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Harvey Weinstein On Hollywood's Heated Oscar Race

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If you think the presidential campaigns are heating up, visit Hollywood — where campaigns of a different sort are kicking into overdrive. It's Oscar season, and studios are orchestrating a blitz of interviews, ads and billboards in an attempt to influence academy voters.

If this season has a commander in chief, it's producer Harvey Weinstein. He is credited with inventing the modern Oscar campaign — famously beating out Saving Private Ryan for best picture with Shakespeare in Love.

He's co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., and, along with his brother Bob, founded Miramax Films. They've won scores of Academy Awards, including last year's Best Picture-winner, The King's Speech. Weinstein joined NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about the business of making movies — and the business of making movies into Oscar winners.

Interview Highlights

On buying the distribution rights and throwing his support behind the romance film The Artist, which, as a black-and-white, nearly silent film, seems like a less likely Oscar pick

"I think sometimes we in the industry have to do ambitious projects. Here was a movie directed no doubt by a French director but shot in Los Angeles, and it's an homage to American movies. When we talk about Oscars, it's almost as a symbol of excellence, and the American public and the worldwide public accept that symbol. So, [when] a movie like The Artist that costs $14 million ... has to go out and compete with movies that cost $140 million ... how does David deal with Goliath?"

On a political lesson that has helped him promote films and get audiences into theaters

"I ... grew up in politics and I used to work for the Democratic Party. When I first got into politics, I met Frank Sedita, who was the mayor of Buffalo ... and he told me: 'When I was young, Harvey, we didn't have media TV advertising or any of those things to get a crowd. ... It's hard to get people's attention. ... What we used to do is throw a little bomb in the middle of the street. Everybody would come out of their houses in the 1920s to see what all the fuss was.' [Sedita would] grab a soapbox, get up and say, 'Hi, I'm Frank Sedita and I'm running for so-and-so.'

"The metaphor to me was: If you can make some noise, perhaps you can find a way to get people away from seeing the stupider movie that week or the movie that the kids want to go to. ... You just say, 'You know what? I'm sorry, guys, I'm going to go and nourish my mind instead.' "

On whether he will run competing campaigns for best actress between Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady

"No, it's not about a campaign, you know, with either of them. All I can tell you is: There's no competition between these guys. They really aren't ... they are artists ... it's not about that."

On more competitive actors and actresses who will include the need for an Oscar campaign in their contracts

"Yes, and sometimes I've had to take out some of the funniest ads in my life: 'For your consideration ...' and then you look at, fill in the name, and you go, 'Oh my god, this is embarrassing. Come on, what person put a gun to my head to make me take the ad out?' "

On his reputation for being "brutal" — or as he's described it, "honest" in an industry where people tell lies

"Where do people get words like 'brutal'? If you sit down with somebody and say, 'Look, I think we can improve this ... that wasn't quite what it should be,' 99 percent of the time when I have to do that, it's quiet and done with great reserve. If there is a raising of a voice, it's only because it's the 20th time and it's exasperating.

"I must admit, even though I'm the product of two Jewish parents, I think the Irish temper got in there somewhere, so I'm going to check Mom's genealogy."

On the value of an Oscar win or an Oscar nomination

"Take My Week With Marilyn, for example. If Michelle Williams gets nominated for an Academy Award, it will spur tremendous interest in the movie. My Week With Marilyn cost $10 million — the whole movie. I mean, the work that everybody did and the sacrifices people made to do that on that kind of budget — it can transform the financial life of the movie.

"More importantly than the fact that everybody makes a profit, which is not a bad thing ... is the fact that if it works, more people, not us only, will make other kinds of movies. They'll have the appetite for it. Last year, when Black Swan, True Grit and King's Speech all grossed over $100 million, it gave studios and independent financiers the confidence to make daring movies and not do the same old you-know-what."

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