How ‘Idiocracy’ Went From An Afterthought To An Uncomfortably Prescient Cult Favorite

At a recent 10th anniversary screening of Idiocracy, director/co-writer Mike Judge explained what sparked the initial idea. He was at Disneyland with his two daughters when two women, each pushing a stroller, started screaming profanities at one another behind him in line. As he stood there trying to ignore the argument unfolding behind him, he began wondering if this was what Walt Disney had envisioned as the future for his theme park.

The year was 2001, coincidentally the title of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction film that envisioned a world filled with space travel and thundering classical music. With the irony not lost on him, Judge began the first outline of what would eventually become Idiocracy, a 2006 film in which Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), the world’s most average man, wakes up to a bleak, corporate-overrun future devoid of intelligence.

If, as someone who watches cable news and/or experiences the drawbacks of social media far too often, you feel as though you can relate, then you’re not alone. Idiocracy has become a bona fide cult classic and a cutting satire that, while designed to present an exaggerated sense of pessimism and lampoon America’s slavish devotion to consumer culture, has instead wound up mirroring our society just a bit more accurately than anyone had anticipated. The film has, perhaps consequently, earned a devoted fan base. But like many, Idiocracy‘s path to becoming a cult favorite began at a seeming dead end.

Gone And Almost Forgotten

Despite coming from the creator of Office Space and Beavis and Butt-head, Idiocracy first hit theaters with almost no hype, no press screenings, and no enthusiasm or support from a studio whose lack of interest was noticeable and, according to an NPR interview with USC Professor David Whitzman, virtually unprecedented in his previous experience working in film advertising. “Office Space was given a chance in the theaters, and it didn’t do that well — it didn’t do horribly, but it didn’t do great,” Judge said in a recent interview with Fast CoCreate, adding that Idiocracy “wasn’t given a chance at all.”

The day the film was released in September of 2006, in only 130 theaters, the Austin-American Statesman wrote that “a large, worried cloud started hanging over the finished film in late 2004, several months after it was shot at Austin Studios.” Judge was reportedly furious over the complete lack of marketing and refused to do interviews to promote the film. At the time, someone close to Judge went on the record with the paper saying that, “Fox dumped the film,” but that remark was disputed by a representative from Fox Studios who said it, “was an executive decision from the chairman” and that they were not “treating the film coldly.”

Despite those assurances, Fox’s lukewarm enthusiasm was obvious long before the release. In early 2005, more than a year before Idiocracy briefly made it to theaters, the film was shown to select test audiences. By March there were reports that the film wasn’t going over well and reshoots were scheduled for the following summer. Idiocracy started receiving a more positive response and was given a release date of August 5, 2005. That day came and went, and the release date was then pushed back more than a year.

When Esquire profiled Judge in June of 2006, three months before the release, the article was framed by Judge waiting for a phone call from a studio executive in an effort to get permission to show the interviewer the Idiocracy trailer. Judge bided his time by walking around his neighborhood and watching hunting videos while waiting for the call, but it never came — one more frustration to add to the pile.

“They’re just overthinking it, which is what they always do,” said Judge about the situation. “It’s just about an average dumb-ass person who winds up in the future. It’s not about ‘What if you could travel through time…‘”

The lengthy delays weren’t merely an annoyance that stifled the release of Judge’s film, they also put a hold on his career for a period. “I could have made another movie after I locked the picture before this one comes out,” said Judge, who was described by Esquire as being in a kind of “passive-aggressive funk.”