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The Inside Story of How 'TRON: Legacy' Came True

The daughter of Dick Cook raved one day in the early 2000s about how she and her friends thought “TRON” was the s---,and that's how business gets done

“’TRON’ came true!”

This was Steven Lisberger’s rallying cry. For years he’d been trying to interest someone with money into honoring his genius as the creator of the original “TRON,” and buy up more of that genius in the form of his art or his filmmaking.

“Somewhere there’s got to be a billionaire whose favorite film ever is ‘TRON,’” he’d say during one of our periodic visits in the late 90s and early ‘00s. I didn’t disagree. Pretty much agreed, in fact.  

As the creative director for a 3,000-person dotcom company, I had noticed, to my surprise, what rabid fans of the original film many of our young designers and tech geeks were. I figured the odds had to be with Lisberger, and told him so.

“What is Bill Gates’ favorite film? Bonifer, find that out!” he’d bark, as if I were still playing the role of “TRON’s” publicist, which is what I was on the original. (I also wrote the slim but stylin’ book, “The Art of TRON.”)

It was fun visiting with Lisberger during this period, and a little bittersweet in a “That Championship Season kind of way. Let it go, Steven, I’d think to myself, even as another part of me was cheering him on.

Then one day, like Jack getting his beanstalk on, Lisberger’s dreams came true. “TRON’s” roots sprouted, and right inside the Disney greenhouse, too. The daughter of Dick Cook, chairman of the Disney Motion Pictures Group at the time, raved to her dad one day in the early 2000s about how she and her friends at USC thought “TRON was the s---.

Of course, this is how business often gets done in Hollywood. One day your kids are eating Gummi Bears in the backseat of the car and in 20 weeks it’s a cartoon series on ABC. Based on the enthusiasm of his daughter and her friends, Cook decided to develop a “TRONsequel.

That must have been six or seven years ago.“TRON: Legacy,” the sequel that looks more like a remake to me, opens next month, and Lisberger, I am happy to report, has been connected to the project throughout.

He has written multiple versions of the script for “TRON: Legacy,” was, I believe, attached for a time as its director, has a cameo in the new film and serves as a kind of adviser to its filmmakers. I call him the “Obi Wan of ‘TRON’.” (The other person contractually connected to the original, producer Donald Kushner, took a buyout from Disney and has steered clear.)

As for the rest of those who worked on the original, I’m disappointed to report, in my unofficial role as recording secretary for the Someday “TRON” Will Get Its Due Club, that Disney has treated them like lepers. Actually worse than lepers, because as far as I know they don’t have their own island in Hawai’i and a team of Jesuits tending to them.

From the non-casting of Cindy Morgan in “TRON: Legacy” to the non-release of a remastered Blu-ray DVD of the original to coincide with the new film, to the institutionalized shunning of the visual effects directors, CGI pioneers, designers, conceptual artists, writers, painters, costumers, animators, compositers, gamers, engineers, writers, executives and entrepreneurs who contributed so much to the original, the studio has been meticulous about cutting the first “TRON,” and the people who made it, out of its official narrative for “Legacy. “

For example:

A couple of the original “TRON’s design stars had an idea for Legacy at San Diego Comic-Con this year that, hey guess what, was actually an improvement over showing the same Legacy trailer and conducting the same press conference for the third year in a row.  Michael Vick treats dogs better than Disney treated those designers.

An animation director who was responsible for animating many of the great CGI sequences in the original “TRON,” and who today teaches animation at a college not far from the studio, requested a copy of the original and some clips from the new film to show to his class next month.

A timing thing. A teachable moment. Anyone interested in learning sees the great opportunity here. Nothing doing, said the studio, like a clock chiming perpetual midnight on Cinderella.

I know a “TRON-loving fan who spent three years compiling and writing an oral history of the making of the original film. He got bounced from department to department at Disney for a year and no one even bothered to ask for a copy of the manuscript. Never mind reading it, they never even got a copy and sent it out for coverage!

Likewise, the person with the largest “TRON” memorabilia collection in the world could not interest the studio in any kind of sharing arrangement, or in a donation to the Disney Archives, so he has put his entire collection up for auction on eBay.

Not only is this non-response by the studio callous and ungrateful -- who do they think kept the “TRON” narrative alive for 25 years if not fans like this writer and this collector??? -- it demonstrates Disney’s ignorance of the emerging science of Fanthrolpology, a new realm of participatory film marketing defined by people like Dr. Henry Jenkins of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and forward thinking marketing companies like Cimarron, which designed the “Twilightfan campaigns.

Seen through this lens, the cleaving of the original “TRON from the new version is just plain idiocy, a denial of how networks function.

One of the first participants in the original film contacted the studio and tried to get tickets to the upcoming premiere. “Not a chance,” the studio rep told this person.  This isn’t necessarily a surprise. Rich Ross, who replaced Dick Cook, owes a lot of favors like premiere tickets to the teenybopper heroes who haloed his stint as president of the Disney Channel.

Still, it deserves inclusion as part of the studio’s pattern of generally obnoxious behavior toward the original filmmakers.

I have a rant, too.

Early on, I offered to pitch in and help with brand narrative for the new film. I was primarily interested in helping them explore a genre Lisberger had once described to me in his Obi-Wan epigrammatic way: “The first cyber opera.” I felt that this could set the audience’s expectations for “TRON: Legacy” in a way that would let them embrace both the inevitable flaws in the mise en scene and the strength of its music. The game, I believed, would come down to Daft Punk’s soundtrack.

Earlier this year, I met with a team of four recognizers from Disney Features Marketing at a motel in Palm Desert. They slipped me some kind of drug, got me to tell them everything on my mind while they recorded it all, and then drugged me some more and left me for dead. OK, I’m so I’m fabricating. The motel wasn’t in Palm Desert. It was Indio.

No matter how much channel-jamming Disney does, the narrative that began with the original film cannot be separated from the new version. The question is, What will it cost Disney, not only in terms of the good will of its originators and some of its fans, but in terms of cost of the culture jamming? Brands that try to inflict their own narratives on the marketplace are not nearly as cost-efficient as brands that earn the participation of their audiences.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the new film will do just fine at the box office, and I don’t begrudge it that, nor do I know anyone who worked on the original film who does. Our feelings are hurt because we’ve been denied the opportunity to join in a celebration of what we began.

This is not about self-pity, that most useless of emotions. With the exception of “what really happened in the desert,” it is a statement of fact, and a venting of my own animus so I can enjoy the new film next month.

I would not, however, be much of a storyteller if I did not see the irony: In the original “TRON,” a large media company called ENCOM claims ownership of the work of a game designer named Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and erases any evidence of his authorship of its most successful games. According to the original, ENCOM and its minions represented everything that someone entering a virtual world had to fear.

I would not be much of a storyteller if I did not note the bittersweetness in the voices of the original TRONsters voices when we say it:

“’TRON’ came true.”

 

Mike Bonifer is the CEO of GameChangers LLC, and the author of "GameChangers: Improvisation for Business in the Networked World." He occasionally performs with an improv group called Hoosier Daddy that preps for its shows by eating oatmeal cookies.