‘The Hole’: Disney Buries Birch

Why Disney Suppressed Thora Birch’s Jaw-Dropping Follow-Up to ‘American Beauty’


Thora Birch has been largely unseen in Hollywood for the past few years (or many years), but back in 1999, she was poised for cinematic super-stardom. At the time only 17 years old, Birch (who had been laboring in the industry since childhood) was thrust into the limelight riding the success of America Beauty, the darling of the 72nd Academy Awards where it won Best Picture. Birch was roundly praised for the depth and maturity she brought to the role of Jane Burnham, proving herself an actress of unusual talent and allure.

This success and subsequent buzz made her a hot commodity, and she found herself flooded with job offers. One of the most alluring came from Pathe, a UK film production company, where director Nick Hamm was anxious for her to play the lead in his psychological horror/thriller: The Hole (based on the novel After the Hole by Guy Burt). Industry trades reported Birch signed on with an unbelievable 7-figure salary, no small feat for an actress of her relative youth. Production of The Hole began in early 2000 and premiered in the UK on April 20, 2001.

While the film received mixed reviews, Birch was once again thoroughly lauded; Michael Thomson, film critic for the BBC wrote: “As for Thora Birch, given that she has a much leaner role than the one she enjoyed in ‘American Beauty’, the qualities which made her flourish in that multi-Oscar-winner are still abundantly clear.”


With Birch proving that she was more than a mere flash in the pan, Dimension Films happily secured the American distribution rights for The Hole. And this is where the vehicle that was to carry Birch towards continued success seemingly (and inexplicably) came to a crashing halt.

If you live in America like I do, and you were conscious in 2001, you might find it difficult to remember how The Hole faired during its theatrical release. That’s because it never happened. In spite of the fact that The Hole featured a rising star, was produced by a major studio, and had already enjoyed a successful release overseas, Dimension decided to put it on a shelf where it sat for over 2 years before being unceremoniously dumped directly to DVD and released with little fanfare.

It was a decision that seems to make absolutely no sense at all. Which is what inspired me to delve a little deeper into the unusual treatment this should-be cult-classic received at the time of its production. After some research and conjecture, it became apparent that industry politics were clearly in play, and that The Hole suffered unfairly.

The true culprit behind The Hole’s mistreatment and delegation to relative obscurity is none other than Mickey Mouse himself: The Walt Disney Motion Picture Group. And their reason for tanking this exceptional film? It was an effort to protect the image of virtual unknown actress (at the time): Keira Knightley.

Keira Knightley13

The Keira Knightly Effect

evil mickey disney

In addition to featuring super-talented Thora Birch, The Hole introduced us to a young Keira Nightley in her very first major motion picture role. While she may have been young, her character was incredibly complicated and gritty: A sexually active, drug-using anorexic. The role required nudity and her character, “Frankie” dies a disturbing, very un-glamorous death.

When The Hole was poised for it’s American release towards the end of 2001, another film had just wrapped: The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl. And while the film wouldn’t hit silver screens until 2003, execs at The Walt Disney Motion Picture Group were already knee-deep in planning Pirates’ massive marketing campaign. And Disney, as you know, can be very protective of its image, as well as the perception of those working under their umbrella. Knightly had actually entered the Disney fold in 2000 when she played Robin Hood’s daughter in a made-for-TV-movie (a gig that no doubt put her on the short list for Pirates). Now that she was set to star with Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in what was sure to be a billion dollar franchise, Disney had a reputation to protect. Would viewers respect a chase Elizabeth Swann played by a horror movie actress? Would parents keep their young children away from a film featuring Knightley if they knew she’s not a role model?



It’s no accident that most Americans first notice Knightley in 2003 when Pirates of the Caribbean was making waves around the world… and it’s no accident that a lot of us have never even heard of The Hole.



