Inside The Asylum: The Outlaw Studio That Changed Hollywood
“Anyone can make a $100 million dollar movie, but to shoot a feature film in 12-14 days, with a budget that’s probably less than the phone bill on a major studio film is monumental. To do it every four weeks and then release the film three to four months later is insane. But that’s what we do. Maybe they’re not Citizen Kane but we love making them […] and watching them […] and we think a lot of other people do too.”
(Paul Bales, Partner, The Asylum Studios quoted in Johnson n.d.)
Some people get into the movie business because they have a passion for film. Some have dreams of creating the “great American movie,” or rising to the top of the Hollywood Dream Factory. But as mainstream films become ever more expensive, routinely costing $100,000,000 or more simply to produce, and then under-performing at the box office – Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger are two prime examples – it seems that the old system of making movies is broken.
The risks are simply too great – a few bad bets can sink a studio. Low budget films like The Purge and The Conjuring, both made for a pittance, rule the multiplexes. Spectacle and special effects just don’t bring in audiences anymore; people want something new, and outrageous, for their entertainment dollar. And a relatively new studio in Hollywood, The Asylum, is dedicated to doing just that; giving the viewer something the majors won’t. Something like Sharknado (2013).
The Asylum is following in a long line of low budget Hollywood production companies. Independent film studios, like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and Concorde/New Horizons in the 1970s and 80s, offered viewers something the mainstream studios couldn’t; films aimed directly at their target audience – outlaw movies that made up their own rules as they went along.
In the 1950s, American International broke the Hollywood studio mold by making films expressly for teenage audiences, which no one had exploited up until that time. With titles like I Was Teenage Werewolf, I Was Teenage Frankenstein, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Wild Angels and The Trip, to say nothing of their long running Edgar Allan Poe and Beach Party series, AIP made films that broke all the rules, shocked old school audiences, and made a fortune at the box office.
AIP also pioneered the concept of “saturation booking” – opening a film everywhere at once to forestall negative word of mouth – and used sensationalistic advertising campaigns and lurid titles to generate audience buzz in the pre-digital era. Shot on short schedules of 6 to 12 days, AIP’s films cost between $100,000 and $350,000, yet grossed millions, because they gave audiences what they wanted to see – not what mainstream studio executives thought they wanted to see.
In the 1970s, New World and Concorde/New Horizons followed much the same strategy, with titles like Night Call Nurses (“they’re always on duty”) and Caged Heat, giving young directors a shot at a Hollywood career on films that were made in a week, often back-to-back with another project to get the most out of the cast and crew, and began moving into the home video markets aggressively, in the infant days of the medium.
The maestro of low budget filmmaking, of course, is Roger Corman, who at 87 years of age is still cranking out low-budget films like Sharktopus, and though semi-retired, has served as a model for younger filmmakers who want to make highly exploitational films on non-existent budgets. There’s always a market for these films, but the major studios are usually behind the curve.
At the majors, there’s too much bureaucracy, and the studios are no longer independent entities – they rely on big name stars, directors and scripts, “packaged” by talents agencies such as International Creative Management, Creative Artists Agency or William Morris/Endeavor, which often wind up costing a fortune before they even go into production.
That’s why, as we enter the 21st century, the low-budget model of filmmaking continues to flourish – relying on unknown actors, up-and-coming directors and screen writers, and aided by the increasing sophistication of computer generated special effects, the exploitation film continues to offer something outside the box for audiences, most of whom now view their films as streaming downloads, video on demand, or on the Syfy Channel.
Seeing that there was a market for a new wave of viewer-driven genre filmmaking, three renegade producers formed The Asylum studio in 1997. David Rimawi, Sherri Strain and David Michael Latt all worked for Village Roadshow Pictures in the early 1990s, but decided to go out on their own, and begin producing and distributing low-budget features for the straight-to-video market. Latt became the head of the new company.
