The family friendly Disney studio got a shock and a half when it saw what it had funded at a preview of the Billy Bob Thornton-fronted Bad Santa.

In the early 2000s, Disney was still in an era where it had various movie subsidiaries to help it funnel more grown up material to market, without damaging its family-friendly corporate brand.

It’s sort of re-entered that way of working thanks to its acquisition of Fox Searchlight, which will be the only arm of Disney making cinema films that can carry a rating higher than PG-13. But over the past decade, it’s followed a hugely successful strategy for its movies, that fall into brackets of live action fairy tales, Pixar animation, Disney animation, Star Wars, Marvel, and the occasional live action family feature. All with a PG-13 ceiling.


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It was not always thus. In particular, in the 1980s and 90s, across its Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures labels, the studio released the likes of Splash, Stakeout, Con Air and The Rock. Then, with its purchase of the Miramax company in 1993, the Disney chequebook was funding productions that went to places the Walt Disney label never would. Pulp Fiction, for a start, was a Disney-released movie. You don’t see that at the theme parks.

Over time, though, the story goes that Disney executives were more and more troubled by the output from Miramax (1994’s Priest was the first film under the deal to generate headlines). But things came to a head in 2003, with the release of two films. One in particular wading into a troublesome era for the studio’s internal politics.

Firstly, as part of its deal, Disney found itself releasing Quentin Tarantino’s hardly peace-loving Kill Bill. I don’t think it’s going out on much of a dismembered limb to suggest that’s not going to turn up on Disney+.

But it was an early preview screening of the-then upcoming comedy Bad Santa that really raised the temperature. The movie, directed by Terry Zwigoff, tells of a criminal – played by Billy Bob Thornton – posing as an in-store Santa. And, as you more than likely know, not the kind of in-store Santa parents tend to want their kids to see.

Profanity, fruitiness and saying bad things in front of small children was just the beginning. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s screenplay couldn’t be accused of playing things safe (they more recently directed the film Focus, starring Margot Robbie and Will Smith), and as an aside, it even had further revisions from the Coen brothers.

The movie, after being rejected by Universal because of its nature, was duly picked up by Miramax (and Disney) subsidiary Dimension Films. There was autonomy about the way said subsidiary worked.

As the story goes, the fit hit the shan at a first screening of the movie for Disney executives. It’d be fair to say that some of them didn’t quite know what they’d got.

Reports at the time suggested that screening caused no shortage of outrage, with an unnamed ‘top source close to Disney chief executive Michael Eisner’ telling, er, Drudge, that “nothing appears sacred anymore, this is just not in the spirit of Walt Disney”.

To put this in context, this was an era too where Eisner’s Disney regime was attracting criticism for the way classic characters behaved in videogames, and so the studio’s output was already under the microscope. And then Billy Bob Thornton swaggered in wearing his Santa suit.

Other outlets picked up the initial report of that earlier screening, and the pressure grew on Eisner that the film had been made on his watch. Dimension nonetheless pursued releasing the film, and trailers duly started to run. John Kass of the Chicago Tribune was one of many aghast when said promo turned up mid-Sunday afternoon during an American football game. “I’m inviting Eisner to talk to my family, to look my boys in the eye and explain his new Christmas movie”, he thundered in an opinion column for the paper (that you can read here)

“A child asks the Santa why his beard is so thin. The Santa responds with a veiled reference to oral sex and an unmistakable reference to feminine hygiene. I couldn’t find the remote quickly enough”, he penned.

“The kids were puzzled about what Santa said about the woman and his beard and I changed the subject”, he continued. “Perhaps Eisner would personally enlighten my children, their mother and their grandmother about all of this”.

To the best of my knowledge, Eisner never did. But during this era of Disney, he had in part made himself so synonymous with the company that he was its target. He took plaudits when Finding Nemo soared at the box office, he was equally in line when the company released Bad Santa.

Billy Bob Thornton, the star of Bad Santa, addressed the controversy in an interview with Empire in its December 2004 issue, and he wasn’t having much shrift with it. “They knew what it was”, he stated. “They don’t give you millions of dollars to make the movie if they don’t read the script”.

Thornton would add that “I’ve been in two movies that Disney was involved in recently, and they screwed up both themselves” (The Alamo being the other, which he talks about more in his memoir).

The film then found itself a football in the campaign to oust Michael Eisner from his role. Eisner had been at the top of the company for over a decade, and there was growing discontent with his work. One of his key opponents was the late Roy Disney, and the battle between the two is documented in the book DisneyWar, that’s worth digging out. Bad Santa at one stage was used against Eisner, as an example as to how Disney had apparently lost its way. Some of that stuck in the press too for a while, at least until the next metaphorical weapon could be found.

All of which was good for the movie, of course. The $23m production would treble its budget at the box office, and make a killing on home formats, not least when an unrated director’s cut added seven more minutes to the film.

The Disney battle itself would come to a close shortly after. Roy Disney resigned at the end of November 2003, and asked Eisner to follow him out of the door. A ‘Save Disney’ campaign was launched too to further up the ante on Eisner and get him removed from office. That said, Eisner would hang on for another year or two yet, finally vacating the hotseat after 21 years in it, in September 2005. Under pressure from the board, he resigned a year earlier than planned and handed over the job to Bob Iger.

Whilst this was going on, Disney in the UK decided to dispense of Bad Santa altogether, ultimately offloading it to a more-than-grateful Sony. It took reaped commercial rewards for this, and didn’t have to suffer anywhere near the level of bad ink for doing so.

A sequel to the film would follow, but not for many years later, and when Bad Santa 2 landed it seemed really quite tame. But the original film? That caused ructions, and turned out to be an unlikely football in a corporate boardroom battle…

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