The real shock is that no one is really shocked. On July 1, October Films, under pressure from corporate owner Universal, confirmed that it was jettisoning Cannes sensation Happiness, winner of the festival’s International Critics’ Prize. The problem, as Universal saw it, is the movie’s envelope pushing, which includes two ejaculation shots and a disturbing exploration of pedophilia. Director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse) is crying foul. “More independents have been bought up by big companies, [leading to] different meanings of indie,” he says. “It’s sad that [Universal] chose the indie meaning hip over the indie meaning an independent voice.”
October didn’t ask Solondz to cut his film, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Lara Flynn Boyle: “Perhaps in the mind of Seagram’s [which owns Universal] something’s inherently evil in this film that no one cut can eradicate.” Universal will not comment.
What sets this latest fracas apart from similar controversies is how acceptable corporate pressures have become as an excuse to shelve a film. Two years ago, a minor scandal erupted when it became clear that Fine Line was being blocked from releasing Crash because of objections raised by parent company Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner, who also refused to air Bastard Out of Carolina on TNT. (Fine Line later did release Crash; Bastard ran on Showtime.) Now John Schmidt, copresident of October, flatly states that Happiness doesn’t fit Seagram/Universal’s image. Adds exec producer Ted Hope: “If I had a Fortune 500 company, I’d be worried too.” Hope’s Good Machine, which coproduced Happiness with Killer Films, will distribute it in October.
The indie world fears this chilling effect is here to stay. “Midnight Cowboy was rated X, and it won Best Picture,” says Marcus Hu, copresident of Strand Releasing, an indie without corporate ties. “I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen again.”
—With reporting by Jessica Shaw