Dimension Films Rolls Over

I wish there was an exciting and sordid story surrounding Disney’s suppression of The Hole, one that involved public accusations and mud slinging. But whatever battle surrounded the revocation of the film’s American theatrical release, it was completely silent and free from acrimony. If you’re wondering why Dimension didn’t put up a fight or insist that The Hole get the release it deserved, it’s pretty simple: Disney is Dimension’s parent company—and children do what their parents tell them to do. So after sitting on a shelf until the buzz had passed and The Hole had already faded into relative obscurity, it was passed off to Buena Vista Distributions (also a Disney puppet… er, affiliated entity) for the unceremonious dump to DVD.

The Stigma of Straight-To-DVD

These days, independent film production companies see direct-to-DVD releases as a lifeline in an otherwise impenetrable industry. Indeed I know first had that a lot of brilliant films never get the red-carpet treatment with a national or international theatrical release. This seems especially true in the horror arena. Still, there’s no denying that when a major studio sends a multi-million dollar film directly to DVD, it’s an inherent insult.

By denying The Hole a theatrical release in America, Dimension Films and the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group casts a cloud over the entire film, essentially implying a number of negative assumptions: That the film didn’t meet expectations, or underperformed overseas, or doesn’t have any artistic merit. In the case of The Hole, none of these assumptions were true.

So what’s the big deal? Am I just using this article as an excuse to rail on Disney? And besides, Thora Birch has been off the radar for quite some time. True. But what makes this straight to DVD release a travesty is that, almost 15 years later, The Hole still languishes in relative obscurity (especially in America). Maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal if the film wasn’t excellent—but it it! Creative suppression of any kind, especially when motivated by money and politics, is abominable.

Review: ‘The Hole’

The Hole (2001)

Director: Nick Hamm

Writers: Guy Burt (novel), Ben Court (screenplay)

Stars: Thora BirchDesmond HarringtonDaniel Brocklebank |







Official Synopsis: Four teenagers at a British private school secretly uncover and explore the depths of a sealed underground hole created decades ago as a possible bomb shelter.

I don’t have much interest in horror films that center on teenagers doing stupid shit. But horror films that feature teenagers who are actually scary and devious really get under my skin—in a good way. If you think that Jane in American Beauty is a complicated character, Liz in The Hole will blow your freakin’ mind! Liz is an enigma from the start, at first appearing like a victim, but later revealing herself to be shrewd beyond measure. She may be just a teenager, but Liz is utterly unnerving and compelling throughout, and Birch’s portrayal is outstanding.

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The entire plot is engrossing and engaging from the start, and the pacing is brisk throughout. The Hole is the kind of film that slowly creeps into your psyche where it festers like an infected wound. Even hardcore horror addicts will find the kinds of shocks they seek. It’s time to resurrect The Hole from the hole it was buried in; it’s worthy of your attention and a level of respect and appreciation that it was never given.

Thora Birch

Thora Birch claims to have left the entertainment industry voluntarily after watching close friends Brittney Murphy and Brad Renfro fatally succumb to the hazards of the lifestyle. It was probably a smart choice in an industry practically celebrated for its cruelty. Still, I can’t help but wonder how her career might have progressed had The Hole been given it’s day in the Sun. When I reflect on how well Birch acted in the 2008 horror/thriller Train, it occurs to me that she had definite Scream Queen potential. There’s definitely something captivating about Birch—perhaps the volumes quietly emoted behind her eyes.


The Ultimate Irony

In an extremely ironic footnote, it’s worth showing the promotional art that was designed to accompany The Hole’s straight to DVD release. Even though Disney didn’t want to sully the image of their latest maiden by allowing the film an American theatrical release, posters featured Keira Knightly as the apparent star (removing Birch and the other actors all-together). I guess a tarnished rep is worth the risk when the Mouse sees another chance to make a buck.


Have you seen The Hole? Do you agree that it’s truly underrated? Let me know in the comments.

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2 Comments on this post.

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  • Dame
    12 November 2014 at 6:48 am - Reply

    Definitely agree great film I was lucky enough to stumble upon it on cable around 03. Always wondered why it hadn’t gotten better treatment well thanks for bringing this to light

  • Kathy
    12 November 2014 at 11:10 pm - Reply

    I loved this movie, what a shame that it didn’t get a chance to shine. Stupid Disney always mucks stuff up.