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Artisan Entertainment: A Small Company That Made Some Giant Films

By Martin Keady · April 3, 2023

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“Artisan” is a word that has become almost ubiquitous recently, especially when it is followed by the words “bread” or “coffee.” Meaning “a skilled worker or craftsman,” its use was never as widespread as it has become in the last few years. It is ironic because Artisan Entertainment was arguably the greatest turn-of-the-millennium film company. For about a decade, from the end of the 20th century to the start of the 21st, it made (or helped to make) a handful of films, including Reservoir Dogs, The Blair Witch Project, and Requiem For A Dream, that was among the most extraordinary films made by anyone anywhere as cinema entered its second century of existence.  

Artisan Entertainment’s roots were in video, the now-defunct film format that can be seen historically as the crucial bridge between 20th-century cinema (films shown on big screens in public places) and 21st-century cinema (films mostly viewed on small screens in private places, especially people’s homes). Indeed, the earliest iterations of Artisan, which was formed at the start of the video boom in 1981, actually featured the word “video” prominently in their titles (e.g., International Video Entertainment). The company further expanded by acquiring the home video rights to films made by larger companies, including EMI Films and Miramax Films, which were not nearly as astute as it was in realizing the enormous commercial potential of video.

It was only in the 1990s, a decade after its formation, that the forerunners of Artisan Entertainment became involved not just in film (or video) distribution but film production, enjoying a huge — indeed, era-defining — hit with Reservoir Dogs (1992). And in the late 1990s, half a decade after the success of Reservoir Dogs, Artisan actually became Artisan, which coincided with its brief but truly brilliant stint as a production company. Although that period was ultimately short-lived, effectively ending with Artisan’s acquisition by Lions Gate Entertainment in 2003, for about five years, it was a small company that made a handful of films that had a giant impact, both creatively and commercially. 

Below we’ll uncover the finest scripts from Artisan Entertainment’s short-lived imperial phase. If not quite a magnificent seven, they are certainly a fine handful.

Scripts from this Article

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Reservoir Dogs is probably the most important screenplay of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This script truly introduced post-modernism (a development of modernism to include awareness and even self-consciousness about earlier styles of writing and creation) to screenwriting in the same way that William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch (1959) truly introduced post-modernism to prose, including the novel. 

Artisan invested the then-huge sum of a million dollars to finance Quentin Tarantino’s incendiary, wise-cracking, Madonna-quoting updating of classic 70s crime drama (complete with the ultra-violence that it was impossible to show in the 1970s), notably The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), which gave QT the idea for color-coding his characters (Mr. Brown et al). However, they were repaid in spades with what was probably the last indie film to consume first cinema and then the wider popular culture in a way that is almost unimaginable now in our age of streaming.

Read More: The Defining Scripts of Tarantino

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Pi (1998)

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky

Pi was not the first film proper of the newly renamed Artisan; that title belongs to I Went Down (also 1998), a fairly forgettable Irish crime-drama that was one of the countless pale imitations of Reservoir Dogs that abounded in the 1990s. However, it might as well have been because it immediately forged the newly christened Artisan’s reputation as the natural home for odd, strange, and visually arresting films that lived long in the viewer’s imagination or even nightmares. 

Ultimately, great studios (or great production companies) depend on great filmmakers. So, just as RKO Pictures, the B-movie studio that greenlit Citizen Kane because all the bigger studios at the time were too scared to make a film about Randolph Heart, is remembered today because of Orson Welles, so Artisan’s brief period in the spotlight was largely due to Darren Aronofsky. He wrote and directed Pi, the truly sui generis story of an out-of-work maths genius who finds himself being pursued by Wall Street brokers, secret agents, and even Hasidic Jews, who are all convinced that he has somehow worked out the meaning of life and more importantly the workings of the stock market. 

Pi may be all about numbers and shot in stunning black-and-white (proving the old theory that color is lifelike, but black-and-white is cinematic), but it is built on a brilliant script. Like all good writers, Aronofsky knows all about being alone and conveys the agonies of isolation brilliantly. Although there are relatively few words in the screenplay, each one is as carefully calculated as the complex mathematical calculations that the hero tries to solve. And the ending of the film, in which he tries to stop his hard-won private knowledge from becoming public property (such that it can be commercially exploited), is one of the most genuinely shocking acts of violence in all of modern cinema, even though modern cinema is completely saturated in violence.

