April 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s tempting to say Disney was being dogmatic about the situation. But you decide: On April 7, Miramax cochairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein put up $12 million of their own money to buy all the rights to Kevin Smith’s upcoming religious comedy, Dogma. The unusual move was made because Disney, Miramax’s parent company, is uncomfortable with the film’s controversial content, which includes a descendant of Jesus working at an abortion clinic and a discussion of Joseph and Mary’s sex life. The Weinsteins will now look to sell the film to another distributor. ”Disney is an easy target for this kind of protest,” says Harvey. ”It’s their Achilles’ heel.”

This isn’t the first time the odd-fitting Disney-Miramax tandem has had problems. In 1995, the companies were blasted by Catholic groups over Miramax’s Priest, about a gay Catholic clergyman. The following year, the Weinsteins were forced to set up an ad hoc company, Shining Excalibur, to release the NC-17-rated Kids (Disney rules prohibit any of its divisions from releasing NC-17 films). However, Dogma seems different. Not only will the film not have a ratings problem, it’s a highly marketable comedy from a respected indie director (Smith made 1997’s hit Chasing Amy for Miramax). And it boasts a boatful of hot young stars, including Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Alanis Morissette, Linda Fiorentino, and Chris Rock. And as Weinstein points out: ”This is not Priest. This is a laugh-out-loud satire. Look at There’s Something About Mary. Was the hair-gel scene funny or offensive?”

So what’s the problem? Although Smith was unavailable for comment, people close to him say he attributes at least part of Disney’s skittishness to a scene in which Damon and Affleck, playing angels, walk into the board meeting of a Disney-like firm and rattle off lewd personal histories of the execs as cartoon music plays in the background. Says Brad Plevyak, who coruns a Dogma website and has a walk-on part in the film: ”Kevin said ‘I could see why Disney would have had a hard time with that.”’ (Disney has no comment.)

For his part, Harvey Weinstein denies the scene is an attack on Disney and says he is excited to be shopping Dogma around. ”After 20 years, I’m back to being an independent producer again with all my competitors on the phone promising me the world,” says Weinstein, who says there’s already been heavy interest in Dogma. ”I’m going to have breakfast at Warners and dinner at New Line. And I’m going to find out who has the best commissary and the best fringe benefits.”

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