Michael Donaldson on Making “Escape From Tomorrow” Possible
IndieWire: How the Director of ‘Escape From Tomorrow’ Made a Crazy Guerrilla Movie In Disney World – And Got Away With It
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If you heard about “Escape From Tomorrow” after the dark comedy/horror became one of the most talked about films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, then you also probably know a few key facts: that it was shot in a guerilla-style manner at Walt Disney World and Disneyland without the permission of the parks, it was edited in South Korea so as to stay off the radar of the Disney corporation and that if you weren’t at Sundance you missed your chance to see the film because Disney’s lawyers would never allow it to be shown to the public. However, one of those facts is false: “Escape From Tomorrow” will be released on October 11 in select theaters and VOD, regardless of whether Disney wanted to take it to court. The hype surrounding this black-and-white satire raised its profile in the film world seemingly overnight and had distributors running for the nearest lawyer familiar with copyright law to get a sense if the film was releasable. But while the history of the production makes for great copy, the truth is far more remarkable.
Randy Moore has been going to Disney World as far back as he can remember. After his parents divorced when he was very young, he’d travel every summer from his mom’s house in Chicago to his dad’s down in Orlando, with the two always visiting the park. But as the years went by, even the fantasy atmosphere couldn’t mask Moore’s distain for his father, leaving him with memories of the park that are both happy and horrific.
A struggling screenwriter in L.A., Moore’s career frustrations led him in 2009 to begin jotting down ideas for a movie set in Disney World that mixed Disney urban legends (ride fatalities, the delicious turkey legs sold throughout the park that, according to one myth, are actually Emu meat), with memories of the heavy-drinking antics of his father. Moore wove together a twisted tale that follows Jim, a family man who learns he’s been fired from his job on the final day of vacation at Disney World, leading to a downward spiral filled with hallucinations and an obsession over two teenage French girls.
Describing the film as an “experiment,” Moore said he suffered a breakdown after attempting to make the movie with his friends and no resources. He eventually brought on a casting director, assistant director and eventually a cinematographer (the film’s final budget would be $650,000).
“My initial reaction was, ‘Who does he know that got him access to shoot something at Disney World? He’s someone’s kid or something,’” said Lucas Lee Graham, who met Moore for the first time in 2010 after answering his job posting on Mandy.com for a cinematographer. “But then he said, ‘We have no permits,’ so I thought it would be like a heist, which really caught my attention.” The day after meeting Moore, Graham was on a plane with him to Disney World.
After at least a half-dozen trips to the parks in 2010 to scout and then shoot the film—during which time Moore lost 47 pounds because he was so scared they were going to get caught, spent three-and-a-half hours on one ride to get a scene right and forced the whole production to flee the park when they were almost nabbed by security—Moore had completed what he set out to do: make a movie at the park. But would anyone ever see it?
“I asked that question constantly,” said Roy Abramsohn, a veteran TV/theater actor who was cast in the Jim role. Graham concurred: “People [on set] were googling ‘fair use.’ I asked him if anyone is ever going to see this and he said he didn’t care if he drove around in a van and projected it on walls.”
Luckily that would not be the film’s fate.
Editing and special effects work consumed the next year. Though most reports note that the editing process took place in South Korea, the only post-production work done there was visual effects, through connections the film’s producer/editor Soojin Chung had; the bulk of the editing took place in a small production office in East L.A.
The film was selected, by Moore’s count, to as many as 25 lower-tier festivals around the world, as both Moore and Chung felt the film could never play at an American festival.
But after a chance encounter Chung had with Sundance senior programmer John Nein at a Film Independent event in August 2012, “Escape From Tomorrow” was suddenly on Sundance’s radar.
“To pull out of all these other festivals for this pipe dream of Sundance was really difficult,” Moore admitted. But Chung convinced him that this was a gamble they had to take. Three months later, Moore got a call from Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth saying the film was in.
“We all knew we wanted it in the festival,” said Groth. “I think the biggest discussion we had around the film was [which section] we were going to show it in.” He ended up placing it in the festival’s NEXT section.
Following the film’s premiere at Sundance, most in Park City thought it didn’t have a chance to be released.
“The immediate assumption across the board was, ‘See this film at Sundance because it will not see the light of day,’” said John Sloss, whose company Cinetic Media repped the film at the fest and will release it this Friday through its distribution arm, Producer’s Distribution Agency (PDA).
Seeing the film before the festival, Sloss thought it was at least a “close call” to fall under fair use, but he decided the best game plan would be to show the film to the press before the buyers—that way, if it was pulled from the festival, people would still write about it. But he wasn’t expecting the reaction it received.
