“Absolutely, 100 percent, we will qualify this film for the Academy Awards this year,” Harvey Weinstein said after the gala screening, extolling it — despite a muted response — as his big bet at the annual derby where he so often placed horses.
Three weeks later, Weinstein was accused by dozens of women of sexual misconduct, leading to him getting kicked out of his company, the movie industry and, pending a criminal trial, society at large.
But that didn’t kill the movie. It just caused the film to come back much later, from very different gatekeepers, with Weinstein’s name entirely scrubbed.
“The Upside,” in fact, will hit theaters this weekend via the mid-budget studio STX Films. Its release offers a specter of controversy thanks to Hart, who was recently ousted as Oscars host because of past tweets in which he joked about such things as violently discouraging his son from being gay and a subsequent refusal to heed Oscar producers' request that he walk them back. (And who continued feeding the headlines with a media non-apology tour.)
The film is also evidence of something else. “The Upside” isn’t just a movie Weinstein developed and drove forward. It’s a totem of his last days in the bunker, a fevered Hail Mary from a man whose business was collapsing even before the first of the 2017 #MeToo allegations were printed.
“I would say it’s hexed," said one executive at another film company who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to sour relations in the industry, “but I would also ask why Harvey made this movie in the first place.”
That “The Upside” is somehow reaching some 3,000 theaters this weekend despite all that occurred after The Weinstein Company went under speaks to how idiosyncratic the modern film business — at least the part not cranking out superhero movies — can be these days.
That it exists in the first place tells of Weinstein’s desperation.
Weinstein’s interest in the film took root in 2011 when the former mogul, still very much in his second-act heyday after Oscar winners like “The King’s Speech,” became enamored with “The Intouchables,” a French-language dramedy about a physically disabled man and his unlikely caretaker of African descent. The movie had yet to see the light of day even in its native country. But Weinstein was convinced it had the heart to be a mainstream crowd-pleaser. So he snapped up U.S. and a host of other distribution rights along with English-language remake rights.
Weinstein was partly correct. The foreign-language movie was a smash around the world to the tune of $400 million. But it did little business here when he released it, grossing just about $10 million. Nice for an art house film. Not for a crowd-pleaser.
But over the following years Weinstein’s belief in the remake only increased, often to the mystification of his staff. (A former Weinstein Company executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation, said: “He was totally obsessed with it. It was never clear why.”)
Here was a movie that seemed a far cry from the upscale, filmmaker-driven movies like “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Inglourious Basterds” he’d been reeling off just a few years earlier. And here, too, was a movie criticized for its racial politics — black immigrant to the West saves privileged white man. It seemed increasingly out of step for an executive who, at least publicly, liked to paint himself as a paragon of progressivism.
But Weinstein pressed on, leaning on talent to get it made. He convinced the director of "Bridesmaids” to sign on and, when he left, the man who made “Ace Ventura” to do the same. He interested Chris Tucker, who seldom makes movies anymore, to star. He even got Colin Firth, who’d won as Oscar for “The King’s Speech” to sign on for one of the leads.
Weinstein pressed on, because he had to. The old playbook had failed him.
Weinstein’s formula of taking gently upscale movies and marketing them to mainstream audiences was now being tried all over the place, often more effectively. The aggressive Oscar campaign tactics he used early on were slowly but surely being outlawed. Awards voters had ceased falling under his spell. He didn’t have the artist relationships anymore either, as many former loyalists like Martin Scorsese realized they could get more money and fewer editing-room headaches elsewhere.
And maybe most important, Weinstein lost the financial clout. He had been sticking his company together with the banking equivalent of duct tape and chewing gum and was perennially cash-strapped. He could conjure up a news release but hardly box office dollars. He had just one movie gross more than $60 million in the entirety of 2015 and 2016. “The Upside” was all he could do. “The Upside” was his ticket out.
