Letter From Hollywood: How 'Happiness' won

Letter From Hollywood
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T odd Solondz's Happiness is the sort of film that ought to give independent cinema a good name. Its subject matter may lack that instant mass appeal that big studios crave - it dwells on the bleak emotions and furtive sexual appetites of a group of New Jersey suburbanites - but it is expertly crafted, beautifully acted, and uncomfortable enough to stay under your skin for days.

Just the sort of film, in fact, one would expect to win plaudits at international festivals, find a niche with a medium-sized distributor and put in a healthy performance on the art-house circuit and at more discerning big- city cinemas.

Happiness, however, has taken a rather different path to prominence, one that illustrates the precariousness of all independent productions and the ever more invasive influence of the big entertainment conglomerates.

The film, completed earlier this year, was originally scheduled for distribution by a smallish New York company called October Films. It caused considerable critical excitement at the Cannes festival, more than confirming the promise that Solondz had shown with his first, equally uncomfortable foray into dysfunctional suburbia, Welcome to the Dollhouse.

But then October Films was bought up by the Hollywood behemoth Universal, and Happiness was dropped from the release schedule, without explanation. The reasons weren't too hard to fathom: this is a film, after all, that explores male masturbation fantasies, semen gobs and all, and gives an excruciatingly close-up portrayal of a paedophile who preys on his pre- pubescent son's schoolmates.

Universal appears to have been afraid of some kind of moral backlash, or else decided that the tone and content of Happiness simply did not fit its image. Either way, the decision was a corporate, not an aesthetic one: people who have seen Happiness may have found it hard going, but nobody has suggested that its handling of dark, taboo subjects is vulgar or artistically unjustified.

"There are certain hot-button issues that the big studios are always going to be wary of, like race issues, or paedophilia, or anything about sex in general," comments Michelle Byrd, executive director of the Independent Film Project in New York.

"Film-makers have to be very practical about what they put into their work and where they can expect it to be shown."

In other words, working outside the studio system is no longer a guarantee against interference and censorship. Since the majors dominate the distribution system, they also - in effect - control the independent sector. A film- maker who doesn't want to cut a deal with a big distribution company might be able to buy a limited run at a couple of big-city locations - at a cost of around $100,000 a week - but is effectively prevented from giving his or her work a wider showing.

It has not always been so. Five or six years ago, studio films were consistently being outgunned by independent productions, many of which turned into raging successes from very modest origins, thanks to critical praise and word-of-mouth recommendations. The studios reacted by attempting to co-opt the independent sector for themselves. The most successful indie company, Miramax, was bought by Disney; other studios either bought their own independent outfits or set up so-called "mini-major" companies as direct subsidiaries.

The studio notion of an independent film was one with a small budget, fine acting, an unusual setting and an offbeat story - everything, in fact, that made films such as My Left Foot or The Piano successful, except for the two most important ingredients: originality and daring.

The increasing dominance of marketing in the industry has all but denied films the chance of finding their audience gradually: if they don't splash on the opening weekend, they might as well get chucked straight onto the trash heap. Most festival prize-winners these days are roundly ignored by the distributors, and critics, who once had the power to make a real difference, have become little more than a sideshow in the grand corporate publicity beanfeast.

Happiness, as it turns out, is doing just fine - in part because of the furore over its treatment by October Films. It was picked up by another distributor, Good Machine, earned more raves at the Toronto festival, and is now doing brisk business in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Ironically, Good Machine has an overhead agreement with Universal, so the big studio has maintained a financial interest in the film after all.

Such are the hypocrisies of Hollywood, which in this instance have worked in favour of a deserving film. Other film-makers unwilling to work within the system are rarely so lucky: true independence is turning out to be little more than a fond illusion.