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.
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?
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.
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.
"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.)
Sloss seems to relish such a challenge. In 2010, his Producers Distribution Agency (which is behind "Escape") released the similarly provocative "Exit Through the Gift Shop," another Sundance film and one that may or may not have been directed by the underground artist Banksy. Despite or because of questions about its highly unreliable narrators it became a niche hit ($3.3 million in box office) and a water-cooler phenomenon with a "Simpsons" homage, and it earned an Oscar nomination for documentary.
"Escape" began unassumingly. Moore, a struggling Southland screenwriter, had the idea to start shooting a movie at Disney parks. He had gone to school in Orlando and as a child had been taken to theme parks by his father. He found the spaces comforting but also creepy; the imagination of Walt Disney, he felt, had been overrun by corporate homogeneity.
So after scripting a story set there ("Escape" also includes flirtatious French teenagers, a possibly demonic child and a mad scientist straight out of the "Lost" mythology, all in the service of indicting Disney's culture of forced cheer), he began figuring out ways to shoot it. He scouted locations by bringing his own children to Disneyland, then cast-no name actors — Roy Abrahmson, a man who just last month was serving as a limo driver at the Emmy Awards, plays the lead — before he began shooting in Anaheim and Orlando. Production often involved guerrilla tactics, such as scattering his iPhone-enabled crew throughout the park so the whole thing didn't look like a movie shoot. Moore was so scared that Disney would catch on that he edited the movie in South Korea.
When "Escape" premiered at Sundance it generated huge amounts of online interest, prompting stories in this paper and other publications. Distributors were wary, though. Would they be rousing the ire of one of the world's biggest media conglomerates? Even after legal experts weighed in that, because "Escape" contained social commentary, the movie likely did not violate any copyrights and would prevail in potential lawsuits, their interest was cool.
"I was just horrified by the reaction," said Sloss, who at the time was simply representing rights to the film via his sales company Cinetic Media. "The idea that this was Sundance, the place where all voices were supposed to be heard, and yet people didn't want to touch it because they were afraid of a corporation? It just set my free-speech sensors off."
But it also set off his viral-marketing sensors.
The entrepreneur and his team — they include several full-time employees as well as a group of consultants — have decided to do some things boldly and capitalize on the subversive qualities.
The font for the film's poster has been licensed from an independent owner (it is not owned by Disney, though Disney has used it too). Meanwhile, a trailer shows surrealist images of the film against a swelling, feel-good Disney-esque score. At just one minute, the spot is notably shorter than most trailers so that potential audiences aren't made to feel like they've seen the best parts. Other movies are trying to build interest with their marketing materials, Sloss says, but he wants to make sure the promos for "Escape" haven't already satisfied people's curiosity.
There were also screenings at the recent fan-centric Fantastic Fest and so-called word-of-mouth events in big cities and college campuses.
With online interest so great, the opportunity for piracy is high too. Rather than start with a typical L.A and New York opening, the movie is rolling out in dozens of cities in the first weekend — literally playing in Peoria (at a theater known as the Landmark in the Illinois city) right off the bat.
"You just can't wait with a movie like this," said Richard Abramowitz, a distribution consultant retained by Sloss to work on the film. "The risks are too high."
Of course, booking theaters is expensive. So PDA has looked to digital platforms. Even conservative companies like cable giant Comcast have taken it on, as have Amazon, iTunes, Google, Xbox and Vudu. "We look at it as 4,000 screens," said PDA operations Chief Anna Barnes.
Digital outlets are mostly promoting the film as they would any other, though there are exceptions. Apple's iTunes is making the movie available for rental — but the page on which consumers can do it has seemingly whitewashed the Mickey Mouse-like bloody hand. (Conspiracy theorists might point out that Disney President and CEO Bob Iger sits on the Apple board.)
That whitewashing, of course, can be a powerful marketing tool. "The repression of the film is almost the entirety of its viral power. We don't really know what the film is about. Some kind of horror thing, presumably. But the interesting part is that it's black market," said the digital media commentator Douglas Rushkoff. "Big media repressing little media. Old media against new media."
Cultural critics say that the film's marketing efforts will also be aided by the work's message.
"There's something about the way a movie like this turns big media companies back against itself," said Dominic Pettman, a chairman and professor of culture and media at New School University. "Disneyland is a place we're all told what to do and where to go, and here's someone who's very visibly saying he went wherever he wanted, and that makes it extremely compelling.
"Of course," he added, "the question is whether that's something we're genuinely interested in engaging with that idea or just want to click on it and move on."
Indeed, "Escape" must cope with a climate that doesn't allow for slow-burn hits. Most cult-cinema phenomena — think "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" — have traditionally taken years to develop. In the social-media age, a month can be a lifetime.
"The viral fire can be set so much more quickly," Abramowitz said. "But it can also be sniffed out that much more quickly."