Seeking Asylum: the rise of Hollywood's Z-movies
Seeking Asylum: the rise of Hollywood’s Z-movies
With films like Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus and Snakes On a Train (yes, Train), production company The Asylum has cornered Hollywood’s bizarre ‘no-budget’ market
John Patterson, guardian.co.uk, Thursday 30 July 2009 22.00 BST
Jack Perez, the director of the evocatively (and accurately) titled Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus (released in cinemas on 7 August and on DVD on 10 August), is telling me how things go down in his part of the Hollywood forest, working for the super-low-budget quickie production-company The Asylum, which knocks out a new feature film every month, come rain or come shine. “It’s totally its own different league, making these supremely low-budget pictures,” he says. “I’m sure The Asylum has a secrecy oath about all this but really, each budget is well under a million dollars – well under. 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! And on that schedule you’re filming 11, 12 pages a day. I have friends working on large movies moaning that they have to shoot a whole page today. They’re like, ‘I dunno if I’m gonna make it, man. I got a whole day of two people talking on a bench in a park.’ I’m like: ‘Are you kidding me? Today I’m on a PT boat, then I’m on a submarine, then I’m gonna blow up Mount Rushmore! What are you complaining about?'”
It’s a whole different ballgame here in the lower reaches of off-Hollywood, no-budget, non-union movie production. But it’s cheering to learn that the baton of the aging Roger Corman – Hollywood’s most gentlemanly and charming tightwad is 83 this year – has been picked up by another bunch of imaginative cheapskates. The Asylum’s business model is much like the one pioneered by exploitation trailblazers Corman and his rivals, Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson at American International Pictures, in the 1950s and 60s. The title and the poster comes first – long before any script – then as now. Particular markets, demographics and youth cults are fiercely targeted, then as now. Particular genres exert a special hold: back then it was dragstrip riots, nudie cuties, juvie movies, atomic mishap scenarios and Japanese monster imports with new soundtracks added; today it’s sub-Xena medieval fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, sci-fi, horror and “mockbusters” (to which we shall return). The least important element in the equation may well be the movie itself.
Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus has garnered more ink than any Asylum production since Snakes On a Train (you heard me right – Train). Snakes’ buzz was all about the title, which suggested an ingeniously cheeky rip-off of a rip-off; Mega Shark is all about the trailer, a frenetic, eye-popping affair (and online viral sensation) that gives us more or less every toothsome moment from the movie itself. And honestly, who can resist a movie trailer wherein Mega Shark takes a fatal bite out of a passenger jet and chews a hole in the Golden Gate bridge, while Giant Octopus swats fighter jets out of the sky with one flick of its tentacle? And the cast? Awesomely wooden 80s teen sensation Debbie (now Deborah) Gibson and perpetual First Lord of Low-Budget Trash Lorenzo Lamas.
The Asylum has been around for about 12 years, mostly as a distributor until moving into production in 2004 with King of the Ants – an admirably Cormanesque title – directed by Re-Animator’s Stuart Gordon. Since then, having taken on sci-fi, medieval fantasy, action-adventure and horror (often hiring directors like Perez, whose movies they had previously distributed), they’ve recently become better known for their “mockbusters.”
That is a slightly loaded term. Asylum producer David Rimawi says he prefers “tie-ins”, but a look at the company’s production slate over the past few years suggests mockbusters is far more apposite. Adhering to principles long since enshrined in the big book of cheap by Corman, Arkoff and Nicholson, the Asylum hitches its wagon to the destiny – or more specifically, the publicity campaign – of a gargantuan Hollywood blockbuster, and rides that wave to a tidy little profit. Most Asylum films break even after about three months – it’s a highly reliable and predictable money-stream, says Rimawi, and offers the kind of steady income that will one day allow it to back more risky and ambitious projects.
These are the operating principles of straight-to-video (STV), one of several distinct independent filmic ecosystems in Los Angeles, each flourishing according to its own rules and with separate star systems, crewing traditions, and production infrastructures. Two others that come to mind are the porn industry and the underexplored but booming subculture of infomercial production.
