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'Escape From Tomorrow' gambles on the power of indie versus Disney

Filmed on the sly in multiple Disney parks, the indie movie 'Escape From Tomorrow' has sparked much digital hype, but will it translate into box-office currency?

October 04, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • John Sloss, the film-world hyphenate distributing Randy Moore's "Escape From Tomorrow."
John Sloss, the film-world hyphenate distributing Randy Moore's… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — The film-world provocateur John Sloss wants to catch your attention with the marketing images for his new release. He just might succeed: The movie's poster features Disney's cheery cursive script on a blazing yellow background under the words "Bad Things Happen Everywhere," accompanied by what appears to be Mickey Mouse's giant outstretched hand covered in blood.

"We're not trying to taunt Disney," Sloss said, pointing to the giant placards resting in a corner. "But it would be foolish commerce to pretend that Disney isn't a big part of this movie."

Sloss is in his downtown Manhattan office-cum-war room talking up "Escape From Tomorrow," a movie that, thanks to its wild back story, became a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival but because of its rampant use of Disney landmarks many thought would never see the light of day.

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Directed by first-timer Randy Moore, "Escape" is a horror-tinged, black-and-white tale shot on the sly at Disney theme parks in California and Florida, under the noses of unsuspecting employees. It centers on a suburban dad slowly losing his mind in Lynchian-colored spaces — Epcot Center blows up, an aging princess engages in child-snatching, that sort of thing.

The movie has sparked a level of online curiosity (posts from the influential blog Boing Boing, a planned documentary from the digitally savvy Vice) rarely seen for an independent film--let alone one that's barely spent a nickel on traditional marketing.

Whether that interest can be converted into cash, however, remains the big unknown.

So when it hits theaters in 32 cities Oct. 11 (including the Sunset Sundance and Downtown Independent in Los Angeles) and lands on cable VOD and digital platforms, "Escape" will become either proof of the new rules of movie marketing or the latest example of how digital hype can create a false sense of real-world interest.

In so doing, it could help answer a number of tricky questions. Can a cult phenomenon be created in this age of social media, assault marketing and information at hyper-speed? Can a movie be nudged in that direction or does it have to get there on its own? And can it all happen without the resources of a big media company?

Unconventional wisdom

In the 14 years since marketers for the boutique outfit behind "The Blair Witch Project" turned a scrappy indie into a Web-fueled blockbuster--well before the days of Facebook and Twitter--many have tried to repeat the feat. Paramount successfully transformed the micro-budget "Paranormal Activity" into a hit in 2008 thanks to online interest (and, yes, a big TV and outdoor campaign). More infamously, there was New Line's "Snakes on a Plane," which went from viral phenomenon to box-office dud in 2006.

With its instantly recognizable landmarks, distinct style and colorful production history, "Escape From Tomorrow" has a lot going for it. But reviews were mixed out of Sundance; while some lauded its political message and filmmaking derring-do, others called it an incoherent mishmash. (A new cut is 14 minutes shorter.) The film also lacks the kind of TV and mainstream exposure that a bigger hit usually needs.

"The conventional wisdom is that you can't reach an audience without reviews or traditional advertising," said Sloss. "We're trying to disprove that."

The movie will also try to build an audience without what would have been an important, if unwitting, ally.

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Since the movie first premiered at Sundance, film fans and filmmakers had been expecting action from Disney. "For a long time I thought the only way people would see this movie is by me driving around the country showing it in the back of a van with a donation jar in front," said Moore, who has a sweet, even sheepish disposition somehwat at odds with his work (speaking of David Lynch). "I know it sounds like I'm joking, but I'm really not."

Yet legal and media representatives for the conglomerate — notorious for staunchly defending their intellectual property — have adopted a strategy of keeping mum, allowing the release to move forward, but depriving the film of a David-versus-Goliath publicity opportunity.

So Sloss — who counts sales agent, legal counsel, manager and movie distributor among his many hats — is pulling out every stop to release the film, walking a fine line in the process.

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"I've never wanted them to sue; that would have been a distraction from the task at hand," he said. "I don't want them to react at all."

Then, sensing the skepticism with which that might be received, he added: "OK, maybe a small reaction would be nice. We could have some fun with that." (A Disney spokesman did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

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