Disney's Non-Strategy Strategy to Combat Unauthorized Disneyland Horror Movie

Sundance breakout "Escape From Tomorrow," which depicts Disney princesses as prostitutes and was filmed without permission inside Disney's parks, fails to provoke a legal response from a studio unwilling to dole out free press.
Courtesy of Producers Distribution Agency
"Escape From Tomorrow"

This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The movie's backstory has all the ingredients of a classic Hollywood lawsuit: Escape From Tomorrow, a microbudgeted horror pic set for release Oct. 11, was filmed without permission inside Disneyland and Disney World and incorporates several of The Walt Disney Co.'s iconic (and copyrighted) characters doing things like attempting to crush a child.

What's more, Producers Distribution Agency, an arm of indie player John Sloss' Cinetic Media (along with Abramorama and FilmBuff), is brazenly provoking Disney's legal pit bulls with a poster that spells out the title in the company's familiar bubbly handwriting, above which looms an image of a Mickey Mouse-like blood-soaked hand.

Instant litigation, right? Not this time. Unlike so many knee-jerk studio reactions, sources tell THR that Disney will give this movie a free pass.

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It's not that the company doesn't have a case. When the David Lynch-ian black-and-white film premiered at Sundance in January, many assumed it would be blocked by Disney lawyers faster than the Queen of Hearts could shout, "Off with their heads!" Director Randy Moore's dark vision is brimming with racy perversions of studio property, including Disney princesses depicted as high-class prostitutes and a parkwide outbreak of a deadly flu virus.

Loyola Law School professor Jay Dougherty says shooting the film inside a Disney park isn't necessarily actionable (beyond a possible trespassing claim on violation of park rules), and "fair use" exceptions to copyright law could be a defense for using the characters in a larger narrative. But "Disney could have a stronger case regarding trademark law and trademark dilution," he adds.

The trailer for Tomorrow slyly notes that the film has not been approved by Disney, but the poster bears no disclaimer distancing the studio from the movie -- and its Disney-esque font might confuse moviegoers into thinking it is studio-approved.

Regardless, Disney -- set to release its own Disneyland-set movie, Saving Mr. Banks, in December -- has decided the less attention paid, the better. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, but a studio source says the strategy is to avoid giving Tomorrow attention that could lead to bigger box office. After all, The Weinstein Co. this year parlayed Warner Bros.' objections to using the title The Butler, which Warners owns, into a mountain of media that put its film on the public's radar.

SUNDANCE REVIEW: Escape From Tomorrow

Disney's silence, rather than legal might, ultimately could hurt Tomorrow, according to studio marketing executives surveyed by THR. Because so much of the film's fascination hinges on its Disney-defying reputation, a shrug of the studio's shoulders could deflate that buzz like a three-day-old Mylar balloon. 

Email: seth.abramovitch@thr.com

Twitter: @SethAbramovitch