“It’s almost like people were doing Disney’s work for them,” he said. “It was very odd and it made me wonder how much consideration people give to things like the First Amendment.”
Luckily, Sloss had invited Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu to the screening to get his take (Wu actually sat two seats away from Disney’s head of production at the screening); the professor later decided to write an article on The New Yorker’s website explaining why the film didn’t violate any copyright laws.
“Under copyright law, commentary and parody are well-established fair-use categories, and this is where the film likely falls,” Wu wrote. “It would be one thing if Moore merely used Disney World to embellish his film—to serve as a pleasing backdrop for some light romantic comedy. But his use of Disney World is not as simple window dressing; he transforms it into something gruesome and disturbing.”
Wu’s notion was confirmed by entertainment lawyer Michael C. Donaldson, who specializes in fair use—copyrighted material filmmakers can use for free if they add context.
“There’s nothing wrong with making a movie at Disney Land,” Donaldson explained. “Every copyright system in the world accommodates for using somebody else’s work to create something new, and ‘Escape From Tomorrow’ shows the Disney properties in a way they were never intended for.”
This insight lead to confidence by distributors in Park City to start making offers on the film. Though there was immediate interest, Sloss said the offers “were not overwhelming,” and admits that the notion of the film being the latest released for PDA was always in the back of his mind.
“With all five [PDA] films, we saw something in them that we felt the marketplace didn’t fully value,” Sloss said.
His pitch to Moore following the festival was to do a grassroots campaign – “good old fashioned marketing” is how he put it — that would tap into the film’s core audience. Moore, who is a big fan of “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” quickly accepted Sloss’ offer.
But there was one final piece of the puzzle that had yet to be resolved: E&O insurance. Without it, the movie’s distribution prospects were non-existent.
Sloss brought on Donaldson to handle the insurance. For decades he’s been at the forefront of providing a better definition to filmmakers of what falls under fair use, having insured films like “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and “Room 237.” To Donaldson, “Escape From Tomorrow” was a cut-and-dry case of fair use. He’d just have to do a bit more explaining to the insurer than he usually does.
“The thing that was fun and challenging was this film had all the copyright issues in it instead of just one,” he said. Donaldson had to present the case for fair use, trademark, public domain, and access issues in his opinion letter to the insurance company. It would even cover a case in which an employee or patron who felt their personal rights were violated issued a lawsuit. “It was like a law school exam,” he said.
Donaldson and his office combed through all the music that wasn’t from the original score to make sure it was under public domain, even taking one section to a musicologist to be analyzed. Most surprisingly, it wasn’t the Disney footage that concerned Donaldson but one of Moore’s characters.
In one scene, Jim is taken below Epcot’s Spaceship Earth to Base 21 and meets a scientist from Siemens (the company has been a sponsor of Space Earth since 2005 and Base 21 is their VIP lounge). In the Sundance cut, Jim escapes after the scientist leaves the room; Donaldson suggested to Moore that he should make the sequence into more of a parody. Moore mentioned that they had shot a different version in which the scientist is decapitated, revealing that he was in fact a robot, but scrapped it when he didn’t like how the visual effects turned out. Donaldson suggested that version be put back in. “Now, no judge is going to miss the commentary on Siemens,” said Donaldson. (Siemens declined to comment on the film.)
While Donaldson usually can put together an opinion letter in 10 days, with “Escape From Tomorrow” it took his office four months. He adds that the opinion letter for this film is the longest his office has ever written. However, the insurance policy was issued to the film in standard time — one week.
With E&O insurance in place, PDA began its marketing push: a trippy trailer; an eye-catching poster of a blood-soaked Mickey Mouse hand. The film played at one of the biggest genre festivals in the country, Fantastic Fest, to drum up support from key critics, and most recently Moore did a Reddit AMA. What you haven’t seen are the use of traditional marketing like TV spots.
“Anyone can buy awareness and market a movie,” said Sloss. “We’re maximizing our core constituency and really marketing to them.”
Moore still can’t believe the film hasn’t been locked away in some Disney vault (in fact, Moore, Chung, Sloss and Donaldson said they’ve never been contacted by the corporation). Looking back, he now realizes his instincts to just make the movie were correct. “I morally thought that we should be able to make this film,” he said.
“[Disney is] a place that invites you to come in with your cameras, so to say it’s off limits for examination seemed ridiculous to me.”
When asked if he’d ever attempt another amusement park-based project he gave the typical never-say-never reply. But after gathering his thoughts—perhaps thinking back on the four years of sleepless nights, anxiety and weight loss—firmly replied, “I won’t do it again.”