Latt was born in Encino, California, May 28, 1966. Attracted to genre films early in life, he made his first film at the age of eight, the Super 8mm short The Six Million Dollar Boy, a knock off of the popular TV series The Six Million Dollar Man. Latt played the lead role, and also wrote, directed, and produced the film. Clearly, this was a harbinger of things to come. After high school, Latt pursued a major in Film Studies at Loyola Marymount University.
Said Latt, “my favorite instructor answered a very popular question by freshmen students: ‘How do you direct a feature?’ He said, ‘You direct.’ That’s what I did” (qtd. in Brown 2004). Offered the directing job on Sorority House Party (1992) straight out of college, Latt then worked in distribution for Village Roadshow Pictures, but soon left with co-workers David Rimawi and Sherri Strain to form The Asylum Studios in 1997, with the idea of distributing and producing straight-to-video genre films.
The Asylum’s first release was Kelli Green’s Bellyfruit (1999), a comedy/drama centering on teen pregnancy, recalling AIP’s Diary of A High School Bride (1959), which cost under $1,000,000 to make, but struggled to break even. Marketing – that was the problem. Nobody knew who The Asylum was. The studio had to establish a brand identity; it also wasn’t yet an actual production unit, and merely distributed films made by others. The Asylum had to find a better way of doing business.
It took two more years to get another film into release, the modestly budgeted romantic comedy Fourplay. Fourplay was a “pick up” film, this time from a British production company, and though it boasted Colin Firth and Mariel Hemingway in the leading roles, the film failed to make a dent with the public.
It was at this point that Latt hit upon the strategy that The Asylum has followed ever since. Find a mainstream genre/action film that’s in production, figure out a way to make an almost exact copy of it, and get it out to audiences before the big budget version opens in theaters. Sherri Strain also left the studio in 2002, and David Bales joined The Asylum as head of production. Said Bales,
“I had been working with SAG for almost 10 years and I was ready to do something else. When my friends David Rimawi (whom I’ve known since we were eight years old) and David Latt (we’ve been friends for more than 20 years) told me that their business partner (former Asylum executive Sherri Strain) was leaving the company and they were looking for someone to replace her, I jumped at the chance. I had become very comfortable doing what I was doing, but I really wanted a challenge. And I have to say, I certainly got one. Making a feature film each and every month for a fraction of the budget of a major studio film is difficult, to say the least.” (qtd. in Johnson, n.d.)
Latt welcomed Bales into The Asylum because,
“we weren’t doing much original content. As Syfy grew, we had the opportunity to have a real hand in creating what we wanted to see. So in 2002, we went from being a buyer of films to being a developer and supervisor of them. We’ve been so successful in the last dozen years that we’ve done over 200 of these now. And we have one unbreakable rule: if we don’t have a good title, we’re not going to make the movie.” (qtd. in Sellers 2013)
Piggy-backing on the promotional campaigns of the bigger budget films, and banking on audience confusion with titles that were almost the same as the original, The Asylum lured audiences into watching their “mockbusters” – as fans almost immediately dubbed the films – and soon the films, and the studio, had a cult following.
Vince D’Amato’s Vampires Vs. Zombies (2004), the first film to follow this model, was a knock-off of New Line’s Freddy Vs. Jason – although the film’s poster boasted that it was a new film version of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s classic vampire tale Carmilla – with a poster almost identical to Freddy Vs. Jason, and despite a drubbing from even the fan critics, it made back its budget – becoming The Asylum’s first real hit.
The reviews were merciless: one critic noted that Vampires Vs. Zombies was made with “Grade-Z incompetence,” and suggested that it would best be used as “landfill,” while another complained that the film “took a premise that was basically guaranteed to make [the] movie an instant hit with the indie horror crowd in spite of his nonexistent budget, and […] fucked it until it bled,” (Vampires Vs. Zombies, Wikipedia) but The Asylum didn’t care. Vampires Vs. Zombies made money, and the studio was off and running.
But their biggest hit was about to come; seeing that Steven Spielberg was about to ramp up his big budget remake of War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise, about an invasion from Mars, Latt took over the director’s chair himself to helm H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Latt’s “mockbuster” was released on June 28, 2005, one day before Spielberg’s film, and sold over 100,000 copies from Blockbuster upon its release.