Weinstein would eventually come upon Cranston and Hart, each needing the movie, too — Cranston to establish a leading-man film career in the wake of “Breaking Bad,” Hart to show his more dramatic side. He also recruited Neil Burger, a director with some modest success, though it was almost always of the genre variety, “Divergent" and “Limitless." He hired Nicole Kidman, too.
Weinstein needed the movie to work badly — needed it to work at the box office that following March, needed it, in his mind, on the awards circuit, which would keep him on the map and keep dollars and filmmakers flowing. Without established brands to ensure continued profits, a studio like The Weinstein Company needed to rely on name recognition of a different sort: the Oscars, along with Harvey Weinstein’s perceived mojo.
In fact, he pushed for the movie to go to Toronto in September 2017 over the strong objections of the filmmakers, who said it would do the film little good six months ahead of its release, according to a person familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about them publicly.
(Weinstein was actually restricted from releasing the movie until March because Sony Pictures, which was releasing Hart’s "Jumanji” at Christmas, had a window of publicity exclusivity for the star. But Weinstein thought a through-the-roof Toronto screening would change the studio’s mind and allow for a so-called qualifying run in December that would make it eligible for the 2018 Oscars. The premiere comment about qualifying was said out of school; he needed Sony’s permission, which he did not have.)
And so after the film screened, Weinstein’s staff was urgently calling reporters and taste makers to get their thoughts. This was a common Weinstein move, because he would only have money to market and distribute a certain number of films in a given year, so he wanted to read tea leaves on which to prioritize. In the case of “The Upside” it didn’t really matter — he didn’t have that many other choices.
All that would become moot after dozens of women in the entertainment industry and beyond came forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual coercion, harassment and abuse over many years, prompting the board to push him out and the company to collapse. It was then sold off for parts to a Texas hedge fund called Lantern Capital. “The Upside” went with it, seemingly orphaned like several other movies.
Except the business is hungry for product. And so STX, a newish studio that outside of the “Bad Moms” movies has struggled for breakout hits, agreed this past summer to take “The Upside” off Lantern’s hands for an undisclosed, though almost certainly bargain-basement, price.
You could see the logic: Hart’s comedies, often released in a soft month of January, tended to do well (the “Ride Along” pictures, for example).
What you couldn’t see was the Weinstein name. A news release announcing the deal didn’t mention Weinstein at all in its 300 words, even though he is the reason it exists. Instead, the release had STX executives noting: “This is a hilariously funny and emotionally affecting film. It evokes elements of films like ‘Trading Places’ and ‘Scent of a Woman’ while still being completely fresh with characters that are as memorable as they are hysterical.”
A Lantern executive paid homage only to its new studio. “STX is an ideal distribution partner for this heartwarming film that has universal appeal and features world-class performances.” (Neither STX nor Burger would comment for this piece.)
Of course, what the company couldn’t see that avoiding one controversial personality would lead them to another.
Several weeks before the movie’s release, Hart would find himself in hot water because of his tweets. The Oscar producers demanded he apologize. Responding to that request, Hart said “I chose to pass, I passed on the apology." He said he had no need at this time to address the many who felt offended.
The attention, oddly, has kept his name and the movie in the headlines. “Total Awareness,” a metric take by pre-release audience surveyors, has risen seven percentage points in the past 48 hours, to 61 percent. A movie that would have gotten a modest release is suddenly on a few more people’s radars. (“Definite interest,” a more concrete bellwether of potential sales, remains lower at 40 percent, though it’s risen this week, too.)
“The Upside” is unlikely to be a hit — those pre-release tracking polls put its opening this weekend at around $10 million, low for a traditional Hart January release. Still, it’s not that far off some of his work — "The Wedding Ringer” opened to $20 million four years ago.
If it does well, Weinstein wouldn’t get any money; that’s how the Lantern deal was structured. But any success will be a kind of retroactive validation of Weinstein’s taste and belief.
And if the film flops? One former company executive noted Weinstein would probably have one reaction: “He would say he could have marketed it better.”