One thing The Asylum shares with pornography is a fetish for great, half-stolen/half-satirical titles (“We talk about porno titles all the time!” says Rimawi, agreeing the comparison is all too apt). Porno directors will push out ill-acted, sexualised knock-offs of a summer’s big title, say, Field of Wet Dreams or Pocahotass. The Asylum is more direct, even though its mockbuster ethic is a fairly venerable one. One glance at its production log and you can guess, almost to the month, when each of the films was released: Transmorphers. HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. Pirates of Treasure Island. Alien versus Hunter. I Am Omega. Alan Quartermaine and the Temple of Skulls. 100 Million BC. The Terminators. The 18-Year-Old Virgin. And my favourites, Snakes on a Train and The Day the Earth Stopped. “You’d be surprised,” Rimawi tells me, “how little the studios object.”
Each of those movies geared up at about the same time the ad-campaigns kicked off for the hugely expensive real movies that the Asylum’s output shadows. With its movies budgeted under $1m apiece, Asylum is going from pitch to premiere (minus the premiere, of course) in the time it takes the studio’s ad campaign to burn itself out, and all at a fraction of the ad campaign’s budget. To put it crudely, I suggest to Rimawi, it’s like a motorcyclist saving gas by hitching a ride in the slipstream of a big truck.
“No, no,” he guffaws, “that’s about the least crudely I’ve ever heard it put!”
An image also occurs of the bird that rides around on a rhino’s back all day, waiting to hop off and peck the seeds from the rhino’s faeces, which is probably more in line with what he does hear.
“Jack Perez is a good example of how we work,” Rimawi says, regarding his preference for directors who’ve made at least one movie already. “It was like a step down for Jack and a step up for us, and I think that’s what we’re going to go for more from now on.”
In 1998, Perez made an independent feature called La Cucaracha, to which I gave a glowing review – something he hasn’t forgotten. “Oh God, you must have been asking yourself when you watched Mega Shark, ‘What the hell’s happened to this guy? How did he go so far off the rails?'” laughs Perez. The answer is that he needed the work, after a couple of other projects went south, although he was already a veteran of such prestige projects as Wild Things 2 and 666: The Child (released the same day, naturally, as the remake of The Omen).
“I needed to direct a movie before I went out of my mind, so I said, ‘What’ve you got?'” Perez says. “They had this medieval dragon thing and then they said, we’ve also got this Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus idea [the title was actually suggested by one of Asylum’s Japanese buyers]. And as a kid I was raised on a diet of Bert I Gordon atomic-mutation movies, and Godzilla vs Megalon and all that, so it seemed perfect. And then I said, ‘OK, so what’s the real title?’ And they said, without a shred of irony, ‘No, no that’s it – that’s the title, that’s what we’re making, and are you still interested?'”
Luckily, he says, “I had the kind of dad who’d wake me up at three in the morning saying, ‘Get up get up, they’re showing Where Eagles Dare on TV!’ I have one of those total geek-cinephile backgrounds that helps me bound from genre to genre quite easily.” He wrote the script himself, and production went ahead in the now time-honoured Asylum manner: a lot of things a director is normally involved with – editing, for example – “are handled by the Asylum’s machine”.
One difference from the Corman-AIP model is that instead of ploughing the film schools for ambitious grads and directorial virgins and letting them run loose, both Rimawi and Perez say that getting a movie shot in two weeks actually calls for a lot of on-set experience. “I don’t know if anyone without some training could complete this stuff in the time given. My experience definitely served me in, as they say, ‘making my day’. But then again, these are non-union shows, you’re working that crew sometimes 20, 22 hours a day, which is not something I like to do. So a little experience means you get the crew home that much earlier.”
Plans are afoot for Asylum to branch out into cable production, and bigger budgets, with Comedy Central, the Sci-Fi channel and the Spike channel. Little by little other fields will be conquered. Perez, meanwhile, is developing Shotgun Wedding, a personal project. “It’s my pro-gay marriage lesbian shoot-em-up!”
It sounds like a ready-to-order Asylum pitch.