In typical Asylum fashion, Latt not only directed the film, but also served as co-producer, co-writer, and editor on the project, which was shot in 12 days for roughly $500,000. Since the original material was in the Public Domain, there was nothing Spielberg could do about it, but he obviously wasn’t pleased. The public had confused one film with the other, and snapped up The Asylum version in record numbers.
C. Thomas Howell starred in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds as astronomer George Herbert; his son in the film, Alex, is played by Howell’s own son, Dashiell, in a last-minute casting decision that also saved a good deal of money. Jake Busey co-stars as Lt. Samuelson, whose family has been wiped out by the Martians. With typical Asylum efficiency, although his role in the film is quite substantial, all of Busey’s scenes were shot in just one day.
Howell enjoyed the experience so much that in 2008 he directed and starred in The Asylum’s sequel to the project, War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave. Again, with a minimal budget of $500,000 and a 12-day shooting schedule, the film was also a hit, released direct to DVD, as well as playing on the British Horror Channel, and on Syfy in the United States.
That same year, Howell directed and starred in Asylum’s The Day the Earth Stopped (2008), an obvious knock-off of 20th Century Fox’s remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, much to 20th Century Fox’s dismay. Latt, Rimawi and Bales could see they had a winning formula, and kicked into high gear for production, now partnering with the Syfy Channel for television release, and Echo Bridge Home Entertainment for DVD and Blu-ray distribution.
The most surprising thing about The Asylum’s short schedule knock-offs is the high production values that the films have, the result of using armies of unpaid interns and film-school graduates on each production. The Asylum is not a signatory to the Director’s Guild, the Producer’s Guild, The Screenwriter’s Guild, or any other union except for The Actor’s Guild.
Thus, The Asylum can shoot for 20 hours a day if it needs to, until everyone drops from exhaustion – which often happens. When the Hollywood writer’s strike hit the industry a few years ago, The Asylum was unaffected; since they weren’t part of the Writer’s Guild, they could keep on cranking out scripts, and films.
Naturally, the major studios aren’t happy about this at all, but The Asylum is clearly reinventing the movie business, making up their own model as they go along. With the collapse of the DVD market, The Asylum now relies on streaming downloads and on-demand and cable television. Because their budgets are so low, they can make a boast no other Hollywood studio can match; they have never lost money on a film.
With the success of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, The Asylum’s path was clear. In the next decade, the studio would make Snakes on a Train, obviously patterned after Snakes on A Plane; The Da Vinci Treasure for The Da Vinci Code; the thriller When A Killer Calls for When A Stranger Calls; Pirates of Treasure Island for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest; Transmorphers for Transformers; AVH: Alien vs. Hunter for AVP: Alien vs. Predator; I Am Omega for I Am Legend, and the list goes on and on.
Indeed, the Asylum seems dedicated to pushing the envelope as far as it can go, and then further, with such films as Titanic II, a riff on James Cameron’s much better known film made for a mere half a million dollars; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, made to cash in on the hit Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. franchise; the science fiction action film Battle of Los Angeles, an homage to the big-budget Battle: Los Angeles; The Amityville Haunting, whose origins are obvious; and even Age of the Hobbits, inspired by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
In this last case, however, The Asylum encountered serious resistance to any film with the word “hobbit” in the title, and settled for the alternate title Clash of the Empires which, though it has nothing to do with the film itself, is an obvious reference to the major studio production Clash of the Titans. But even this was not the last title change; the film is also known as Lord of the Elves in some territories.
Central to The Asylum’s success are its digital special effects, created by Joe Lawson, who also serves as the head of Visual Effects for the company. In addition, Lawson directed Clash of the Empires (Asylum’s Hobbit knock-off) and the genuinely bizarre sci-fi horror film Nazis at the Center of the Earth, in which a group of researchers in Antarctica are abducted by a platoon of gas-masked soldiers and dragged into a hidden cave in the center of the Earth.
