The Inmates have taken over The Asylum

Published on April 19th, 2011

James takes a look at movies that are so bad they’re good, focusing on The Asylum, producers of classics like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

Perhaps you’ve all seen this video.

If all the replays didn’t make it clear, that was a massive shark jumping out of the ocean grabbing an airplane in its jaws. It is from a film called Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.  It came out in 2009 and didn’t win a single Oscar. In fact, it has very poor ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and other film review sites. Despite this, there have been many sequels and spinoffs, including Mega Shark vs Gatoroid, the story about the acrobatically skilled shark in the above video battling against an alligator who has been fed steroids. All of these movies have similarly low ratings. What kind of studio would continue making movies that people constantly dislike? The name of the studio is The Asylum and they’ve been busy lately. They have been called everything from B movies to Z movies for their tendency to make cheap, formulaic movies really quickly. They hire actors like Jaleel White (best known as Urkel) and not-really-an-actor-but-I-guess-an-actor-now actors like 80s pop singers Debbie Gibson and her former rival Tiffany. The Asylum has produced 52 films since 2005, an astonishing rate for films of any quality.

The company was founded in 1997 and started making low budget films, mostly horror, all of which went straight to video. Rental chains like Blockbuster would order a few thousands copies and with such a low budget, the movies managed to squeak out a profit. Eventually, some larger studios like Lions Gate moved into the low-budget horror market and The Asylum needed something new to do. Luckily, just around this time in 2005, one of their films received an order from Blockbuster about 7 or 8 times bigger than most orders they receive. The film in question was called War of the Worlds. Now you might be thinking “I didn’t know The Asylum made that Tom Cruise movie.” You would be right in thinking that. That is because, also in 2005, a film called H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was released into theatres. This was the big budget Tom Cruise spectacle aiming to the big summer hit. It is unclear whether Blockbuster thought The Asylum’s version of War of the Worlds had something to do with the Tom Cruise one, or if they thought enough people would make that mistake and rent it from them, or if they believed people in 2005 were so interested in that plot that they needed multiple films about it.

What is clear is that The Asylum had found an interesting business model. As long as they could keep making movies that sound like a  current Hollywood blockbuster, video stores will keep ordering their product. These films, which aim to feed off the popularity ofHollywoodfilms currently being promoted, are known as mockbusters. More on this later.

For now, let’s focus on the other type of film that The Asylum spends much of its time making. The first kind, which I call monster movies, such as Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, involve monsters terrorizing other monsters, humans, or usually both. They feature extremely large creature like Crocosaurus and Gatoroid as well as lots of poorly realized destruction special effects. According to interviews with the co-founders of The Asylum, they have an unusual method for writing these films. They like to think of the title and the poster and work backwards from there. While this method sounds a ridiculous, it seems to be working. If the idea is to get people’s attention when your studio doesn’t have the budget for a big advertising campaign, then The Asylum has been successful. They don’t have the money to make commercials, so when someone picks up a copy and considers renting it, all they really have to go on is the title and the front cover. It makes sense for this to be the studio’s primary concern. Most of their advertising comes to them for free by people watching ridiculous footage online and telling their friends about it. The clip at start of this article from Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, and the trailer of the film, both became fairly popular as viral videos. The awful acting and special effects got people laughing to the point that the videos racked up a couple million hits on Youtube. While unrealistic events and bad CGI is enough to make people refuse to see certain movies, these are the very things that put Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus in the mind of many who would otherwise not know about it. That is not to say that people only watch it for free online in bits and pieces. Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus made enough profit through video store rentals and purchases to spawn several sequels. It is important to note that while these sequels didn’t share the viral popularity of the original, they still made money. This is proves Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus is not a fluke as we see by this business model being successful film after film. A catchy title, an arresting cover and a “plot” that promises action seems to be enough to make back the production costs.

Now, we can return to what The Asylum is most famous for: the mockbuster. People same fascinated with these for a variety of reasons. Many people are impressed with how shamelessly this studio rips off others. Some are amazed that enough people are willing to watch what is so clearly an inferior version of something else. Many are just surprised that they can get away with this plagiarism from a legal standpoint. Check out the chart and see for yourself.

King Kong King of the Lost World 2005
War of the Worlds H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds 2005
The Da Vinci Code The Da Vinci Treasure 2006
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest Pirates of Treasure Island 2006
Snakes on a Plane Snakes on a Train 2006
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem AVH: Alien vs Hunter 2007
Transformers Transmorphers 2007
I Am Legend I Am ?mega 2007
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls 2008
High School Musical 3: Senior Year Sunday School Musical 2008
The Day the Earth Stood Still The Day the Earth Stopped 2008
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Transmorphers: Fall of Man 2009
Terminator Salvation The Terminators 2009
Paranormal Activity Paranormal Entity 2009
Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes 2010
Piranha 3D Mega Piranha 2010
Battle: Los Angeles Battle of Los Angeles 2011
Thor Almighty Thor 2011

