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From the iW Vaults | A Look Back at the October Films / “Happiness” Debacle

From the iW Vaults | A Look Back at the October Films / "Happiness" Debacle

This month indieWIRE turns 15. In honor of our decade and a half in the game we’ve dug through our vaults to uncover some old goodies. Every day this month check back on indieWIRE for some old classics. Today go back to 1998, when Universal-owned October Films dropped Todd Solondz’s controversial drama “Happiness” from its fall release slate. Below find our report on what went down.

Distribution, Ratings, and Repression

by Anthony Kaufman

Nearly three weeks ago news broke that Universal-owned October Films
had dropped Todd Solondz‘s new film “Happiness” from its fall release
slate. Recently back from Cannes where the film received an
International Critic’s Prize for Best Film, “Happiness” appeared on the
road to success with October ready to reap the esteem and the profits.
But somewhere between the moment the film titillated critics on the
Riviera and that fateful day earlier this month, corporate parents
Seagram and Universal chose to completely sever themselves from the
movie, because of its provocative subject matter. Subsquently, the
film is back in the hands of its producers Killer Films and Good Machine.

The decision has raised important questions about how “independent”
the corporate-owned IndieWood studios really are, and what exactly the
future holds for ground-breaking films, especially in lieu of powerful
conglomerates — not to mention the threat of the Motion Picture
Association of America’s (MPAA) rating system.

October Films: Friend or Foe

October Films was involved in “Happiness” from the film’s beginning.
While the company refused repeated requests for comment on the
decision and the situation, according to a source close to the film,
October put $2 million into the production, fulling financing the picture.
They knew the script and they knew that it contained scenes or ideas
that could be deemed too provocative, or potentially disturbing. For
the record, however, contrary to the article in Variety that broke the
story, characters merely discuss human dismemberment in the film
and pedophilia is only implied — there are no scenes in which it is
depicted, as the Hollywood trade article stated. In fact, there is very
little specifically illicit material in the film at all. Most of its
disturbing qualities are the result of tension, subtlety, and off
screen events.

According to the same source, October Films’ partner Bingham Ray
even offered a picture of his own son to be used as a prop in the movie.
Clearly, this was one big happy family. Killer Film’s Christine
Vachon, who produced the film, says, “October was very supportive of
the film from the get go. They basically financed the film [and] were
supportive in allowing Todd to make it the way he wanted to. As you
can imagine, it was not the easiest script to get financed. But they
[October] were 100% behind it.”

“They were never a nuisance to me,” Solondz says about October’s role
during the production. “They were always supportive.” He continues,
“I’m just sad that October is not going to be able to be a part of it,
because I’m very fond of them there. We had a good relationship. They
were great champions of the movie. But such is the way of the world,”
concludes Solondz, “they have learned that they are not quite as
autonomous as they once were.”

The Black Tower: Universal and Seagram

The Variety article that broke the story reported that the move to drop the
film was a mandate from the “people in the black tower,” referring to execs
at the Southern California offices of Universal Studios, Inc. Reached late
yesteday, a Universal spokesperson maintained no comment on the source of the
decision, nor would the spokesperson comment on any aspect of the situation.
Industry insiders now claim that the decision to drop “Happiness” was actually
a directive from Seagram. Christine Vachon, who was presented with the
decision as a “fait accompli,” states definitively, “We got an indication a
couple weeks ago, that the parent company wasn’t thrilled with the film’s
subject matter.” She continues, “Seagram was not thrilled at the idea of
one of their subsidiaries distributing a film that they felt could be
perceived as pushing the envelope.”

According to David Linde, who heads up Good Machine’s International
Division, October found themselves put in position where there
was “little they could do about it.” Cutting the film to make it
somehow more palatable to the corporate parents “was the first
question we asked,” says Linde, but ultimately, as Solondz explains,
“We had such discussions, but…never was it believed that any one cut
would make the film acceptable, de facto, to Universal and Seagram.”

When asked to comment about October’s decision, Linde admits, “The
marketplace is becoming more and more difficult for the independents.
That pisses me off. Absolutely. Does what happened to this movie piss
me off? No. It’s unfortunate. Of what it indicates about the
marketplace, it is definitely troublesome. But we’re going to deal with

After the announcement, Solondz says, “People put their hand on my
shoulder, and said, ‘Are you okay?’,” but the writer-director is much
more realistic. “There are so many other things to be depressed about…
You can only get angry at the studios if you have illusions about what
their priorities are. And I don’t think I’ve ever been confused about
what Seagram’s and Universal’s priorities are.” Solondz continues,
adding that “a part of me loves the idea that I got to make a movie dealing
with such subject matter, that anyone gave me the money, and that, in
fact, it came from Universal. They paid for it. It gets wonderful
attention at Cannes and so forth, and then they give it back to me.
Really, I can’t complain. I think things might work out for the best.”

