Miramax: What a moviegoer felt like, back in the summer of '89

Now that Miramax has finally, sadly, been effectively shut down, its offices shuttered, I promise I won’t subject you to any hand-wringing about the end of an era — mostly because I got the hand-wringing out of the way in two previous posts. Last fall, when Disney first downsized Miramax, and it was already clear that the company’s days were numbered, I took a look at what that decision portended for the future of studio specialty divisions, and for the larger world of independent film. A month later, when the company’s New York offices were closed, I talked about the central place that Miramax occupied in the history of New York movie culture. Now, at last, the company really has passed into history. That should be an upsetting and more than slightly ominous thing for anyone who loves movies.

Right now, however, I want to remember Miramax by going back to a moment – the moment, in fact, when Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s company first shook up the movie world (though no one at the time, not even Harvey and Bob, could fully have guessed what was coming). It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in August of 1989, and sex, lies, and videotape had just opened the day before. I lived in Boston at the time, and I was standing in a very long line to see it at the city’s premiere five-screen indie-art multiplex, the Nickelodeon. Like most of the people on line, I knew virtually nothing about the film but its title (I had seen James Spader play more than a few WASP slimeballs in ’80s teen movies). Yet the title was enough. It wasn’t just the lower-case sensational bluntness that hooked you; it was the teasing yet unmistakable implication of home-video porn in the mixing of those two seemingly polar-opposite concepts — sex (who wouldn’t want to see a movie that starts with…sex?) and videotape (a word that seemed, at the time, so technological, even though it now sounds about as advanced as “ham radio”).

What I remember best — and trust me, I am not exaggerating this — was the extraordinary burbling of anticipation that ran up and down that ticket line. The films at the Nickelodeon, from My Dinner with André to Barfly to Au Revoir, Les Enfants, often played to eager sellout crowds. But sex, lies, even before we’d seen it, truly felt like something…different. Something bold, ahead of the curve, with novel hints of sleaze and danger. At that point, even when they were good, independent films — which is to say, films without marquee stars — had an earnestness to them. They meant well; they were out to be interesting and artistic. Whereas sex, lies, and videotape sounded like a serious movie (that would be the “lies” part), yet one that might also offer up a deeper version of the unabashed cheap thrills that were often a part of the pleasure of Hollywood movies.

And, in fact, that’s just what it did. It turned out that the film’s young director, Steven Soderbergh, had beaten the Hollywood players at their own game. sex, lies wasn’t just a “good movie” — it was a new kind of canny, semi-voyeuristic independent sensation. And from that moment on, the company that released it, Miramax, was off and running.

Back in the summer of ’89, though, one other movie ruled as well. Exactly six weeks before the launch of sex, lies, another picture opened that had people waiting to see it in long, eager, excited lines: Tim Burton’s mad comic-book carnival of a gothic blockbuster, Batman. It was a memorable event — yet I confess that I had to see it a second time to fully appreciate its dark spectacular dazzle, because the first time, the thing I remember most is that the movie itself seemed almost a footnote to the juggernaut of marketing that had preceded it. Batman, as much as sex, lies, and videotape, marked the dawn of a new movie era: the corporate age of saturation advertising, when movies would be openly sold as “franchises” (a fast-food term that had yet to penetrate Hollywood), and special-effects fantasy would now conquer all.

So maybe a part of the excitement I still remember from 21 years ago, waiting to see sex, lies, and videotape, is that the newness of it all came along at exactly the right moment — just when the trends toward outsize, action-driven blockbuster entertainment that had been surging through Hollywood in the ’80s had, at last, taken over. Batman, in its way, was a culmination. But sex, lies, and videotape was a revolution. And though I barely even registered the name of the company that was releasing it, Miramax, I knew one thing: As a moviegoer, standing on that line, I felt something bigger than anticipation. I felt hope.


Comments (14 total) Add your comment
  • RubyBaby

    I remember two things from that year in moviegoing: the overwhelming marketing for Batman (heck, I kept my Batman logoed copy of Premiere magazine for ages) and seeing…and subsequently talking up a storm about…sex, lies and videotape. I too saw the film on a sunny day, sneaking out of law school early for the privilege.

