Could the big studio's interference signal trouble for other indie producers?

The indie film world’s worst nightmare is now a reality.

Last summer, October Films — an indie boutique known for such arty fare as Breaking the Waves and Secrets & Lies — was forced by its new parent company, Seagram’s Universal Studios, to drop a small movie called Happiness — an exploration of pedophilia, masturbation, and alienation in suburbia. But even though the movie is as disturbingly un-Hallmark as independent movies get, it has been hailed by many critics as a challengingly nuanced artistic achievement. Even before Universal dumped it, it had brought home the International Critics Prize from Cannes, and now it looks like the art-house hit of the fall, raking in close to $250,000 on just six screens (in New York City and L.A.) in less than two weeks.

In other words, Universal dropped Happiness solely because of its content. And while its content (specifically pedophilia) makes Happiness an extreme case, the fact that such a well-praised film was so easily jettisoned by the parent company points to a new reality for many independent film distributors: They aren’t as independent as they used to be. While they’re enjoying the deep pockets of conglomerate owners, they also must be prepared to navigate the whims and concerns of overlords made nervous by dipping stock prices and potential boycotts. Such a risk-averse environment makes Happiness seem like a resonant cautionary tale. ”My sense is that it could happen with any distributor that is owned by a larger company,” says Killer Film’s Christine Vachon, one of Happiness‘ producers.

Of course, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. Last year Universal bought a majority stake in October, following the lead of other major entertainment conglomerates that have either snapped up indies (Disney’s 1993 acquisition of Miramax) or set them up in-house (Fox’s creation of Fox Searchlight in 1995). The marriage would provide the studio both edgy cred and lucrative low-budget movies. Universal could offer financial security as well as TV and video deals. As one of its first films to produce under the arrangement, October chose Happiness.

The dark-as-a-black-hole comedy — director Todd Solondz’s follow-up to his 1996 teen-angst hit Welcome to the Dollhouse — was completed for less than $3 million. Happiness had critics cheering at Cannes last May, but the honeymoon between October and Universal was about to come to an end. Execs at Universal, including president and COO Ron Meyer, soon got a look at the film and, according to reports, were horrified by Solondz’s sympathetic portrayal of Happiness‘ pedophile (played by Dylan Baker), a loving father who nevertheless drugs his 11-year-old son’s classmates and sodomizes them. Happiness‘ Stateside release was quashed.

The film didn’t stay on the shelf long enough to collect dust, however. October quickly sold it back to two of its producers, Ted Hope and James Schamus of Good Machine, a New York production company that is now releasing the unrated Happiness on its own. ”I guess October thought they had more internal freedom than they did,” says Bob Berney, one of the execs distributing the film for Good Machine. Neither Universal nor October will comment on the decision to drop the film. ”They’ve been silent,” says Vachon. ”I think they just wish this would all go away.”

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