'Escape from Tomorrow' and Disney's Dilemma

by Bill Gibron

16 September 2013

In the past, when the studio has sent out its legal legions to stop what it saw as unwarranted use of their intellectual property, they were viewed as bullies. With Escape from Tomorrow, they could start to alter that perception.
Trailer for Escape from Tomorrow 

It’s finally going happen. Ever since the Awards were handed out at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, attendees and those who follow the circuit with interest have wondered if Randy Moore’s surreal psychological “thriller” Escape from Tomorrow would ever see the light of day. Yes, the subject matter was controversial (the film centers on a vacationing father who appears to be having a nervous breakdown) but not in the way you think. There’s no sex or deviant NC-17 behavior. Instead, the reason many were concerned about the movie’s eventual release was because Moore, utilizing a guerilla filmmaking technique to realize his vision, set the entire film inside Disney’s theme parks, almost guaranteeing that the litigious House of Mouse would be stopping any type of distribution.
And yet, on October 11th, barring a last minute injunction or some other legal maneuver, Moore will see Escape hit VOD, followed by a planned national theatrical rollout. For those privy to the film itself, it seems like a miracle. After all, early reviews argue for an evil “It’s a Small World,” a distortion of many iconic Disney images, and perhaps most importantly, a denouncement of the company’s chirpy motto about its parks being “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Over the last several months, writers have wondered when the shoe would drop, when Walt’s wise men (read: population of highly paid lawyers) would swoop in and destroy Moore’s dream once and for all. Even with the release of an official trailer last week, many are concerned over how this will all play out.

So far, Disney has been quiet. There’s been no real response, not even when Sundance (and several dozen reviews) showcased the subject matter and aesthetic approach. The House of Mouse may be playing possum, but they surely must know this movie exists (they eventually acknowledged an “awareness” of it). Even more intriguing is the notion that, perhaps, they will break with their longstanding corporate position and let Moore and his distributor “slide,” sensing the film itself has limited appeal beyond an aggressive arthouse crowd. Besides, if a $150 million write-off for The Lone Ranger doesn’t cause the company to blink, how could a minor black and white indie drama about a Dad losing his mind amid the many wonders (and wickedness) of the Magic Kingdom hurt?

When you think about it, the entire Escape from Tomorrow topic is an indirect win for the studio. If they battled the determined David, they might end up looking like a greedy, bitter Goliath (though the various copyright infringement and fair use arguments would guarantee a different outcome re: the Biblical analogy). But if they simply let the movie exist, if they allow Moore to “borrow” their imagery for his backdrop and go on to make a few million (which, one imagines, Disney could demand some of via a little bit of behind the scenes brokering), they can actually come across as “cool” and “hip.” In the past, when the studio has sent out its legal legions to stop what it saw as unwarranted use of their intellectual property, they were viewed as bullies. With Escape from Tomorrow, they could start to alter that perception.

Of course, the answer remains why would they? If Disney is defiant in keeping their legacy in check (and desperate to keep others from copying Moore’s cinematic strategy), why would they let this go? They’ve forced day care centers to remove homemade representations of their many memorable characters and issued cease and desist notices to individuals involved in all manner of Mickey related media and merchandising. As a brand, one would imagine the company as being far from corruptible. This is The Walt Disney Studios after all. How could a small, independent film with a limited audience outreach and even smaller fiscal realities actual damage the corporate seal? Even some legal minds believe the company’s redress is limited since Moore actively avoided trademarked materials and other obvious elements.

Other issues abound as well. Few if any of the background participants signed waivers to appear in a commercially distributed film, and as far as anyone knows, Moore and his distributor aren’t planning on blurring out these accidental supporting players (this was something raised by /Film and its writers). Similarly, those with a fondness for Disney may boycott the movie, making sure their agenda stands in the place of the company’s concerns. In fact, this angle is more likely than an actual House of Mouse embargo. With its concentration on mental illness and some decidedly disturbing interpretations of same, once could easily see some national organization butting in where no one asked them too (even the Stutter’s Association took parts of The King’s Speech to task).

Besides, this remains a small fish in the studios massive media ocean. They’ve got flops to figure out, stars to cater to (and consider parting ways with), Star Wars is bubbling away and Marvel is making more money than even Disney’s seasoned bean counters can consider. Letting Escape from Tomorrow come and go without comment or concern would show that the company has grown up, that it’s no longer the nasty overseer demanding that all bow to its all consuming, all consumer whims. Sure, if someone wanted to position their product in a way that would truly undermine the company and its bottom line (say, bootlegging their home video releases), that’s one thing. To watch as audiences either embrace or shrug off Escape from Tomorrow‘s experimentation could rewrite their reputation.

There is a still a couple of weeks before Moore’s movie makes its bow, and hopefully those pulling the strings understand the possible shitstorm at hand. Disney could still demand Escape‘s withdrawal while those “accidental actors” featured could follow suit ala Borat and claim a violation of their own privacy, space, principles, etc. And there’s no guarantee that viewers will cotton to the end result anyway. Reviews were not unanimous. Many found it amateurish and unexceptional, sledgehammering its symbolism over the heads of its intended audience. Perhaps, as a concept and as a controversy, Escape from Tomorrow will be far more intriguing than the final cut. If and when the majority of us get to see the film, we’ll finally know if the actual film lives up to such speculation and hype - and if Disney did the right thing.

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