    But my strongest memory of sex,lies around the time was screaming at the tv during the Oscar broadcast the subsequent March (or was it an April back then?) willing the Oscar for writing go to Steven Soderbergh for the film…alas it didn’t. The nomination, I know, I know, was enough.

    Although I mourn the passing of Miramax, Bob and Harvey are still hanging around, contributing to the indie cause, albeit using their own names this time around and in, currently, smaller capacity. But I wouldn’t be the least surprised to hear of their negotiating to buy back the rights to the Miramax name and trademarked NYC skyline logo , since Disney no longer, sadly, has a use for it. May at least the idea behind it all rise again, even if the name doesn’t.

  • Mac

    Owen, you remember some of the things I do about the movie, although at the time I was just a teenager. I too thought that the movie sounded technological and kinky. When it came out on videotape, I just new that it would be impossible to rent because it was so obviously porn. Even though the title may have aged a bit, the movie still seems racy to me.

  • downtown diva

    I think my favorite Miramax movie was Serendipity.

  • paige

    ugh i can still remember myself kicking and screaming because my brothers went to see Batman and refused to take me… worst. summer. ever. :-(

  • Dana

    loved sex, lies and videotape I agree did feel very different back in the day now not so much

  • niki

    I LOVE JAMES SPADER!!!

  • Rob Grizzly

    I’ll give Miramax credit for being able to campaign Oscar hopefuls better than perhaps any other studio, but that’s about it for me.

  • jb

    There were a lot of very good movies in the summer of 89. The popularity of sex/lies started happening towards the end of summer, when the batman hoopla was starting to fade…definitely a nice alternative to a blockbuster and the beginning of a strategy to match.

  • amj

    Oh, the summer of 1989! The year I graduated from high school. What great memories you bring back talking about these two movies. Miramax will be missed by me. I too love James Spader even if he did creep me out for the majority fo the 80’s.

    • jannghi

      I also graduated from High school in 1989 and at 18 had no interest in “Sex, lies and videotape.” More than 20 years later and I still have not seen it!

  • Mike

    I remember August of 1989 pretty well. I was 10 years old and my Dad and I went to see a movie that I would never forget… James Cameron’s “The Abyss” Every other kid that summer was “Batman” crazy. I thought it was OK. But “The Abyss’ was a techno-marvel filled with adventure, sharply etched characters, a sly sense of humor and of course; some of the most amazing visual effects seen up to that time. Of course the movie was a box office disappointment and Tim Burton’s movie was a phenomenon. But today compared to “The Dark Knight” “Batman” feels to me like watchable hokum with Jack Nicholson’s Joker hamming it up; a real contrast to Heath Ledger’s take. But “The Abyss” was the future of filmmaking spectacle. Still one of my favorite films.

  • anastasia

    21 years ago I was 3. But I can honestly say that sex, lies, and videotape is easily in my top 10 movies. I love that James Spader got to a point where he was not the yuppie jerk. I’m so happy that Andie McDowell didn’t have to completely be re-dubbed. and Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows still scare me. It was raw, passionate, and not even a little bit explicit, (at least not as much as you would expect from the title.) I love this movie and I thank Miramax for giving it to us.

  • JoshD

    Two movie memories from 1989. I was 15. The first memory was also Batman. We had to go opening day. There was a theater near us that was under renovation. We had to buy tickets and wait in part of the building that was still under construction. As much as I didn’t mind it then, I would never do that now. I rarely see the need to go opening day anymore. My second memory is going to see Do the Right Thing, sitting next to my mom. It wasn’t my first rated-R movie, but it was odd seeing that one with her. I didn’t see sex, lies, and videotapes for another ten years.

  • evelyn garver

    I think one of Miramax’s greatest acomplishments is MY LEFT FOOT,which also came in 1989. It helped launch the career of the man many feel is today’s greatest living actor.

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