On January 1, 2024, the original incarnation of Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie, entered into the public domain. Steamboat Willie, born in 1928, is the crown jewel of thousands of pieces of intellectual property that have just seen their copyright expire, a crop that also includes the original German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” an iteration of Peter Pan, and more.
Monday’s date had been circled on the calendar of many opportunistic filmmakers, and not 48 hours after New Year’s Eve turned to New Year’s Day, several Steamboat Willie-inspired projects — all of them some iteration of twisted, slasher horror — have been announced. This one already put out a trailer, this one (from the guy who did a horror parody of “The Grinch”) put out a press release, and this one is a horror video game based on Mickey — er, Willie — the most popular cartoon character in the world.
All of them are hoping to repeat the viral success of 2023’s “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” another slasher-horror movie based on a beloved children’s cartoon character now in the public domain. “Blood and Honey” was a true novelty, making $5 million at the box office; there is already a sequel in the works intended for release this spring. The sequel can now even incorporate Tigger, who also first appeared in print back in 1928. Wonderful things.
Rhys Frake-Waterfield, the director and producer of “Blood and Honey” and its sequel, tells IndieWire he specifically stayed away from any Steamboat Willie project. He’s not out here trying to get sued.
“People think it’s an easy thing to grasp and just grab hold of, but there are big issues which I think they’re not aware of,” Frake-Waterfield said. “There are things which we had to deal with with ‘Winnie the Pooh’ behind the scenes that were quite big, and I think [the Steamboat Willie projects] might get a bit of a shock soon.”
Frake-Waterfield says he’s “noticed some stuff” on a few of the Steamboat Willie projects that “they shouldn’t have done.” Best case: he expects those producers to get a cease and desist from Disney attorneys. Worst case: they’re getting shut down and sued.
“We didn’t want to go near that character,” he said.
Frake-Waterfield has been closely watching IP as it enters the public domain. His production company Jagged Edge Productions is also making a Peter Pan movie, and Frake-Waterfield is working on a few other yet-to-be-announced projects based on other newly public-domain IP. None of them deal with Disney characters, and that’s by design.
But as with “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” Frake-Waterfield must continue to tread lightly. He worries others have not. While the copyright for the specific character Steamboat Willie and its image may have fallen into public domain, a trademark on a brand is a different story — one that can easily supersede the public domain rules. The huge, litigious, and wise Disney has tethered Mickey Mouse closely to their brand and logos; and in anticipation of the looming public-domain issue, Disney began using Steamboat Willie in the same way.
That wasn’t the case with Winnie the Pooh, but Frake-Waterfield’s company still consulted lawyers to ensure they did not infringe on Disney’s version of the Pooh or Piglet characters. They examined the same “do’s and don’ts” before putting Tigger into the “Blood and Honey” sequel, he said. Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger may be Disney characters, but they were originally created by author A.A. Milne and licensed by Disney in 1961.
Some of this new, independent Steamboat Willie usage is “sketchy” at best, Frake-Waterfield said. “They think just because something’s fallen in the public domain you can just make up a version of it and then put it out to market and it’s completely fine.”
Any decent lawyer would have stopped some of these new slashers in their tracks — now Disney’s probably will, he said. It’s about to get “quite scary” for some, Frake-Waterfield predicted, and “extremely costly.”
There’s another problem in Waterfield’s eyes with a Steamboat Willie horror film — it’s just played out.
“Blood and Honey” wasn’t exactly a critical darling, but Frake-Waterfield defends his film by saying it wasn’t just a guy in a Pooh mask murdering teens in a cabin in the woods. In his version, the Hundred-Acre Wood characters had turned feral and even devoured Eeyore. The devil, you see, is in the details. Frake-Waterfield’s upcoming Peter Pan film will also lean into J.M. Barrie’s original story — with a horror twist.
Stick to the formula, he advises the Steamboat Willie takes.
“I don’t know if any of them are going to, you know, try to make them good,” Frake-Waterfield said. “That getting repeated all the time, it won’t have the same kind of hit. It doesn’t have the same kind of longevity for what we’re trying to do. I personally believe the only way that this becomes sustainable for us making films is to really focus on doing a select few, the ones we think are best, and making them have a really high quality.”