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The Limey (1999)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; and Written by Lem Dobbs

It is questionable whether young cinema viewers (the fabled “millennials”) would even recognize the term “Limey,” a slang word for Britons that goes back to the halcyon days of the British Empire when scurvy was rife among British sailors and sucking on citrus fruits like limes was one of the few ways to combat it. Today, it has largely been replaced by the much simpler “Brit,” which itself may be a legacy of the “Cool Britannia” era of the 1990s when hugely successful British bands and films like Oasis and Trainspotting helped to “rebrand” the United Kingdom.

All of this only highlights how, in some ways, The Limey is an old-fashioned film. Indeed, it is effectively an Elizabethan revenge tragedy relocated to the West Coast of America at the end of the 20th century. Terence Stamp’s Englishman abroad is a career criminal investigating the suspicious death of his daughter, which eventually leads him to the home (and infinity pool) of a shady American record producer, played by another star of 1960s cinema, Peter Fonda. 

Visually, the most striking element of The Limey is how it uses flashbacks of the younger Stamp from one of his Sixties classics (Poor Cow (1967), which was Ken Loach’s first feature) to tell the back-story of his character. And verbally, Stamp’s “Limey” gangster is another one of Artisan’s almost “silent” characters, who chooses his words carefully, if he uses them at all. In this respect, Artisan’s finest scripts are a reminder, if needed, of the primacy importance of the visual in any form of screenwriting.

Read More: Here’s Every Single Movie & TV Show Steven Soderbergh Watched in 2022

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Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Written by Darren Aronofsky and Hubert Selby Jr., based on Selby Jr’s novel of the same name

Artisan’s last truly great film was its greatest, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, which remains arguably the greatest American film ever made about the reality of addiction to hard drugs (and other addictive substances). Indeed, Requiem For A Dream is Artisan’s lasting legacy: a requiem for a small film company that made a few truly great films, and above all, this one. 

In his seminal television history of hip-hop, Fight The Power: How Hip-Hop Changed The World, Public Enemy’s Chuck D. explains how he tried, in Night of the Living Baseheads and other songs, to deter children from even experimenting with hard drugs. He attempted to do so by showing how ugly hard drugs made their users look, on the basis that that was by far the most effective way to make image-conscious youngsters stay away from them. Well, Requiem For A Dream is Chuck’s thinking brought to life and the screen, as it unflinchingly depicts the grim, ceaseless misery of heroin, a drug whose rewards are almost infinitely outweighed by its risks. 

Amputation, soulless (even essentially sexless) sex shows, and talking TV sets…It’s all here in what remains Aronofsky’s finest film. In adapting Requiem For A Dream for the screen with its original author, the legendary Hubert Selby Jr. (the F. Scott Fitzgerald of American lowlife), he ensured that the film remained true to its deep, dark, even diseased roots. And in so doing, he created a movie that is simultaneously the darkest and the most dazzling of the handful of masterpieces that Artisan Entertainment created.

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Made (2001)

Written and directed by Jon Favreau

Some of the most gripping and chilling films of their time were produced by Artisan, even before it officially took on that name. Among these are dark dramas like Pi and Requiem for a Dream and truly horrifying horror films like The Blair Witch Project. It was never as successful at comedy, even black comedy, but the best of its comic output was probably Made Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn’s unofficial follow-up to the sublime Swingers (1996). 

The first thing to say about Made is that it’s not as good as Swingers. Still, few films are as good as Withnail & I’s American cousin, a classic comedy-drama about the reality of life for actors (or, more precisely, wannabe actors) in LA in the last decade of the 20th century. Nevertheless, assessed on its own merits, it is pretty good: a comedy about two lifelong friends and journeymen boxers (Favreau and Vaughn) who get themselves mixed up with the Mafia and desperately try to find a way to unmix themselves from it. 

In retrospect, Made can be seen as perhaps marking the beginning of the end for Artisan because after a decade in which it had cultivated cinematic geniuses like Tarantino and Aronofsky and enjoyed both commercial and critical success with a series of dark masterpieces in different genres, it was eventually swallowed up by Lions Gate, a much larger competitor, and its unique style of fin-de siècle film-making, indeed fin-de-millénaire film-making, was over for good.

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Artisan Entertainment played a crucial role in the evolution of cinema, particularly in the transition from big-screen to small-screen viewing. Starting as a video company, Artisan expanded by acquiring the home video rights to films and eventually became a successful production company, with Reservoir Dogs as a defining hit. Although Artisan’s stint as a production company was brief, it had a tremendous impact creatively and commercially. The company’s short-lived imperial phase produced some of the finest films of its time, which we will explore further in the following section.

Scripts from this Article