The sheer number of films this studio is responsible for is staggering but the similarities of the titles is the most entertaining. It takes a certain amount of tenacity to rip off the idea for a movie but to go ahead and name that ripoff a barely-altered version of the original title is so ballsy that it’s somewhat impressive. There are a couple of methods they have of altering the title just enough. This includes adding words (Thor becomes Almighty Thor), barely moving the word around (Transformers becomes Transmorphers), changing part of a word so the new titles and old title rhyme (Snakes on a Plane to Snakes on a Train) and my personal favourite, turning punctuation into words (Battle: Los Angeles and Battle of Los Angeles). The Hollywood release of I Am Legend, which itself is a remake of The Omega Man, turned into I Am Omega by the time they were done with it. I also appreciate the fact that The Asylum decided to make a low-budget remake of Paranormal Activity, which itself is reported to cost just $10,000.

However, not so many people find these similarities entertaining. 20th Century Fox threatened legal action when it felt The Day the Earth Stopped was too close to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Some people are angered by the way The Asylum names their movies and designs their covers. They feel the filmmakers are trying to trick people who aren’t as in touch with popular culture or who simply have bad eyesight into renting or buying their films. This concern is addressed on the studio’s official website in a post called “In Defense of Mockbusters”.

The blogger/spokesperson says that they’ve done the research and the number of people who return “The Asylum” movies to video stores is less than 1%. Their argument is that if people really picked the wrong movie, there would be a lot more returns. The same post offers an answer to the question about who would intentionally rent these consistently panned, unoriginal movies by comparing mockbusters to store brands of famous products.

“Say you’ve got a cold and you walk into your local Walgreens  for some medicine… You see the Sudafed, and right next to it, in a box that looks remarkably similar to the national brand, the store’s own “Nasal Decongestant.” I don’t think most people buy the store brand because they think it’s really Sudafed in a different box. I think they buy it because they think it will be similar to Sudafed, only cheaper. Just like our Mockbusters. They’re similar to big studio films, only cheaper. And shittier. If that’s possible.”

While much of The Asylum’s most famous movies can be categorized as monster movies or as mockbusters, they all have a lot in common. They are all made very quickly, very cheaply and as more of a team effort of the studio than the artistic vision of a single director or writer. Most of these movies shoot for no more than 12 days, an incredibly short amount of time for a full length feature film with several locations and actors. The special effects are glaringly poor, and when the main characters/focus of the film are computer-generated, this is very noticeable. The plotholes are abundant, the dialogue is awful and the acting is wooden. Movies in both of these categories all cost under a million dollars to produce. They all get panned by critics and the public and can find few people to even enjoy it for what a mess it is. It’s not just high-brow cinema critics who don’t enjoy them. Your average movie goer has negative feelings about them. These films are so bad they manage to disappoint people whose standards are low enough to rent a straight-to-video movie called Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus starring Debbie Gibson that doesn’t even have the budget to get one frame of good CGI for the cover.

Even most cinemasochists who enjoy movies that are “so bad they’re good” feel these movies are just “so bad they’re really bad.” Aggreagate sites with user-generated reviews rank most of these movies between 1.5 and 3.5 out of 10. However, the most important aspect of these movies from the view of the studio is their return on investment. None of their movies have lost money. They certainly don’t pull in the figures that Avatar did but they provide jobs for everyone in the studio and make some profit. When people see that The Asylum keeps making Mega Shark movies after the first one wasn’t well-received or they rip off another major summer release that will clearly be better, they often ask why the studio bothers making them. The answer is the same answer that you can give to anyone asking why a corporation does what it does: because these movies make money. If we think of studios as machines to make movies, it would seem that The Asylum fails in that it consistently makes a product that most people are disappointed by. However, the function of the studio is to make money, making films was just a means to do so. The Asylum has carved out a niche where it can quickly make bad movies and still be profitable. As economic force, it is a success, as it creates commodities, jobs and wealth, even though its business model almost guarantees disappointed customers.

This modus operandi is absolutely fascinating to me. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. I’m impressed by the scope and the (temporary) success of Ponzi schemes and bank heists, but that doesn’t mean that are good things. These movies fail in such an overly ambitious and spectacular way its difficult to not be interested by them, particularly when they still succeed financially. I keep reading about these movies and watching them but I can’t make up my mind about how I feel about their existence. I know each of the movies are bad but when I think about The Asylum, I can’t decide how I feel, or how I even want to feel. I’ve narrowed my opinions down to 4 different ways to look at the studio.

As pornographers:

This is one possibility I find myself leaning towards the more I read about the studio, particularly when they’re talking about their products in such artless terms. Like a porno, these films are produced and released very rapidly. The plot is very loose and at times, non-sensical. They often take pieces of contemporary pop culture or topical stories and build a film around that. Within minutes of the story getting on its way, we forget the motivations and names of the characters, turn off our brains and watch the spectacle. Almost all of the actors wish they were doing something else and this comes through in their performance. Most strikingly, the viewer is unaware if the story is taking itself seriously or not, and if it is, whether we should too.

