The principal reason Hollywood studios no longer make controversial films is because their Wall Street masters can't handle the negative publicity.
That's why, since the PR headaches caused by Natural Born Killers (1994), studios have largely stuck to safe action vehicles and romantic comedies.
But the current furor over Miramax Films' religious satire Dogma?which has invoked the ire of the Catholic League, among others?demonstrates a potential escape hatch for executives from image-conscious companies.
Under the Miramax model, a film company is able to maintain the good name of its corporate parent and its own street cred. It is, though, a delicate PR balancing act: in the case of Dogma, Miramax parent Disney has to be able to distance itself from a controversial film that threatens to damage its good name. Miramax has to be perceived as supporting the lone filmmaker in his time of need.
Among the items in Dogma that affront the League are a foul-mouthed apostle, a discussion of whether Joseph and Mary had sex and a descendant of Jesus Christ who works in an abortion clinic. Miramax's insistence that the film is an 'adult fairy tale' did nothing to placate the League, which threatened to blackball Disney unless it was dropped.
But Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein had been here before with Kids, and they were prepared. First, they wheeled out chief spin doctor Marcy Granata to explain how the intense media speculation was damaging the film's box office chances. Then Granata added that Bob and Harvey had no choice but to buy Dogma with dollars 12 million of their own money and release it themselves, sparing Miramax and Disney of any involvement.
The brothers aren't high and dry yet. Last week, the League moved its campaign up a notch, taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times with the headline, 'Appeal to Disney: Dumping Dogma took guts, now dump Miramax.' Plus, the Weinsteins still have to persuade another distributor to handle the film on their behalf. Given that it received a mixed reaction in Cannes and that the League has threatened to give anyone willing to take it on a hard time, this may prove more difficult than they imagined.
But their seizing of the initiative compares favorably with October Films, which last year grudgingly agreed to drop Happiness from its release slate.
Miramax looks good to director Kevin Smith and stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for not abandoning them at the merest whiff of trouble. The Weinsteins have sent a message to filmmakers that they're not afraid of provocative material. And, best of all, they've avoided an embarrassing showdown with their boss, Disney chief Michael Eisner.