“Transmorphers.” “Almighty Thor.” “Sherlock Holmes.”
These could be the titles of some of the biggest films of recent years. Then follows a trio of more suspect titles:
“Megashark vs. Giant Octopus.” “Snakes on a Train.” “Titanic II.”
This is not mainstream Hollywood.
Based out of Burbank, Calif., The Asylum film production and distribution company has been mastering the mockbuster for the past 14 years. David Latt is one of the three founding partners of the company. Prior to his career in Hollywood, Latt worked in the magazine publishing industry. He first met his producing colleague David Rimawi, then a Village Roadshow Pictures Executive, at a film festival in 1991.
“My colleague [Rimawi] had always wanted to produce. I had always wanted to direct,” Latt said. “What we did then is what we do today. We went out, found what stars people wanted and what genre they liked, found out [what] people would pay … and began working.”
Since its origins in 1995, the company has never lost money on a film, and is constantly growing, both in output and popularity, despite constant criticism from film reviewers and mainstream consumers. The Asylum both recognizes and relishes its position as a niche market, and isn’t discouraged by public backlash. While not for everyone, this style of film is recognized by some within the film community as still having merit. In addition, their mockbuster films have become something of a litmus test for Hollywood worthiness.
The mockbuster is a low-budget film that uses a plot similar to that of a currently released blockbuster while exploiting its publicity campaign.
As a result, Columbia Pictures’ “Battle: Los Angeles” becomes “Battle of Los Angeles,” Marvel Studio’s “Thor” becomes “The Amazing Thor,” and Disney’s “High School Musical” becomes “Sunday School Musical.”
Hollywood has been in a downward spiral for some years, and The Asylum perpetuates this with cheap-to-make, cheap-to-buy films. The existence and success of The Asylum begs the question, “Can a company that profits at the expense of others be truly successful?”
Director and star of The Asylum’s “Titanic II,” Shane Van Dyke, who has worked with the company for a number of years, says he has the answer.
“Sometimes people like to watch a movie where they don’t have to think too much,” Van Dyke said. “Get a six-pack of beer, sit down and enjoy a movie that more likely than not will have its fair share of fiery explosions, giant monsters and good-looking women.”
Since its inception, The Asylum has produced over 100 films. A new film is released every four weeks, during which time another film begins production. The studio’s average budget ranges anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million per film. By comparison, the current average Hollywood blockbuster budget is in the ballpark of $60 million, while production length runs between six months to more than a year.
Latt is unapologetic about the low budget and rapid output of The Asylum.
“We run our company on cash flow,” Latt said. “If we don’t make money that week, people don’t get paid.”
But they do get paid. The Asylum reports an annual revenue of around $5 million. As the films are so cheap to make, and as demand is high, all films make a profit.
While The Asylum’s films are made on lower budgets than those of other companies, size of production is growing. Latt said that while the company primarily films in Burbank, it has shot all over the world.
“South Africa, Israel, Istanbul, Iowa,” Latt said. “We’ve shot in Belize three times. If the story calls for it, we believe we should go there.”
Long an inside joke to lovers of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, The Asylum found a modicum of mainstream recognition with the European cinematic release of “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus” in 2009. The film only grossed roughly $700 at the box office, but made back the rest of its $250,000 budget and more in DVD sales, rentals and downloads. Netflix views were 70 percent higher for that title than others The Asylum has released.
Noteworthy scenes include whale suicide en masse, the giant octopus venting its frustrations on a Japanese oil rig, a character who changes from American to Australian and back again, and a whole lot of submarine shaking. However, the most notorious scene involves the mega shark eating a full-sized passenger plane in mid-flight. This literal example of jumping the shark has received over a million views on YouTube.
Reviews ranged from the amused to the bemused. Kim Newman of Empire Magazine, Britain’s premier film journal, referred to the film as being “daft, plain daft. With a few daft but spectacular stunts.”
Film website Rotten Tomatoes was even less kind, stating that “with shoddy FX, acting and directing, this isn’t so bad it’s good. It’s just so bad it’s terrible.”
