing product but also to developing new product.” It is significant that new material should figure prominently in the philosophy and demands further explanation. But first things first.
Raiding the library
“Over the last four months,” Lang says, “our major focus has been to build our infrastructure, team and core relationships on the distribution side on a library that’s not only a tremendous asset but has been incredibly underexploited over the last seven years. The opportunities are tremendous. First and foremost we want to get our home-entertainment relationships in place. We’re very bullish on the packaged goods business, partially because so little of the library had been released on Blu-ray, so we brought in Lionsgate in the US and StudioCanal in Europe. Lionsgate will work with international distributors outside of Europe.
“They all bring expertise and marketing relationships. This year Lionsgate and StudioCanal are going to release over 56 titles [including Pulp Fiction] that have never been released before on Blu-ray. We hired Eric Doctorow [the former Fox home-entertainment general manager who oversees worldwide home-entertainment distribution and is charged with exploring digital opportunities], who has significant experience.” Miramax has also signed a domestic deal with Echo Bridge to distribute 251 titles on DVD and Blu-ray.
On the theatrical side, the company has partnered with FilmDistrict to release the horror film Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark later this year, while The Debt will go through Focus Features and Universal, and Tribeca Film will distribute Last Night in an arrangement that incorporates VoD. “To the extent that it makes sense, we may try to bring in Lionsgate on certain titles,” Lang says of future domestic theatrical distribution plans, adding: “There may be a time in the future when we end up doing our own theatrical distribution.”
‘I am incredibly bullish on the future of digital. Being a content owner is the greatest position you can be in’
Lang declares himself thrilled that Pathé International licensed more than 90% of international territories on Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark at Berlin’s EFM in February. He says there is “no question” Miramax will explore the idea of funneling all international theatrical distribution through a single entity at some point in the future. For the time being, sales agency agreements will be handled on a case-by-case basis and further output deals, like the revived association with Alliance in Canada which was announced in March, may be on the cards. “We are confident Mike Lang and his team will return the Miramax brand to the prominence it deserves,” says Charles Layton, president of Alliance Films. How remote now seem the events of three years ago, when Alliance severed a 14-year partnership after a string of box-office disappointments.
On the television side, Miramax will probably handle much of the distribution itself and to this end former MGM executive Joe Patrick will be instrumental as senior vice-president and head of domestic television and digital sales. “We’re talking to multiple people to hire an international MD to take the reins,” Lang says. “We have found there is a lot of talent internationally. We’ve just scratched the surface and will be in a good position building relationships on the various TV platforms around the world.” There is also talk of a branded Miramax cable network, something Harvey Weinstein never achieved while the company was in the Disney fold.
Streaming deals could emerge before long. “I am incredibly bullish on the future of digital. Being a content owner is the greatest position you can be in, because not only do all these platforms need content but the library is going to be more meaningful because it will allow people to access content in a way that doesn’t require shelf space.”
Lang insists digital must be regarded as “friend, not foe” and says the strategy is still nascent. “We are still in the early stages, but there’s going to be substantial value to content owners via digital over the next 10-15 years because this is what consumers want… I plan to be very innovative. In the near term you’re going to see a lot of activity in this space with the likes of subscription VoD platforms like Amazon and Hulu.
“The industry has to become much more aggressive on building those platforms where consumers can buy content and watch it across any device and not be constrained by platforms and standards. That doesn’t exist today. When the DVD market was established, one of the things that made it work was when you bought a DVD it worked on any DVD player and you could play it on your TV. It seems so simple but think of the digital world — if I buy something today I’m not sure it’s going to work on my tablet or that it will work on my TV. It’s important for the industry to develop the ecosystem which enables people to do that.”
Partnering with Harvey and Bob
Perhaps the most intriguing partnership emerged a week after Lang’s appointment when Miramax and The Weinstein Company said they would develop sequels from the library, create new special-edition materials for Blu-ray and partner on potential new television content. The Weinsteins are taking the lead on this and Lang says they speak on a weekly basis. Shakespeare In Love, Bad Santa and Rounders will be among the first titles under the microscope and the agreement augments an existing relationship on the Scream, Scary Movie and Spy Kids franchises.
“It was a no-brainer,” Lang says. “Harvey [Weinstein] is an icon and as time goes on he will be viewed as an incredibly creative mind. I really wanted to be in business with him. There was a lot of history of negativity [about the acrimonious split between Miramax and Disney] and I wanted to get past that and build a good relationship.”
Aside from the library, Lang presides over a sizeable development slate. “We have started to think about new product. We inherited more than 650 development projects — scripts, treatments. Basically, they’re in boxes and it’s like that warehouse scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. We have a relationship with Scott Rudin on some projects and a lot of talented names have been attached to others. We’re actively looking for partners to help us develop those projects.”
He declines to mention development titles at this stage. “We have a small, dedicated team and it’s going well. Our strategic adviser Rob Lowe, who is also a friend of the company, is helping us think about what we can do and who we can partner with. There are a lot of projects in our library where it might make sense to partner with other companies. We want to be in a position where we have various partnerships exploiting our rights.”
With Lang, Lowe, Rudin and the Weinsteins in its corner, the latest Miramax incarnation looks like a contender.
Lang earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and began his career at The Walt Disney Company in strategic planning.
He has worked as a consultant on media-related investments and was a founding executive of wireless networking company Z.com.
Lang was executive vice-president of business development and strategy at Fox Entertainment, where he played key roles in the acquisition of MySpace and led the creation of Hulu.
He most recently served as a consultant to Filmyard in its acquisition of Miramax.