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Film mogul Harvey Weinstein wins on ratings, but money woes persist

It was classic Harvey Weinstein. The co-head of The Weinstein Company (TWC), and the last of the charismatic, bombastic film moguls, was a few weeks ago throwing down another challenge to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which rates movies based on age-appropriateness. In the past, he'd objected to ratings he'd deemed restrictive – and won – for his films Bully (a doc about bullying), The King's Speech (for scattered F-bombs) and Philomena (detailing abuse in the Catholic church).

This time, it was about 3 Generations, the new family drama that examines the reactions of a mother (Naomi Watts) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) to their transgender boy's (Elle Fanning) decision to begin medically transitioning. (It opens in select American cities Friday.) The MPAA had rated 3 Generations R, which meant that children under 17 couldn't see it without an adult. Weinstein did what he always does: cry foul in the media.

Weinstein won; the film is now rated PG-13. But all the bluster can't disguise the fact that Weinstein and his company are struggling with a force far more threatening than ratings: cash flow.

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For decades, Weinstein bestrode the Oscars like a colossus, pulling off coup after coup (pushing Shakespeare in Love to a best-picture victory over Saving Private Ryan; winning two in a row with The King's Speech and The Artist). He held sway over a stable of actors: "Working for Harvey is like working for the mafia," Gwyneth Paltrow once told me, laughing. "There are all these favours." Pop-culture fare such as Entourage referred to him by first name alone.

He's regularly been dogged by money woes, both at TWC and his previous company, Miramax – mainly, he says, because he releases the bulk of his films in the fourth quarter of the year, as Oscar bait, so his cash flows in late.

But 2016 was an exceptionally horribilis annus. From 2012 to 2015, TWC's share of the U.S. box office ranged from 2 per cent to 4.3 per cent, and its grosses from $222-million (U.S.) to $492-million. In 2016, however, its box office was a mere 0.6 per cent, and its grosses were only $64-million. Worse, most of that came from prior years' films; his 2016 slate earned only $15-million. Weinstein publicly admitted TWC was seeking investors, and considering selling off its lucrative film and TV libraries.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the cash-flow problems led to crazy release patterns for the films they did have. The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as McDonald's entrepreneur Ray Kroc, was originally slated for November, 2016. Then Weinstein moved it up to Aug. 5 – not exactly prime Oscar time. He claimed he didn't want it to compete with his other Oscar movie, Lion. Then he scrapped The Founder's August release, hastily threw it out without fanfare the last week in December for a qualifying run, and moved its wide release to Jan. 20 – even more a graveyard than August. As a result, it earned a mere $12.8-million and zero Oscar nods.

Even more ham-handed, The Founder's opening date put it into direct conflict with another Weinstein release, the way-too-similar Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey as a miner caught in a scandal. It came out this past Jan. 27, and earned only $7.2-million. FilmNation, which co-financed The Founder, promptly sued TWC for $15-million, for violating the non-compete clause in their financing agreement. Even if TWC wins, defending the suit will further drain their cash.

Similarly, the pricey period drama Tulip Fever, starring Alicia Vikander, was originally scheduled to come out July 15, 2016. On July 6, Weinstein pulled it, announced new release dates, then retracted them. It's now slated for this upcoming Aug. 25.

3 Generations (under a previous title, About Ray) played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. Prospects looked good. Transgender issues were in the news. Fanning was on a hot streak.

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She knew some trans kids from her high school in Studio City, Fanning told me in an interview. To further educate herself, she "met with groups of trans boys, both in person and over Skype. I was surprised and impressed by how brave they were. I don't know if I'd be able to open up to a stranger and say the personal things they said." She also watched YouTube video journals by trans teens – "I feel good today, someone called me 'sir' " – and researched the best binder to wear (T-Kingdom).

The film even had a dab of controversy, which Weinstein usually loved: Activists had criticized Gaby Dellal, the film's director, for not casting a trans actor, and for calling Ray "she." "But Ray hadn't transitioned yet," Dellal told me. "Had I found an actor who'd started testosterone it would have defeated the story. And I didn't call my character 'she.' I was referring to my actress.

"My focus was not solely on the trans character, but on all three women," Dellal continued. "I wanted it to be relatable, so every parent would be able to identify whatever thing is happening with their own child, and think about what they can do to assist, no matter how worried or impotent they feel."

But, three days before its Sept. 18, 2015, release, Weinstein pulled the film. It resurfaced in April, 2016; Dellal reported via Instagram that she was re-cutting it. In late 2016, TWC floated it into some international markets, but held off on North America until now.

On the ratings issue, Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, stated that the MPAA rating "sends a dangerous message to this already marginalized community," and that the film "will help undo some of the damage Hollywood has caused" by repeatedly portraying trans people as "psychopathic killers, deviant freaks or pathetic victims."

On the opposing side, Tim Winter, the president of the Parents Television Council, fired back, "The most worn-out page in Harvey Weinstein's playbook describes how to whine about an age rating from the MPAA … suggesting that his film is too important to be rated accurately."

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Weinstein, of course, won. But will 3 Generations?

That's the Catch-22 of film releasing, especially for the art-house fare TWC is famous for – 3 Generations cost $5-million to make. A proper marketing budget would run three times that, minimum. But without marketing, a film never gets the chance to earn its money back. TWC is caught in that downward spiral.

The company has two films positioned for 2018 Oscars: Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara, due out Nov. 24, and The Current War, the true story of the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to dominate the U.S. electricity market, due Dec. 22. Maybe they will swoop down like Superman, and pull TWC out of its free-fall before it hits the pavement. As Weinstein told the Hollywood Reporter recently, "Reports about my death are very premature."

Or maybe those dates will change, too. The Six Billion Dollar Man, starring Mark Wahlberg, which was also due in 2017, is currently unscheduled.

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