There, they discover that Dr. Josef Mengele and group of surviving Nazi soldiers are plotting an invasion of Earth to create a “Fourth Reich.” Amazingly, the film took only 12 days to make, and in Lawson’s own words had “a budget well south of $200,000” (Nazis at the Center of the Earth, Wikipedia). Despite the low cost of the film, it contains some effectively outrageous imagery, and has, of course, totally recouped its entire production cost through cable and video on demand release.
Indeed, Latt is cheerfully unapologetic about the studio’s approach to filmmaking, telling one reporter,
“we’ve gotten to where we can now produce tie-in films [a term Latt prefers to ‘mockbusters’] in three to four months. And just so long as we don’t mimic the promotional artwork too closely, the big studios don’t seem to mind. I’m not trying to dupe anybody. I’m just trying to get my films watched. Other people do tie-ins all the time; they’re just better at being subtle about it. Another studio might make a giant robot movie that ties into the Transformers release and call it Robot Wars. We’ll call ours Transmorphers.”
“We were planning on making The Apocalypse [2007; a knock off combination of Armageddon and Deep Impact] as a straightforward doomsday movie. But certain buyers told us they wanted a religious film. So we consulted priests and rabbis and made it into a faith-based film about the end of the world. We’ve created a Faith Films label to distribute religious-themed films, and this fall we’re releasing a new faith-based movie, 2012: Doomsday. Whether it’s giant robots attacking the Earth or something from the Bible, we’re just happy to be making movies.” (Qtd. in Potts 2007)
David Bales agrees with Latt, adding,
“it’s like any other marketplace. Instead of selling vegetables it’s selling crappy films. We don’t make a movie unless we know where we’re going to sell it. So we don’t even start to film until we have a good idea of getting money back. When an idea comes from one of our buyers, we have a good sense of things.” (Qtd. in Bradley 2013)
Reviews don’t matter, but viewers rule.
As an example of this, a Japanese distributor wanted a film about a giant shark battling a giant octopus. The Asylum immediately took them up on the idea. The result: Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009), which became another big hit for the company, based in large part on the sheer outrageousness of the promotional materials.
Jack Perez, the director of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus noted “they give you a title, a poster, a cast, and a formula, and then we shoot it in 12 days. We go from the idea of the movie to release date in less than two months!” (qtd. in Patterson 2009). No major studio could move that fast, or be that responsive to exhibitor or audience demand. Ultimately, The Asylum is really a studio for fans, many of whom – oddly enough – like their films better than the big budget originals.
The transparency of the studio’s hierarchy is also a sharp contrast to the button-down, secretive mentality of the majors. Simply by going to The Asylum’s official website, you can access the direct e-mail address for all the partners in the organization, unheard of in Hollywood.
The Asylum’s website also actively solicits pitches from screenwriters for upcoming projects, and posts openings for cast and crew with direct links to the studio’s employment office; and if Syfy or some other distributor comes up with a concept they’d like to see on the screen, The Asylum is more than willing to oblige.
While the recent film Sharknado is probably The Asylum’s best known film, and the company has been associated with a wave of disaster, mutant predator and action films, The Asylum makes movies in nearly every conceivable genre, with only one common denominator: they all make money. A partial list of The Asylum’s action films, for example, includes Snakes on a Train (2006), Street Racer (2008), Death Racers (2008), 200 mph (2011) and American Warships (2012).
Adventure films include King of the Lost World (2005), Pirates of Treasure Island (2006), 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea (2007), Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls (2008), Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), The 7 Adventures of Sinbad (2010) and Almighty Thor (2011), all of which are based on other, better-known films in line with The Asylum’s guiding strategy.
Comedy isn’t really The Asylum’s strong suit, but they still have the rather sleazily comic exploitational films 18-Year-Old Virgin (2009), Sex Pot (2009), #1 Cheerleader Camp (2010), MILF (2010; a combination of American Pie and Revenge of the Nerds with the tag line, “They Really Do Know Best!”), Barely Legal (2011) and Bikini Spring Break (2012). Most of these films have received decidedly negative reviews; of MILF, one viewer said that “there is no plot development, horrible acting, bad writing, annoying characters […] It tries to be like American Pie, but is just a horrible, unfunny film” (MILF, Wikipedia).
