Focus: Gangs of Los Angeles

Bruising, bad-tempered movie producer Harvey Weinstein is at loggerheads with director Martin Scorsese over their epic $100m movie, out this week in the US. And if it proves a flop, the industry sharks are circling, reports Lawrence Donegan

Any new film by the celebrated director Martin Scorsese is worthy of attention but as his Gangs of New York , a sweeping tale of conflict between immigrants in nineteenth-century Manhattan starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz, is released in the United States this week, it is a subplot, the story of the film rather than the film itself, that is attracting most attention.

A scriptwriter would call this subplot the back story and it goes like this; for the past three years production of the film has been dogged by endless tales of problems with the budget, script and editing, and at the heart of the trouble is a studio executive called Harvey Weinstein, a man who has had the temerity to interfere with the artistic vision of a cinematic genius. In the past few days Weinstein, a corpulent, cigar-smoking New Yorker, has been portrayed to the American public as a cartoon version of a power-crazed movie mogul. It is an image that is not far from the truth.

As is Hollywood's way when faced with bad publicity, Weinstein and Scorsese released a statement saying they had a terrific working relationship, which no one believed, not even, it seems, the men themselves. 'I've been a bad boy on movies. But I was good with Marty,' said Weinstein. Oh really? Scorsese, who had been trying to get Gangs of New York made for more than two decades, said later: 'I found Har vey really imposing on me... the pressure was hard. Very hard.'

The wait for next weekend's reviews notwithstanding, the apparent agony that has been the making of Gangs of New York is over for Scorsese. For Weinstein and Miramax, the production company he runs with his brother Bob, it is just beginning. The film, which cost more than $100 million to make, is the biggest gamble of their careers, not to mention a startling shift in approach for a company that made its name by taking chances on small, arthouse movies for a fraction of what Scorsese's epic has cost.

Weinstein insists Miramax's financial future is not at stake at the box office, but there are many who believe its credibility as a major force in the American film industry is. Nay-sayers point to its less than stellar 2002. A series of box-office bombs has dented profits, prompting stories of arguments between Weinstein and Michael Eisner, the head of Miramax's parent company, Disney. Then there was the collapse of Talk magazine, financed by Weinstein and run by Tina Brown, with estimated losses of about $25m. Just as damagingly, stories of Weinstein's erratic behaviour and temper tantrums have become a staple of the diary columns, a trend that reached its peaklast week with the publication by the New Yorker magazine of a 16-page profile of the producer. It was, by common consent, the hatchet job to end all hatchet jobs.

Its writer, Ken Auletta described 50-year-old Weinstein as someone who 'at times appears about to burst into fury, his fists closed, his teeth clenched, his large head shaking as he loses the struggle to contain himself' before going on to list the bullying, finger-jabbing, thrown ashtrays and toe-to-toe confrontations with the heads of rival studios. Even Weinstein, who had co-operated with Auletta in the writing of the piece, conceded that his temper was 'the thing I hate most about myself'. 'It's like Ariel Sharon - you can't be a lion of the desert and then not govern properly.'

Like everything else about Weinstein, this frankly uncharac teristic mea culpa has divided the film community. His many friends plead forgiveness on his behalf, arguing that his mercurial temperament is part of what makes him a genius. His enemies say they have heard his apologies before; that with success has come hubris and, more ominously, that Weinstein has lost his touch. It says much about Weinstein's standing in the film community these days that there are many in Hollywood who fervently hope that Scorsese's film is a stone-cold flop.

The name Miramax is an amalgamation of the names of the Weinstein brothers' parents, Miriam and Max. Founded in 1979 with proceeds from the sale of Weinstein's concert promotion company and fuelled by the brothers' desire to introduce their taste for edgier, more intelligent films to a wider audience, the company was not an immediate success. Indeed its first legitimate hit didn't come for nine years, when Weinstein bought the rights to Stephen Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape for $1m. The film took $25m at the box office.

Further successes quickly followed, especially after Disney bought the company from the Weinsteins for a reported $80m - a deal which gave the brothers continued independence from studio interference and the wherewithal to bet on their hunches. Pay attention during the credits of the most successful independent films of the late Eighties and Nineties and you will often spot Miramax's squat white-on-black logo. Cinema Paradiso, My Left Foot, The Crying Game, The English Patient, Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love - all of them are Weinstein productions. It was a streak which earned the company some 40 Oscars and financial success.

Everyone loves a winner, goes the old Hollywood saying, but even during the halcyon days, there were people in the film industry who made an exception for Weinstein. There was grumbling on several fronts about his allegedly bullying behaviour; his hardball approach to making deals and, especially, about his aggressive campaigning to secure Oscar recognition for his pictures.

Most famously, he fell out with Steven Spielberg in the run-up to the 1999 Oscars when it was claimed that Miramax had leaked stories that were damaging to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan in an effort to win Academy members' votes for Shakespeare in Love . Similarly, Weinstein was accused of orchestrating a whispering campaign during last year's Oscar season against DreamWorks's A Beautiful Mind (which won Best Picture) in an effort to bolster the hopes of his own film, In The Bedroom .

Perhaps all this unpleasantness would have been forgotten had Weinstein come back in 2002 with a string of successes, but so far he hasn't, which makes the coming holiday period all the more crucial. As well as Gangs of New York , Miramax is releasing Chicago , a film version of the stage musical starring Renée Zellweger, The Hours , directed by Stephen Daldry, and George Clooney's debut behind the camera, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind . Of the four, The Hours , which has been named film of the year by the National Board of Review, and Chicago are attracting decent pre-release buzz.

However, opinion on Gangs is mixed, with some observers suggesting it is too long and dark to find a wide audience in the US. For his part, Weinstein is publicly bullish, as always. 'Yes. I am very frightened,' he said recently when asked about the company's prospects. 'I'm frightened I'm going to have a better year than last.'

There was a time when this kind of flippancy would have raised a smile around the lunch tables of Los Angeles and New York. No longer. As one senior Hollywood executive, anticipating Weinstein's downfall, told the New Yorker last week: 'This is a town that smells blood. When they smell blood they circle like sharks. In Harvey's case there is a sense that his streak has waned, that the magic may be gone.'

The GuardianTramp

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