There's a studio in town making epic CGI movies starring legendary characters like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Thor and Hercules, adapting authors such as Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan). “We're the shitty Disney!” exclaims the Asylum's chief operating officer, Paul Bales, answering my riddle.
In the 20-plus years it's been around, the Asylum has released more than 300 straight-to-video and TV movies, most of which have sidestepped pop culture celebrity. The ones that have earned the studio its much-deserved notoriety, however, are world-famous. With their genre-bending, hyperbolic, improbable plots worn on their sleeves, tongue twisters like Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, Mega Shark Vs. Crocosaurus and, of course, the Sharknado series have become events upon their television premieres.
Then there are the “mockbusters,” those movies drafting off the marketing and success of big studio blockbusters. It's how Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Thor and Hercules, Verne and Burroughs — all up for grabs in the public domain — receive their Asylum makeover to coincide with big studio releases.
In mirroring the Hollywood studios, the Asylum has become a sort of anti-Disney. It's making fun-filled movies for adults, not necessarily the whole family.
“We will take the studio's high concept, take the amount of money we think we can make back, and make that high concept with that amount of money,” explains David Rimawi, 54, whose business card cheekily reads “Quality Control Manager.” As Machiavellian as that plan sounds, the process that ensues once the numbers are crunched is no different from moviemaking since the birth of cinema: Dust off an existing property and retool it for a specific audience. Whether you're Disney or a director with a strong vision, a personal style emerges, making the final product immediately identifiable.
There's no mistaking an Asylum movie. “The auteur is the Asylum,” says Bales, 54, whose business card reads “Corporate Tool.” “We've gotten to a point where we've made our movies director-proof. If we have a terrible director, it doesn't matter. Don't get me wrong, it's a better film if it's a great director, but it's a formula that works and we are consistent about protecting that.”
That formula — like most successful formulas — is at times mind-bendingly simple. “Every shot — even the boring dialogue stuff — pretend it's going to be in the trailer. Don't just have a boring master, close-up, close-up. It doesn't cost anything to move the camera,” says David Latt, 52, alias “The Jackal,” alias “I'm With Stupid,” according to his business card.
Latt and longtime friend Rimawi founded the Asylum back in 1997 as a distribution company. Recalls Rimawi, “When we started the company, we were acquiring indie comedies and dramas from the festivals. [Video rental chain] Hollywood Video said, 'Why don't you get some horror movies for Halloween?' When they sent us royalty reports, it was 10 times the amount we normally got!”
It's clear to see what led the Asylum to become the genre-generating giant it is today. What might be a little murkier is its carrying of the torch in an exploitation legacy that includes such names as Roger Corman, Samuel Arkoff, Larry Cohen and Lloyd Kaufman. The guys rattle off these influences as though programmers for Midnight Screenings. What might surprise you is the name Spielberg. Rimawi admits, “We love the spectacle, the popcorn entertainment of a Spielberg movie. Beautifully told story, very emotional.” Latt concedes, “[Spielberg] probably influences us more than we're aware.”
“However, his movies are made for a theater. We're fighting the fast-forward button and commercials,” Bales interjects.
But who needs Spielberg when there's more than one way to shoot a shark? “You might have an Oscar-winning script. Great, now take the first two acts and throw them away. The genre film starts at act three, when the monster is chasing them,” Latt says. “You get more character development from someone trying to run from a zombie and who can't swim because of childhood trauma. The issues are going to come up in the stress and the tension of the moment rather than, let's talk for 10 pages of background you're not going to care about until 60 pages later.”
It may not be Disney or Spielberg, but with the stress and tension whipped up by a tornado full of sharks, there's plenty of spectacle in an Asylum movie to go with the popcorn at your next viewing party.