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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus

I am what you might refer to as a totally omnivorous cinefile. An equal opportunity movie lover.

I love Lasse Hallstrom as much as I love Fellini, Woody Allen and John Waters. I love action movies, drama, adaptations, science fiction (Danny Boyle's SUNSHINE was the last sci-fi movie that really rocked my world although I'm quite excited to see DISTRICT 9), rom-com name it. I love the movies. Passionately.

And I love a good B-movie as well. Why? Well, because I love to see what filmmakers do with a limited budget and a wild imagination. I love the stilted action, the hilarious FX and the whoopsy daisy continuity problems. I love the wink and the nod that is a B-movie. Click here to read up on the history and definition of B-movies. Suffice it to say that like cockroaches, strong martinis and hot nights, B-movies are a long and lively tradition in Hollywood. The indisputable king of the B-movie is of course Roger Corman, who gave many an accomplished filmmaker a start in his movie-making boot camp. And by accomplished film maker I of course mean people such as Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola and the like.

One of my favorite B-movie makers is The Asylum, producers of movies like MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS, 100 MILLION BC, TRANSMORPHERS, and SNAKES ON A TRAIN (yes, you read that right).

MEGA SHARK is among the most entertaining B-movies I have seen lately (although SHARK SWARM still holds a place in my heart), featuring a shark so mega that once he is released from a glacier, where he was locked in battle with a giant octopus, and is free to roam the modern day ocean, he leaps 30,000 feet into the air and bites an airliner in half. IN HALF, people. That's one bad-ass shark. If you think the entertainment ends with bad-ass sea monsters from the Ice Age, think again. It also stars Debbie Gibson and Lorenzo Lamas. Rent MEGA SHARK, invite over several friends as I did, make blue cocktails, make plenty of popcorn and enjoy.

One day recently, I decided to write a fan email to one of the principals of The Asylum, David Latt, and find out if the Mini-W and I might be able to take a field trip over to their offices and pay them a visit. Little did I know what a treat we were in for. Latt agreed readily, and when my daughter and I arrived at his mini-studio lot in Burbank, he greeted us on roller blades. Apologizing because he was in the beginning stages of a cold, Latt nonetheless took my daughter and me on a tour of Asylum's new digs.

The company, co-founded by Latt, has been in business since the '80s; they start production on a new film every four weeks. Every. Four weeks. Most everything is done onsite. Pre-production, post-production and principal photography. The commissary is a microwave and some folding chairs. A dinosaur leg and part of a whale carcass lie stacked in a corner.

I had so many questions for Latt about his business model, how he got into making B-movies, if he found the term offensive (No, that's a compliment. Our movies have been called Z-movies, he said with a laugh), where he gets the ideas, who writes the scripts, what his movies cost to make, etc. And this is what I learned:

Most films produced by The Asylum have a core budget of $150K. MEGA SHARK cost $250K in part due to the cost of casting. Why that particular film became a viral online phenom, Latt is not sure. Netflix rentals were 70% higher on that title than in general but due to their business model, no more copies or profit were made.

The scripts all come from ideas that are then assigned to a small stable of non-guild writers. The ideas are inspired by what is renting well at video outlets like Blockbuster. If 10,000 BC is renting well at Blockbuster, Asylum sets up 100,000 BC. It takes about four months from the inception of an idea to the movie hitting the shelves.

Marketing is nonexistent. Asylum films are sold directly to Netflix, Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and some foreign distributors. Zero marketing costs mean predictable profit. Latt has never lost money on a film made by Asylum. In fact, every film has made a profit - which makes The Asylum more successful, per project, than Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros and Universal combined.

Many more questions were asked and answered; I didn't record the interview because it wasn't as formal as that. One question I wish I had asked is if Asylum had ever been threatened with lawsuits by the makers of the mainstream movies that they riff on if not...dare I say off. Eek. The answer would appear to be no, since one such lawsuit would bury Asylum but good and with permanence. And yet they just upgraded to newer, larger facilities. I'm not sure what the writers are paid, or if their pay scale is in keeping with the usual WGA 3% rule.

Latt is, in many ways, living the dream. He makes movies. A lot of movies. Quickly. And he sells them predictably and he pockets enough profit to keep Asylum in production mode at all times and to float his personal life as well. He knows the films made by Asylum are not great art and he doesn't care. He is good humored and realistic and has a great generosity of spirit. He may be looking for some fresh writers down the line, so we exchanged business cards.

If you have a sense of humor and appreciation for ingenuity, stop by your local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video or go online and rent some of The Asylum's titles and enjoy.

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Anonymous said...

I like giving all movies a go. I enjoyed DRAG ME TO HELL as much as I enjoyed HAROLD AND MAUDE or 2001: A SPACE ODDESY. There was a great movie recently about the golden age of Australian cinema called NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, it talks in depth with people like Bruce Beresford and George Miller about the days when the Australian government would still fund b-movies, and out of this came some classics like mad max. I'd recommend it to anyone who needs a reminder that making movies should be fun.

A Who said...

Inspiring, and thank you.