Walking through the busy park, the cameraman can’t help but feel a little scared. What if security discovers his footage? But with that fear comes excitement, too. He’s doing something taboo in the famous Disney World right under the noses of watchful staff. Now he just needs to get out of the park with the film.
The Walt Disney Company have cultivated their brand over the years so its name evokes magic and wonder. People of all ages and from all walks of life visit Disney’s myriad theme parks for such an experience. And for some, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet their childhood icons or see animated characters made real.
With this in mind, you’d think that the Disney parks would make a tantalizing location for a movie. And you’d be right, it’s probably the dream of many directors to base their films there. However, the Walt Disney Company have made it clear commercial in-park movies that aren’t specifically sanctioned won’t be tolerated.
The most probable reason behind Disney’s blockade is because of their desire to protect their brand. It’s very strict on the use of anything that might taint the Disney name with something unwholesome. Even its actors who portray famous Disney characters follow strict presentation and PR rules to keep the magic alive for patrons.
As a result, there have been very few non-Disney movies that take place within its theme parks. And of the few that have appeared, several were filmed in previous decades. But one enterprising director wanted to use the famous Disneyland and Disney World for the majority of his movie.
The director in question is Randy Moore, one of the minds behind the Disney-based horror film, Escape From Tomorrow. Producer Soojin Chung, cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham and actors Roy Abramsohn and Elena Schuber joined him. Disney didn’t give the film crew the go-ahead, so Moore and co had to do everything discreetly.
But how did the team infiltrate Disney’s stronghold and get their footage without the company’s tight security spotting them? Moore attributes a large part of the success to his then-state-of-the-art camera equipment. In 2013 he told CNN that unless the guards were tech-savvy, his camera could easily pass as a tourist camera.
Moore said during a 2013 CNN interview, “(Digital) SLR’s had just hit the market at that point. So we had the Canon 5D Mark II we could bring into the park and look like a tourist.” For the uninitiated, the unassuming camera was capable of taking high-quality footage for the time.
Of course, choosing appropriate equipment wasn’t the crew’s only tactic to get around the parks unnoticed. According to Moore, it also involved “a lot of planning.” He elaborated to CNN, “We were careful and cautious and tried not to draw too much attention to ourselves. But planning was the main thing.”
That didn’t mean the group’s scheme went off without a hitch. Although they did manage to film most of Escape From Tomorrow uncontested, there was a high chance they’d arouse someone’s suspicions. After all, the crew spent two weeks filming in Disneyland, California, and ten days in Orlando’s Disney Parks.
Indeed, the crew’s plans started to go awry as filming drew to a close, as Moore himself confessed. “We almost got caught once,” the director said. “We were shooting in the entrance of the park and we had to do a few takes. And basically they thought our team was just paparazzi and we were shooting a famous family (entering the park).”
The guards noticed that Moore’s actors left the park and returned several times within seven minutes. Apparently, that was it all it took to put security on alert, so they stopped Abramsohn, Schuber and the child actors. In 2013 Moore told IndieWire, “They all amazingly stayed in character, including the kids.”
During questioning, a parade passed by and offered a distraction. It allowed Abramsohn to squirrel the miniature voice-recording equipment away in his sock. Then the security guards put the actor’s skills to the test with a barrage of questions regarding their activities. Fortunately, both Abramsohn and Schuber were prepared for the confrontation.
Schuber and Abramsohn played the part of a family who left the theme park because they needed sunscreen. If his comment to CNN is anything to go by, in the moment Abramsohn experienced his own Disneyland horror. “It was very scary that day,” he revealed, but ultimately the crew escaped with the footage.
The result became the 2013 film Escape From Tomorrow, a black-and-white horror film depicting a fragile mind shattering. Abramsohn plays Jim White, a family man who takes his wife and two children to Disney World. When White finds out he’s lost his job, though, he begins to lose his grip on reality.
What should be a fun trip through a magical wonderland turns into a hellish nightmare for White. His hallucinations twist the park around him into a dystopian reality where the attractions are his tormentors. Moore, who took inspiration in part from his own experiences, has a complicated relationship with Disney.
“[I was] Heavily influenced by various strange outings I endured as a boy with my father,” the director revealed in a statement. “Escape From Tomorrow is my personal attempt to make sense of what felt like a very artificial childhood, brought on by our cultural obsession with these fake, manufactured worlds of so-called fantasy.”
Apparently, Moore’s view of Disney World took on a completely new perspective when he revisited with his own family. “I’m a product of Disney World more than anything,” he told IndieWire. “I’d gone on the first real Disney World trip with my wife, who’d never been there, and my two kids.”
Seeing the theme park through the eyes of his family stirred a lot of memories in Moore. “Then I started feeling all these emotions that I hadn’t thought about since I was a kid,” he described. “We had a great time, it was magical,” Moore said of he and his father’s trips, “but then our relationship fell apart.”
The director continued, “I haven’t seen him in a quite a long time. So when we went back to Disney World, it was like he was there as a ghost. We were going on the same rides I used to go on with him, but now we’re no longer talking any more.”