UC Santa Cruz film lecturer Suzanne Scott commented on the popularity and purpose of these films in an email.
She discussed the fact that horror and science fiction films generally echo the sociopolitical climate of their time. In the case of The Asylum, Scott said their films seem to be less interested in offering a sociopolitical critique than they are in critiquing the overabundance of computer-generated imagery (special effects) in Hollywood. Instead, the fun of watching these films is in reveling in low production values and campy appeal.
Scott said they “cater to ironic, postmodern modes of spectatorship, and celebrate the artifice and spectacle of Hollywood’s output.”
All the actors and producers interviewed agreed that they enjoyed making these particular films not despite the cheesy aspect, but because of it.
“I’m a big fan of the horror genre,” Van Dyke said. “At the time I first met with The Asylum, they were doing mostly horror films … I contacted producer David Latt, and it turned out our families had worked together in the past. My involvement with the company grew from there. At the end of the day, you’re making movies, which is what I love.”
Van Dyke had no issue working within the constraints of The Asylum — meaning quick shoots at low budgets.
“Working with small budgets pushes you to get creative and learn from your experiences,” he said.
Unlike other studios, The Asylum is also notable for offering rapid on-the-job promotions. Jude Gerard Prest began his career with them as a bit-part on cowboy film “Six Guns” before being promoted to a key role after “another actor didn’t turn up on set,” and is now one of the company’s producers.
Van Dyke got to direct “Titanic II” simply because he asked.
Mary E. Brown, who has worked with the company on six films, has held a different position on each film. She is currently acting as line-producer.
Wes Pannell, the head of DVD sales and acquisitions at Santa Cruz’s Streetlight Records, has past dealings with the company’s distribution branch. Pannell has a self-described aversion to the company’s films.
“[Mega Shark] is part of what’s popular right now. It’ll go away in a few months. Some other crazy animal-type movie will take its place,” Pannell said in an email. “Since we’re a small record store we’ve got to order a limited number of B-movies [because] most of them do not sell well.”
Prest had a different perspective.
“If you embrace the cheesiness going in, they are a lot of fun,” Prest said. “If you go in with a ‘well, that’s ridiculous’ attitude, then you’re not going to like a lot of the things they do.”
Other than low-budget monster mash-ups, most of The Asylum’s success has been through the “mockbuster” sub-genre.
“We don’t do a lot of them anymore,” producing partner Latt said. “[But] if a film is going to generate a lot of attention or interest in the public, we are interested in riding that wave.”
Latt was quick to point out that The Asylum is not copying the big studios, just trying to take advantage of current interests.
“[We make] films that are similar to others thematically and content-wise,” Latt said.
Latt has no qualms with what his studio does, saying, “It is nothing other studios don’t do. We’re just a little more audacious and obnoxious about it.”
As an example, the producer recalled the release of the film “The Da Vinci Code” five years ago.
“Every other channel was doing a documentary on the ‘real Da Vinci Code,’” Latt said. “Everyone sees a blockbuster and sees a way to take advantage. It’s no different from what we do.”
Warner Brothers released “Sherlock Holmes” in Dec. 2009. The Asylum released its “Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes” in Jan. 2010. The former had a budget of $90 million. The latter, like all Asylum films, had a budget in the region of $250,000 to $2 million.
Both films involve Holmes attempting to prevent a terrorist attack on London, but where Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law were chasing down dastardly criminals, The Asylum’s take included robots, dinosaurs and dragons. With release dates so close together, it might be easy to confuse the two titles. The difference becomes clear when reviews for the two are compared.
William Thomas of Empire Magazine described one as “a fun, action-packed reintroduction to Conan Doyle’s classic characters.” By comparison, Randy Yasenchak of Elder-Geek.com said, “I can recommend this movie for anyone who loves watching bad movies while drunk (or otherwise) with friends to laugh at.”
Despite these types of similarities, The Asylum rarely gets into legal difficulties concerning its films.
