It’s hard to imagine that a partnership between The Walt Disney Company and Playboy Enterprises would ever be a seriously proposed idea, let alone an actual collaboration, but the development and premiere of a Walt Disney Studios film yielded conversations about just such an association.
The very idea of a meeting of the minds between Disney and Playboy boggles the mind for most–Disney fans and non-Disney fans alike. After all, exactly what type of venture would require the association of a children and family entertainment powerhouse created by the visionary Walt Disney with a company whose revenue is largely amassed from adult entertainment and everything that falls under that heading?
But alas, what sounds like the basis for a great April Fool’s story at the outset is actually a true story–at least on the part of Playboy Enterprises. And the entire idea was birthed around the development and release of one of Walt Disney Studios’ science-fiction films.
Disney’s TRON debuted in 1982, and at that time–long before there were plans for sequels and a Disney Parks attraction inspired by the film, it was deemed a total failure. The film was initially a disappointment at the box office, after a planned release for December was rescheduled for early September that year.
TRON was fraught with problems from the beginning. According to MentalFloss, many of Disney’s traditional animators wanted no part in creating the science-fiction film because it featured computer-generated animation and imagery. Some of them were said to have felt threatened by the prospect of assisting with a project that used technology that might ultimately make them obsolete. In fact, several vehemently refused to assist director Steven Lisberger in any way. Because of this, Lisberger drew from the talents of Syd Mead and famous French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, who created the storyboard for TRON and designed costuming used in the film.
In 1982, marketing and publicizing the upcoming Disney film was a nightmare, creating headaches for all of those involved, largely because it was difficult to determine who the target audience would be. But at least one enterprise saw potential in the new film and had ideas about who TRON‘s audience would be, as well as a strategy when it came to a marketing campaign (of sorts), but such a campaign would mean a most unlikely and controversial partnership for the House of Mouse.
Playboy Magazine, then owned by Playboy Enterprises and Hugh Hefner, reached out to Disney and expressed an interest in shooting a photo spread titled, The Girls of TRON. Per Playboy, models in the photo shoot would be “dressed” in circuit boards.
But despite the challenges and difficulties experienced by Walt Disney Studios in attempting to decide on TRON‘s audience and then move forward with a marketing campaign, Disney declined any part of such a partnership, but that didn’t stop Playboy’s interest in TRON.
In 2010, as Disney geared up for the release of TRON: Legacy, Playboy Magazine featured a photo spread that featured Brazilian model Sasckya Porto and Russian model Irina Voronina. But according to CBR, the photo spread had no ties to Disney or to a Disney partnership.
Playboy’s chief content officer Jimmy Jellinek said that the photo spread for the magazine was “an independent homage to TRON” and not the offshoot of a partnership with Disney.
“We’re tapping into the cultural phenomenon in our style,” Jellinek explained.
Disney had no comment on that issue of Playboy Magazine.
TRON debuted in 1982. It’s a science fiction action-adventure film written and directed by Steven Lisberger and based on a story written by Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird. Stars in the film included Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a computer programmer and video game developer who finds himself inside the world of a mainframe computer, as well as Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, and Barnard Hughes. TRON was one of the first films ever made that made use of extensive computer-generated imagery, or CGI.
Before Disney agreed to finance and distribute the film, several studios rejected the idea and the storyboards presented to them for the film. Despite its ground-breaking special effects, the film didn’t do very well at the U. S. and Canadian box offices. Its original budget was $170 million, and it eventually went on to gross $400 million worldwide.
TRON received praise for its visual effects but was criticized for having a less than cohesive storyline. At the 55th Academy Awards, however, the film did not receive the nomination for Best Visual Effects. It did, however, receive the nomination for Best Costume Design and Best Sound. Today, the TRON franchise includes the original 1982 film, a sequel titled, TRON: Legacy (2010), and an animated series, TRON: Uprising. More recently, the original film inspired a Disney Parks attraction, TRON Lightcycle Run, which is currently operational at Shanghai Disneyland and will open at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Spring 2023.
While it’s hard to believe that anyone would suggest a Disney/Playboy partnership, such a collaboration was on the minds of many within Playboy Enterprises, but this writer will go so far as to say that Disney’s decision to reject Hef and his crew in such a partnership was the right thing to do–and quite possibly one of the best decisions made on the part of The Walt Disney Company during its first 100 years of wonder.