As comedians:

Those working at The Asylum are the first to admit the movies are bad and laugh off people who are surprised by this. These movies are certainly not comedies in a traditional way but the makers are aware of how funny these movies are in the end and have a great sense of humour about it. Perhaps their goal was to make a comedy the whole time and that everything that isn’t over the top ridiculous and just looks like a bad movie taking itself too seriously is deadpan. They don’t wink at the camera and this keeps the silly things seems even funnier. Even their IMDB FAQs provide more laughs than some recent comedies.

Because of recurring characters, mega or human, and similar effects, themes and production practices, The Asylum is a film universe one can enter. Like most canons, seeing each part allows you to enjoy something about the parts you may have missed. Noticing reused footage is a gem that one gets to enjoy more after repeat viewings. While it is obvious that the same clip of the Mega Shark going underwater is used at least 5 times, there are some that are harder to notice but more rewarding. Footage from one Asylum movie is used in another. My favourite example is in The Day the Earth Stopped in which reusing footage appears to make a sniper shoot himself standing hundreds of metres away. Rewatching these films can allow you to look past the obvious plot holes and see something else: the less obvious plotholes. In this way, it’s the opposite of Arrested Development, for here repeated viewings give you a better understanding of how little this was planned ahead and highlights there was never a unifying vision of where this should go.

As working class folk:

I think many people view Hollywood as a place ruled by big corporations where good-looking people who have no real talents get $20 million paycheques, and the rest of America is where people do the daily grind and truly earn their money. Whether you believe this statement or not, I find it much easier to view The Asylum as part of that “rest of America.” They can be viewed as a little mom-and-pop company fighting against the big guys. Working with less talented actors and directors, they are the David to the Hollywood Goliath. No matter how you feel about the quality of the product, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the rate at which they can make these movies. If they could afford a premiere, these films would go from pitch to premiere in 12 days. Less than 2 weeks is an incredibly small window to latch onto an idea that Hollywood is promoting, write it, shoot it, edit it and release it. Hollywood studios allow more time for press junkets than this studio does for an entire movie to be conceived and realized. I read an interview with the co-founder while he was in The Asylum office while his crew making a film. The low budget and short schedules caused the interview to be interrupted as the offices to be used in a set for one of their productions. This kind of limited amount of time and resources results in 20-22 hour workdays where several scenes are filmed in the time that it takes the major studios to shoot one conversation. These grueling days give The Asylum a very blue-collar, workhorse feeling to it. Many of these people are just happy to be making movies. They are not gambling on making the next huge hit. They bite off just as much as they can chew and never let hubris get the best of them and dream too big. The people involved in the production of this film plod along steadily, doing just what it takes to get back what they put in and make a bit of money rather than rolling the dice and maybe losing it all. They use the massive budgets of Hollywood ad campaigns to build up interest for a certain topic or idea, then swoop and capitalize on it before the majors can get through image consulting, test screening and corporate bureaucracy.

As brilliant satirists:

This theory is the most tempting but I feel like it would be giving the studio too much credit. The idea here is that these mockbusters aren’t just ripping off certain films but perhaps satirizing the concept of blockbusters all together. Slate offers this explanation to the phenomenon.

“If this is accidental satire, so be it: The more puffed-up and self-serious and dumb Hollywood blockbusters become, the more they demand to see their goofiness mirrored by cheap, unpretentious, equally dumb knockoffs…Hold them up against crass efforts like Transformers and The Da Vinci Code, though, and the Asylum’s mockbusters start to seem well, definitely not good, but almost necessary.”

Perhaps by making something so artless and crass, they are challenging Hollywood to point out when it does any better. Is it only money that elevates their status to, if not art, legitimate entertainment meant to be taken seriously? Perhaps this whole company and its dozens of films is a massive satirical indictment of mainstream Hollywood.

One piece of evidence that leads me to believe the satirist theory is that there is always someone willing to say The Asylum version is better than whatever movie it is ripping off. The Day the Earth Stood Still perhaps should have been less concerned about movies with similar titles and protecting intellectual property and focus more on making a good product. That movie was panned by critics whose negative reviews were magnified by how seriously the film took itself and that it really thought it would be good. People’s disdain for the current state of the movie industry make them happy to say cheap rip-off made in 12 days is superior. They don’t like being bombarded with ads on billboards, TV, radio and on the Internet. They like it even less when they give into this barrage and pay the skyrocketing price for a movie that ends up being terrible.

I realize I am overstating the brilliance of The Asylum and they are probably just like the Hollywood executives we all complain about; just there to make a quick buck. What I know for certain is that they make movies that a few people love, most people hate but see just enough money for the studio to get by. Oh, I also know that 12 days and $1 million is enough to make The Almighty Thor better than that Anthony Hopkins piece of shit.

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