Disaster films are The Asylum’s true calling, and bolstered by Joe Lawson’s expertise in low cost digital special effects, the company manages to get considerable mileage out of such films as The Apocalypse (2007), I Am Omega (2007), Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus (2009), Megafault (2009), Airline Disaster (2010), Mega Piranha (2010), Titanic II (2010), Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus (2010), Mega Python vs. Gatoroid (2011), 2012: Ice Age (2011) and Sharknado (2013).
Many of these films, of course, are copies of mainstream studio projects, but in the realm of “monster mashups,” The Asylum has created a world all its own. Again, one must remember that each of these films is shot for roughly $500,000 in two weeks or less; the most expensive budget is still only in the $1,000,000 range. Adjusted for inflation, this is like spending $100,000 for a movie in the 1960s; it’s making a movie out of thin air.
Family films, a rather thin category for The Asylum at the moment, include only a few titles, such as Princess and the Pony (2011), which, like The Apocalypse, was released on their family friendly Faith Films label. Fantasy films, such as Dragon (2006), Merlin and the War of the Dragons (2008), Dragonquest (2009), Grimm’s Snow White (2012) and Jack the Giant Killer (2013) are popular with the “Dragons and Dungeons” crowd.
Horror films, another strong series of entries for The Asylum, include Vampires Vs. Zombies (2004), Scarecrow Slayer (2004, which David Latt himself stepped in to direct, simply to save money), Evil Eyes (2004), Legion of the Dead (2005), Exorcism: The Possession of Gail Bowers (2006), Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Curse (2006), Freakshow (2007, a remake of Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks), The Amityville Haunting (2011), Zombie Apocalypse (2011), Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012) and others too numerous to mention here.
Add to this the suspense and mystery films The Da Vinci Treasure (2006) and Sherlock Holmes (2010); the science fiction entries Alien Abduction (2005), Invasion of the Pod People (2007), 100 Million BC (2008), Transmorphers: Fall of Man (2009), The Land That Time Forgot (2009) 2012: Supernova (2009), Alien Origin (2012; The Asylum’s version of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus) and the just released Atlantic Rim (2013), and even a western, 6 Guns (2010), and you have a pretty full slate of productions.
There’s even a stable of characters who have appeared in many of the company’s films, such as The Hillside Cannibals, Supercroc, Spideroid Aliens, Gatoroid, Robo Hitler and, of course, Bigfoot, who have their fans in the world of Syfy cable movies.
As Gabriele Pedullà and others have argued, theatrical exhibition of movies is a thing of the past. While box office grosses have been artificially amped up by 3-D movies, higher ticket prices, and the occasional blockbuster hit, more and more, filmmakers are bypassing theatres and going straight to streaming downloads or on-demand cable offerings.
Whether the film in question is a straightforward genre piece, or an art film, the theatrical distribution network is drying up. Films have to reach their audiences directly, using social media for advertising, instead of the traditional route of trailers, posters, a theatrical opening, and then DVDs later down the road.
Thus, the most revolutionary aspects of The Asylum are its embrace of the web, Facebook, Twitter and other tools to publicize its films; the incredible pace and simplicity of production, which sets a new model for the hyper-consumptive world of streaming, which demands more and more product every day; the company’s relentless focus on the bottom line at all costs; marketing by title, distributor requirements and audience demands; and the absolute transparency of the company.
This, then, is The Asylum; the renegade studio that changed the way Hollywood makes movies. With such recent releases as Atlantic Rim, patterned after Pacific Rim; AE: Apocalypse Earth for the Will and Jaden Smith film After Earth – both of which were more profitable than their big studio counterparts – to say nothing of the recent media sensation Sharknado (“it’s a tornado full of sharks!”), which has already spawned a sequel set in New York, The Asylum shows no signs of slowing down. Hollywood doesn’t normally make movies this way. But maybe, soon, it will have to.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University of Kentucky Press, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; reprinted in 2011), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; reprinted 6 times through 2012, with a new edition in 2013). His website, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.
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