Controversy put Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow on the radar at Sundance, where critics predicted that the fictional drama filmed without permission at Disney World would have to get past a courtroom before it reached theaters. As Escape nears its October multi-platform release, it has been deafening silence from Disney; not even Jiminy Cricket is chirping. That is the worst thing that could happen to a film where the venue is the only recognizable thing in a feature made on the cheap with no stars. Escape earned early notoriety for its subversive shoot after the filmmakers got The New York Times to flog a brewing David Vs. Goliath battle at Sundance. Turns out that newspaper was simply slinging hype and reflecting wishful thinking from the film’s backers. Disney doesn’t seem to care and the film is left to fly or die by its merits. At this weekend’s genre-heavy Fantastic Fest, where movie geeks gobble up subversive films, the pic screened with a whimper.
Cinetic sales rep John Sloss, whose Producers Distribution Agency is releasing the picture after it went unbought at Sundance, tells me some interested buyers were wary of crossing Disney when the film first screened. Sloss said he had offers, but Deadline has heard they were smallish and that Disney’s ire wasn’t the big factor. Getting a rise out of a corporation can be the best thing that can happen to a small film; earlier this year, the documentary Blackfish got on the map after its subject, Sea World, publicly griped about the characterization of multiple deaths involving its killer whales. Disney hasn’t made a peep, robbing Escape From Tomorrow of a lot of free publicity.
Shot for $650K on Canon 5D DSLRs, the film follows a character named Jim White (Roy Abramsohn), a husband and father of two who’s laid off on the last day of his family vacation. He goes awry, obsessively stalking two young French girls through Disney World and seeing evil visions in the Happiest Place on Earth. Disney’s Epcot Center becomes a backdrop for horror as Jim is detained and brainwashed in a subterranean lab beneath the park. After Sundance, Moore opted to self-release via Cinetic’s PDA, the alternative distribution label that struck gold with Oscar-nommed Banksy docu Exit Through The Gift Shop. PDA will release it theatrically on October 11 in 30-50 markets and on VOD. “I knew at Sundance it was highly unlikely Disney was going to sue,” Sloss told me. “I never expected that Disney would actually take action, and I’ve always been amused that people assume they will.”
Controversy can fuel wanna-see for VOD-centric films but without it, the film is left with a nifty gimmick but lukewarm notices. A handful of early reviews praised its venue, but reaction I observed at Fantastic Fest was that the film’s behind-the-scenes story was more compelling than its content. Festival-goers pointed out things like abrupt plot shifts and inconsistent performances and bloated run time, though Moore’s new cut is 14 minutes shorter than it was in Sundance. There’s a flashy audacity in the shots Moore stole as his crew filmed on the sly, using cell phones to read the script and skirt park security. It is certainly a study in guerrilla filmmaking, but is that enough? PDA’s marketing campaign will work to Escape’s strengths targeting younger moviegoers “who like audacious things they’ve never seen before. It has cult appeal,” Sloss reassures.
Sloss says that a top Disney exec was present at that first Sundance screening, but mum has been the word ever since. Siemens, which sponsors several Disney World attractions, is connected in the film to the diabolical doings in the tunnels beneath the park. To dissuade Siemens from suing, Moore’s legal team advised the director to add to a scene to make the parody element more obvious. “It’s very unlikely people are going to confuse this with a Disney film, so there was never really a trademark issue,” said Sloss, who’s also an attorney. “And the copyright issue is not great case on Disney’s part. What corporations don’t like is bringing cases that are going to make bad precedents for them.”
Based on the reaction at Fantastic Fest yesterday, Disney had better sue soon. Without a Disney controversy to sell, Escape From Tomorrow could find that for a small multi-platform film with no hype, it’s a small, small world.
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