“At this point we are a brand, and people who release bigger films seem to know this,” Latt said. “If we don’t do a mockbuster of their film, [the bigger studios] feel they must be doing something wrong.”
Executive producer Latt shed some light on how The Asylum addresses legal issues.
“The short answer is that we always get the angry letter from the studio [that The Asylum is currently parodying], but we’re not really crossing any lines, we’re not doing anything illegal. We’re not stealing from their pot of money,” Latt said. “The studios appear to recognize this. We’ve never been through any civil action, because there simply is not anything actionable about what we do.”
In most cases this mentality holds true. In 2008, however, Fox Studios released its remake of the 1951 classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The Asylum, following its usual strategy, released “The Day the Earth Stopped” three days before the Fox release.
Fox sent The Asylum a lengthy cease-and-desist letter, in addition to attempting to get the low-budget rival film removed from the shelves. Fox was unsuccessful. The Asylum’s film can still be purchased from online retailers.
According to the official press release issued through Yahoo! News, Fox was particularly enraged by the fact that The Asylum took advantage of its multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Fox has also argued that as it owns the rights to the original film, The Asylum was plagiarizing.
Neither studio was available to comment on this particular issue.
Legal issues aside, the growing success of The Asylum — in the cult market, at least — does raise questions about the state of Hollywood.
“In some sense, [The Asylum shows] that we haven’t yet moved beyond the A/B movie paradigm of the classical Hollywood studio system,” film lecturer Scott wrote, “except in this case, instead of a double feature … The Asylum simply creates a B-movie for television out of whatever ‘A’/big budget movie is currently in theaters. There isn’t economic space for the production of B-films in Hollywood today. The emphasis is on tent pole films and franchises.”
Wes Pannell of Streetlight Records said in an email, “Hollywood sucks right now. They’re desperate for any cheap way to make a movie, be it through rehashing a title they already own the rights to, or making a straight-to-DVD title.”
So if it is just functioning like all other Hollywood studios, why does The Asylum not see more mainstream success? Because it does not need to, according to Asylum line producer Brown.
“The Asylum has its own market,” Brown said. “It has its audience that looks for specific material. We have a fan base of the types of projects that The Asylum is about. They have a huge following, not just nationally, but internationally.”
The ultimate test for The Asylum is time. Other cheaply made films have gained a strong cult following over the years. Perhaps the ultimate example is Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” Despite being regarded by critics as one of the worst films ever made, “The Room” still sells out in theaters across America. This happened recently when Santa Cruz’s Del Mar Theatre chose the film for its weekly midnight movie, on the weekend of Feb. 18th–19th.
A story told by actor Prest suggests that The Asylum’s move towards the cult may have already begun.
“It was the gift that kept on giving,” Prest said, discussing the 2010 film “Mega Piranha.” The monster film, which premiered on the SyFy Channel in April of last year, became the most viewed original movie of 2010, with approximately 2.2 million viewers.
“After that, it played at midnight at Comic-Con. There was a line around the block,” Prest said. “It’s since played at a number of other festivals and become a cult hit, both online and on the SyFy Channel.”
Perhaps one day it will be showing alongside “The Room” at the Del Mar in downtown Santa Cruz. Asylum critics like Pannell, however, do not agree.
“Cult does not mean schlock, which is what The Asylums folks make,” Pannell said. “What makes something a cult classic? The cult does.”
Film lecturer Scott took a similar approach to the issue.
“Can [something] truly be ‘cult’ if it is self-consciously designed to appeal to a ‘cult’ demographic … When we think of classic cult properties … there is a distinct pattern,” Scott wrote. “Each of the films was released to minimal (or non-existent) commercial success, and built up a small, devoted fan base over time. Now we have networks like SyFy that design their programming around ‘cult’ demographics. If anything, the success of the films being churned out by The Asylum would seem to indicate that cult is the new mass.”
Whatever the future holds for The Asylum, it can be sure that it will continue rapidly making films. Asylum actor and director Van Dyke, for one, feels it is time they be recognized for this.
“Asylum films should be credited for the work they do, on the budget they do it, and in the time they do it.”