With that, Moore took on a more cynical view of Disney World. “It’s kind of madness,” he said. Everyone’s saying, ‘Celebrate the magic, believe,’ that kind of stuff. There was a moment when we were at the phantasmic show in Orlando. It’s at their MGM studio park,” the director described.
“At one moment in the middle of the show,” Moore continued, “there was this hail of pyrotechnics. And all of a sudden, Mickey just appears on the stage at the top of this mountain. There are lasers everywhere. Adults all around me literally gasped as if a god had appeared before them. This was genuine emotion.”
Obviously, though, the subject matter is undeniably controversial. Entertainment website HitFix even described Escape From Tomorrow as “a film that should not exist by any rational definition.” And considering the secrecy surrounding its filming, it’s not surprising to hear Moore became a little edgy about its production.
The director told The Film Stage in 2013 that he fancied he could feel Disney breathing down his neck. “When you’re closer and closer to the finish line you start to become paranoid,” he said. “You’re almost there and that’s when it really starts to become real.” He went so far as to make film prints clandestinely.
Moore revealed, “We even made out film prints in Korea because I didn’t trust… I mean, where do you make your film prints in LA? Burbank. So my goal was to literally get it in the can the way I wanted to. It could have played underground forever.” And that sums up Moore’s expectations.
On the subject of his film’s success, Moore told The Film Stage, “Maybe we’ll show at some small festivals. And from there probably do some underground screenings. I was never under the idea that we would make a lot of money with this movie or any money. That wasn’t the goal.”
With this in mind, imagine Moore’s surprise when Escape From Tomorrow got accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. “I never, ever expected to get into Sundance,” he admitted. “I didn’t even think about festivals while I was making it.” In fact, he initially rejected the notion when fellow crew members broached the subject.
“One of my actors said something about it,” the director recalled, “and I was literally like, ‘All we’re thinking about is this movie. Don’t talk to me about film festivals right now.’” Nevertheless, Moore ultimately decided to submit the contentious Escape From Tomorrow to Sundance, and the results surprised him.
“One night I was driving with my wife and I got a call,” Moore described. “It was Trevor Groth, the head programmer at Sundance, and he said congratulations.” But there was still one question that most likely never left Moore’s mind. What would Disney think of Escape From Tomorrow?
Moore had done something that wasn’t just frowned upon, it was also potential grounds for legal action. Disney is known for its precision strikes against anything unofficial and off-brand, after all. With the movie’s acceptance into Sundance, there was nothing Moore could do to remain in the industry’s proverbial shadows.
To that end, the director steeled himself for the coming legal storm, and got assistance from an unexpected place. Cinetic Media lawyer John Sloss, who represented Banksy’s film Exit Through the Giftshop offered his services. Moore told IndieWire, “He contacted us right around when we got into the festival and that was amazing.”
Furthermore, it seemed like Sloss had an idea for Moore’s defense if Disney challenged Escape From Tomorrow. “We were hoping we could make a good case for fair use and stuff but I’m not a lawyer,” the director said. Media coverage of his film may also have contributed to his cause.
Moore elaborated, “The New Yorker article that came out was a big help. John obviously hoped we could make a case for it, but honestly none of us knew.” So what did Disney make of Escape From Tomorrow? Did the company ready its lawyers and attempt to legally boycott Moore’s picture?
Throughout Sundance, Disney’s position on the film was unclear. At the festival an attendee told Moore, “Disney is furious and they are going to sue.” But the director poured too much of his life into Escape From Tomorrow to give up without a fight. He told IndieWire as much during his interview.
“It depends on how good a case lawyers can make for it,” Moore said of his potential legal defense. “I worked on it really hard for three years and it took a lot out of me. Just to let it disappear would be a waste of time.” However, Disney’s position on the film remains questionable.
When CNN asked the company about Escape From Tomorrow it had a succinct response. It stated, “(We) are aware of the film” but “are not commenting at this time.” That stance remains the same to this day, although it has caused many people to question why they let Moore’s film slide.
According to the media website SlashFilm, it might have something to do with the Streisand Effect. To be more precise, if Disney took action against Moore it would likely just generate extra publicity. Instead the company might have chose to ignore it and allow it to accumulate a smaller cult following.
For his part, Moore revealed in his IndieWire interview that his film isn’t a big stance against Disney. “I don’t want to… make a spectacle of myself,” he said. “I don’t want to be like a personality like someone who’s out there trying to make a spectacle of trying to bring down corporations.”
“To me, this is the story and I have a lot of ambivalence towards Disney,” the director continued. “I wasn’t trying to… I just wanted to tell a story.” And there were people who considered the film a shot against Disney’s theme park empire. Moore has stated this wasn’t the case, however.
Regardless, it seems that Moore still has complicated feelings for Disney’s brand of magic. When IndieWire asked if he would ever return to one of the parks, he laughed and replied, “If they let me in. I could still go back. I’ll still look at it with a little bit of cynicism, if not contempt. It’s a strange place.”