Good Machine Picks up the Pieces

One of the important outcomes of the negotiations is that Good Machine
will create a domestic distribution arm to release “Happiness” on their
own. David Linde outlined some of the financial and logistical capacities
of the new division, Good Machine Releasing, which will hire outside
veterans to run its marketing and distribution efforts. The division
will be overseen by the three principles of Good Machine: Ted Hope,
James Schamus and Linde. “We’ve raised $3 million to spend up to the
release of the movie on P & A only. And we will have the ability to spend
as much as $5.5 million on the ultimate release of the movie,” Linde says.

Dispelling doubts that the film will get less play under the auspices of
the new distributor, Linde maintains, “This film will get just as much
presentation as it would if it was distributed by October or Miramax or
anybody.” To make his case, Linde explains, “The first thing we did
when we got into this was call the exhibitors; and the exhibitors are
being unbelievably supportive of the movie.” He cites interest from
houses in Houston to Chicago to Minneapolis and all over the Northeast.

Whether or not Good Machine continues its domestic distribution efforts
after “Happiness,” Linde is unsure, but he does admit, “We’re going to
wait until after the release of ‘Happiness’ until we make further
decisions.” Additionally, Linde proposes a new way to look at the future
of distribution, “Maybe, the answer is not more distribution companies,
but producers with more savvy, more contacts, and more of a facility to
be involved in the way their films are released.”

The Rating Game: NC-17 or Unrated?

“Happiness” will likely go out unrated, according to Linde. The film
was never submitted to the MPAA for a rating, so there is no way to
determine if the film would even get the NC-17 curse. Linde did not
want to take that chance, stating, “We want the film to be marketed
and presented for what it is, which is a great movie, and there’s no
need to go through the [rating] process.” Because Good Machine, a
completely independent entity, is now distributing the film, they can
release it without a rating, whereas a larger company like October or
Miramax could not because of potential corporate parent objections.

Vachon, who also produced “Kids,” a film which could have suffered a
similar axe from Miramax‘s parent-company Disney has it not been
released through a separate distribution entity (Shining Excalibur),
says, “Of course, we think about ratings…Obviously, if there is a script
where the issue of your rating is in question, it’s usually better to
have a discussion at the very beginning about what the implications
of an ‘R’ verses an ‘NC-17’ verses going out unrated, if that’s an option.
So, we’re pretty cognizant of those things and we discuss them at
the very beginning.” When asked if October could have done what Miramax
did with “Kids” and Shining Excalibur, she says, “You would have to ask
them.” Again, repeated calls to October executives yielded no comment
from the company, deferring to the aforementioned Variety article as
the party line.

Whether releasing “Happiness” unrated will hurt the film, only time will
tell, but Linde is confident, citing “Kids” as the perfect example of an
unrated film doing well. Still, releasing unrated is always more risky
than releasing with an ‘R’. In an article in this summer’s FILMMAKER
Magazine, the MPAA reports that “85% of the country’s theater owners
subscribe to MPAA rating recommendations and typically abstain
from playing unrated or NC-17 material.” The article goes on to quote
Bob Laemmle, owner of the independent art-house chain, in saying, “If
you want to stretch out beyond the specialty chains, like ours, an
MPAA rating is important.”

And in integrally-related October Films news, indieWIRE reported
yesterday that Trey Parker’s porn-spoof “Orgazmo,” which is set for a
September release, received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA — a rating
that “the company is not prepared to accept” and “they’re not happy
about it,” a company spokerperson said. Also, on October’s future
slate are the two critically acclaimed Danish films which debuted at
this year’s Cannes: Thomas Vinterberg’s “Celebration” and Lars Von
Trier’s “Idiots.” Both films have potentially controversial material
and have not been submitted to the MPAA yet according to October.

Relationships and Repercussions?

For Solondz and his producers at Killer Films and Good Machine, their
relationship with October Films will continue unhindered. Vachon says,
“It’s not making me think I wouldn’t work with October again. Their
support for the film was really tremendous and it wasn’t an easy
movie.” While Linde reports, “We fully expect our relationship to
continue ahead completely positively, and we will still handle their
stuff internationally.” As for the future at October Films, John
Schmidt was quoted in Variety as saying that the company would
continue to put out films that “rattle cages,” citing “Orgazmo” as example.
Of course given the news of the NC-17 rating, one can safely assume
that an ‘R’ rated “Orgazmo” would be released without its most
“cage-rattling” aspects.

But the larger issue at stake is the degree to which October maintains
its autonomy. “The real bigger picture issue is what’s happening with all
these so-called independent companies getting bought up,” says Vachon.
“Everybody wants to be able to grow and sometimes that’s the only
way…But this is a good example of what the repercussions can be.”

Solondz worries about the repercussions as well. “When Universal made
the announcement that they were dumping my movie, there was a list of
about 20 other distributors who wanted to pick it up. So, it’s not that
a movie like mine can’t get released. The concern is that if the movie
doesn’t fare well at the box office, it will make it more difficult for
other filmmakers to find financing for films with disturbing subject
matter.” In conclusion Solondz adds, “And as long as we live in this
repressive culture, there will always be filmmakers like myself
responding to it in this way.”

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