In the summer of 1993, as indie film was gaining in popularity, Disney acquired Miramax Films, the distribution company founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The arthouse shingle was to be an autonomous entity operated with little involvement from its new corporate overlords. But then Miramax acquired Antonia Bird‘s Priest following its premiere at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival, and the Mouse House learned that even thin strings carry enormous weight.
Priest, a British drama about a man of the cloth (Linus Roache) struggling to suppress his homosexuality, won an audience award and tons of critical acclaim at TIFF while also attracting the attention of religious conservatives. The Weinsteins leaned into the controversy of the film by screening Priest for Catholic interest groups, yet they hoped the positive aspects of the well-made picture would balance out those elements viewed as offensive. Not everyone saw the film as anti-Catholic, after all, and Bird had even consulted priests while making it. But then Miramax did something particularly bold (with Bird agreeing that it was “sort of appropriate”): they publicly set the national release date for April 14, 1995 — Good Friday.
Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney at the time, wasn’t having it. He requested for the Weinsteins to move the expansion of the film, which had initially opened in New York and LA on March 24th, to later in the month (“At the end of the day, it’s my mistake, and I apologize for that,” Harvey Weinstein said of the holy day release date idea). Ten minutes from the original cut — mostly parts of a gay sex scene — were also excised from the US version to get an R rating since one thing Disney couldn’t do was put out an NC-17 or unrated film. Considering Bird initially meant for Priest to be a four-hour miniseries but was talked down to feature-length by investors, the order for further editing wasn’t anything new.
However, while not objecting to the cuts, the filmmaker, who died in 2016 (but not before making one of the decade’s best films, Ravenous), was vocal about not being a fan of the censorship. “I think it’s quite strange that you’re not allowed to show a bare man’s butt, but you can show heads being chopped off,” Bird said of the alteration to The Virginian-Pilot. “The problem here is that it involves two men. It’s really silly.”
Despite Disney’s name not directly being anywhere on the film, that didn’t stop protestors from hitting right at the owners. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called for “a boycott of all Disney products, a boycott of vacations to Disney World and Disneyland, and a boycott of the Disney cable television channel,” while also phoning in complaints to Disney headquarters so rampantly that lines were tied up and the company had to switch off a part of their switchboard. Then influential New York Cardinal John O’Connor called the film “viciously anti-Catholic,” sight unseen. Hate mail with death threats came in droves. The Knights of Columbus sold off almost $3 million worth of stock and canceled a planned trip to Disneyland. Security was increased at Disney’s offices in Burbank. Movie theaters in New Jersey that booked the film were shuttered over bomb threats.
Priest continued to be named in the news through the summer, as its domestic gross climbed above $4 million (not a huge hit, but not bad against the $1.7 million purchase price). Senator Bob Dole, who had announced his candidacy for president that April, around the time of the film’s release, went on to condemn specific movies in speeches. One of them was Priest, and upon learning of its connection to Disney, prospective first lady Elizabeth Dole announced, via her husband’s campaign manager, that she was selling her own shares in the company.
According to Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, executives at the company were furious about what was happening and felt the Weinsteins were intentionally fucking with Eisner. “We had a couple of years, ’94, ’95, when it was rough going,” then Walt Disney Studios chairman Joe Roth is quoted in the book as saying. “The amount of controversy that was connected up to Disney was terrible. There was definitely a conversation about how do you continue a business and make a profit when you are connected to these two guys.”
Disney hadn’t just dumped the movie from the start for a number of reasons. For one, they weren’t anticipating such a backlash, as they continued to insist that Miramax was separate from the family-friendly brand. Also, they’d never been hit as hard as they wound up being hit by the Catholic League before. For another, the studio had produced Bird’s sophomore feature, the Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell romance Mad Love, and was also putting that out in May 1995. Of course, the relationship to Bird probably only connected Disney to Priest more in the minds of the outraged, if it was realized at the time.
Mad Love, as it turned out, was itself already apparently marred by the connection to Priest. When Bird died, an obituary quoted her as having explained, “I was in post-production with a nice Disney teen film, which was quite edgy originally. We always thought we were making a film for 15 and up, and suddenly we had to make it for PG. Which meant I had to take the heart of the film out. That was quite a lesson. You’re not in charge, it’s not your money, it’s someone else’s, you’ve basically got to do what you’re told.”
The problems Disney faced with Priest did lead to decisions with other movies down the road, too. Miramax had acquired another controversial movie that year, Kids, and Disney wound up making the shingle give it up. Mostly in that situation, though, the issue was the movie’s NC-17 rating, which couldn’t really be fixed. And Harvey Weinstein, who backed down from helping fund the movie in its early stages right after the Disney deal, knew it. But he still picked it up when it was finished anyway. He and Bob wound up having to personally purchase Kids from their own company, at the acquisition price of $3.5 million, and release it under a new banner called Shining Excalibur Films. Fortunately for the brothers, they profited greatly on the decision.
A few years later, Kevin Smith’s Dogma was being produced at Miramax following their successful partnership with the filmmaker on Clerks and Chasing Amy (Harvey Weinstein wanted to make it right after Clerks and according to Smith even joked, pre-Priest ordeal, about putting it out on Good Friday). But the religious satire brought the Catholic League’s outrage back to the doorstep of the Mouse House, and so Disney decided to let it go.
“I can’t take this pressure,” Eisner is quoted in Down and Dirty Pictures as telling Roth, who thought Dogma being a comedy would make it less troublesome than Priest. “I can’t take that chance here.” Eisner apparently called Harvey Weinstein next and said, “If one person does not go to Disneyland because of this movie, that will be one person too many. I do not want you to release it.”
The relatively young Lionsgate (then Lions Gate) picked it up instead and made it their first wide release in late 1999, and despite Catholic groups picketing theaters, Dogma was the company’s first big hit as well (the Weinsteins still apparently managed to personally profit $20 million for their work on the movie, according to a rumor shared by Smith in the book). Five years later, they’d again team with Lionsgate, among others, when they had to buy the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 from Miramax after Disney refused to put it out. That was the last straw for the Weinsteins, who left Miramax behind in 2005.
But the divorce of Disney and the Weinsteins was rooted in those events of a decade prior. “Priest was a turning point for Miramax in a lot of ways,” the company’s then head of acquisitions Eamonn Bowles says in Down and Dirty Pictures. That’s when they saw the downside of controversy and how it could come back to bite them. And now that they were in the Disney fold, there was much more at stake than just Bob and Harvey’s film company. This was a global multinational corporation.”