Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. With the Sundance Film Festival (probably!) happening this month, let’s look back at the time he went to the fest and spent millions acquiring a future flop — and ignoring a little film that became a runaway success.
In 1999, the Sundance Film Festival had several unique flicks that gave attendees a taste of what that year — a year that would be later called “the best movie year ever” and “the year that changed movies” — would give moviegoers. Two unknown filmmakers named Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez freaked out a lot of people at a midnight showing of their little found-footage film, called The Blair Witch Project. German director Tom Tykwer showed off his future, foreign cult fave Run Lola Run, which also won the festival’s Audience Award. Swingers director Doug Liman premiered his latest film Go, a kinetic Pulp Fiction for Gen-Xers starring the rising twentysomethings (Katie Holmes, Scott Wolf, Taye Diggs) of the era. Even a young, British filmmaker named Christopher Nolan was seen around Park City, in town to screen his debut film Following at the Slamdance Film Festival.
So, what was the big Sundance film that Miramax picked up for distribution that year? It was Happy, Texas, a comedy about two escaped convicts who hide out in a small town by pretending to be gay pageant coaches.
Made in 26 days on a $1.75 million budget and filmed not in Texas, but in Piru, California, Happy is 98 minutes of screwball gay panic I don’t think you could pull off now. Jeremy Northam (rocking slicked-back hair and an American accent) and Steve Zahn (playing an unhinged version of the two-bit criminal he played in Out of Sight) play chain-gang prisoners who survive an in-transit crash, steal an RV and end up in the titular town, where the residents expect them to whip their local crew of pint-sized beauty-queen wannabes into shape so they can qualify for a Dallas pageant.
Happy is predictable piffle, a rural, contemporary, Some Like It Hot retread where Northam’s dashing scammer falls for the local banker (Ally Walker) whose bank the prisoners plan to rob, while also fending off the advances of the town’s closeted sheriff (William H. Macy, as always coming with the gravitas and dignity). It’s co-written and directed by Mark Illsley, who previously worked with director Kevin Reynolds, doing second-unit for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Rapa Nui. (He directed one more film, the straight-to-video 2003 flick Bookies, before peacing out of the business entirely.)
If you remember how bankable LGBTQ-themed comedies were starting to become back then, you could hardly blame Weinstein for jumping all over Happy. The 1996 La Cage aux Folles remake The Birdcage was a surprise blockbuster, grossing $185 million worldwide. A year later, the Kevin Kline farce In & Out was a sleeper hit, taking in $63 million. And Miramax wasn’t the only distributor that wanted to get Happy – Fox Searchlight, New Line Cinema, Paramount Classics, and Summit Entertainment all put their hats in the ring, resulting in one of the biggest (and, as some would later say, most embarrassing) bidding wars in Sundance’s history.
Miramax eventually bought Happy for $10 million, even though that figure was downplayed in the press as $2.5 million. (The last Sundance movie bought for $10 million, the 1996 drama The Spitfire Grill, only grossed $12.6 million.) Those in the biz didn’t fall for it. “I know for a fact that the movie was sold for north of $10 million,” Tony Safford, senior VP acquisitions at 20th Century Fox, told Variety. (Miramax hit back by calling Safford “a disgruntled ex-Miramax employee with an ax to grind.”)
While Miramax said that Happy would get a 50-city release with significant TV advertising support, the movie was basically dumped in theaters later that October, only grossing $3.9 million. Although it got decent reviews from critics, it seemed Weinstein and company lost interest when another Sundance film — Blair Witch — took the world by storm. After rejections from several distributors (including Miramax), it was bought by Artisan Entertainment for a cool $1.1 million and made $248.6 million worldwide. Even though indie-film bigwigs who saw it at Sundance weren’t that impressed (the late Bingham Ray called it “a piece of shit,” later doubling down by saying, “The only thing scary about The Blair Witch Project is how much Artisan paid for it”), it was one of the highest-grossing films of the year — and yet another success story Weinstein couldn’t take credit for.
The Happy fiasco was another example of how, when it came to discovering buzzworthy, art-house films and the indie auteurs of tomorrow, Weinstein’s Midas touch was beginning to get soft. (The year before, he came to Sundance and bought the Australian comedy The Castle for $6 or $7 million, expecting it to be another The Full Monty-style smash/Best Picture nominee. Yeah, none of that happened.) Back in the day, Weinstein breezing into Sundance and snapping up the most-talked-about film at the fest was an event in itself – remember, this is the guy who put Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith on the map when he forked over the dough to acquire and distribute their debut films.
As rival distributors began popping up and making money off the movies he and his acquisitions division (which included Jason Blum, who would later churn out horror hits with his Blumhouse Productions) foolishly passed on, it becoming apparent that Miramax was not just the only game in town when it came to must-see indie films — it was also not the best.
Happy, Texas is available to stream for free on Pluto TV.