Behind the Screens

As president of Texas-financed Magnolia Pictures, respected indie-film vet Eamonn Bowles projects a bright future

All Banowsky had to do was convince Bowles to take the leap. Problem was, at first, he just wasn't interested. He says that when Banowsky came calling, he "didn't expect much." He agreed to the meeting because the guy from Texas was buying lunch.

Eamonn Bowles, raised in New Rochelle, New York--home to Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show--studied film like most young filmmakers in New York in the 1970s and '80s, by hanging out at theaters with romantic names like the Bleeker Street Cinema and the Thalia catching double bills of European and obscure American films. Bowles and the other art-film brats--many of whom would become directors, distributors and pals over the years--would routinely catch a dozen movies a week, which barely satisfied the starving students of cinema.

Eamonn is a punk rocker: Bowles fronts a downtown New York band called The Martinets.
Eamonn is a punk rocker: Bowles fronts a downtown New York band called The Martinets.

He studied some film at SUNY-New Paltz--"a total drug school," Bowles says of the university also attended by John Turturro--but upon graduation found himself stuck in odd jobs. After stumbling into Ben Barenholtz, he'd never want for film work again. Indeed, when he left Barenholtz's Libra Films in 1983, he immediately went to work for a company called TeleCulture, which handled U.S. distribution for writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-hour film Berlin-Alexanderplatz--the longest movie ever released in this country.

In 1986, he landed at Samuel Goldwyn: He had seen Alex Cox's Sid Vicious bio Sid and Nancy and wanted to work for the company that distributed it. He was hired on as head of East Coast sales, meaning it was his job to get Goldwyn films into theaters along the Eastern seaboard. Before long, he received a promotion and packed his bags: Goldwyn was shipping Bowles to Los Angeles to head up its theatrical distribution department--hell of a gig, but in a lousy town. He and his wife would spend the next two years trying to figure out how to leave L.A. In the meantime, he and Goldwyn had a long string of successes.

"They were surprised I was competent," Bowles says, laughing. "And we had a great run when I was head of theatrical at Goldwyn. We had Much Ado About Nothing, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Madness of King George. We also had the Martin Lawrence concert film You So Crazy, which at the time we picked up from Miramax, which couldn't release it because it was NC-17. Then we turned around and three weeks later had it on over 400 screens and grossed over $10 million, which was huge for us."

Then Harvey Weinstein came calling, several times, offering Bowles one of a handful of available jobs at Miramax: He could head up the West Coast marketing office, he could run the New York acquisitions department or he could start up a new specialty division Miramax was developing to handle potentially controversial, hard-to-distribute films. In May 1995, Bowles and his wife, with 3-year-old twins and a third child on the way, opted to move back to New York to take the acquisitions gig. Almost immediately after landing in Manhattan, Bowles found himself in charge of Miramax's new division--a job he never wanted. Nonetheless, he was instrumental in setting up the Shining Excalibur offshoot for the Weinsteins to handle Larry Clark's 1995 film Kids, set in an adult-free world where skatepunk teens drink and screw beneath the shadow of AIDS. By August 1995, he was on CNN defending Miramax's decision to release the movie, assailed by some critics as dolled-up kiddie porn.

"I didn't mind dealing with Kids," Bowles says. "I just thought as a long-term thing, after Kids, I'd get saddled with films Miramax didn't know what to do with. I was afraid of that. But Kids I really wanted to do, although it was a bit nerve-racking. I had to put the phone in my wife's name. I knew it was going to be insanely controversial and high-profile."

The Miramax job provided Bowles with what is essentially the best gig in the indie-film world: As head of New York acquisitions, he saw hundreds of films a year and was a major figure in deciding what Miramax bought and what audiences eventually saw. "You become like a god," he says facetiously. But it was also an exasperating experience, since Bowles couldn't make the decisions himself; instead, he could only suggest things to Harvey and Bob, who had final say-so. Ultimately, it got wearying doing their bidding. It's hard to maintain your own vision when you're always looking through someone else's glasses.

Bowles did have his successes at Miramax: He oversaw the marketing of such art-house hits as Kolya and Shall We Dance? and brought Sling Blade to the Weinsteins' attention before other distributors snapped it up. He even convinced Shooting Gallery, the New York-based production company that financed Thornton's directorial debut, to send Harvey a tape hours before distributors in New York and Los Angeles were to screen the movie in anticipation of making their own bids. Harvey was in France, yet he still managed to make a deal before the Los Angeles screening was over. In the end, Miramax paid some $10 million for the movie--a blockbuster deal for a small picture that wound up grossing $25 million during its U.S. run in late 1996 and early '97. Not long after that, Bowles was out the door.

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