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Sharknado. (Photo: Courtesy of The Asylum/Mike Digrazia)

Escaped From the Asylum!

• July 10, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Sharknado. (Photo: Courtesy of The Asylum/Mike Digrazia)

Bottom-of-the-barrel creature features. Topless-teen comedies. “Mockbuster” rip-offs. In Burbank, California, one low-budget studio cranks out whatever Netflix wants.

Five years ago, long before he would write his feature film about a two-headed shark, H. Perry Horton was an MFA graduate with a failed literary magazine under his belt and a job sorting film titles at a rare surviving video store in Portland, Oregon, that offers up big-budget Hollywood films alongside obscure cult favorites. As he shelved, Horton started eyeing some similarities in a slew of brand-new releases. These movies had never hit theaters. They arrived with no big-studio marketing push, but they didn’t come from any indie cult pedigree, either. They all had pulpy titles. They gave top billing to forgotten actors and aging sex symbols. Many relied on the use of “Mega”—as in Mega Piranha, Mega-Fault, and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

After some digging, Horton discovered that the movies were all from the same studio: the Asylum, a Burbank, California-based company that scrapes out a seemingly endless quantity of bottom-of-the-barrel creature features, topless-teen comedies, and “mockbuster” rip-offs. Transfixed, Horton created a special “Asylum” section in the shop and launched a fan blog that documented the films spurting from the studio. Then, in 2011, something magical happened: The Asylum commissioned him to write his own film, an ancient-curse thriller called A Haunting in Salem. Then he wrote 2-Headed Shark Attack. And Shark Week. And 40 Days and Nights. And 100 Degrees Below Zero.

Sharknado. “It’s exactly what you think it is—a tornado full of sharks,” Ward explains. “That movie cannot be bad.”

For a typical film, the Asylum floats a concept to its stable of writers. They blast back a slew of 100-word pitches. If the Asylum chooses Horton’s concept, he bangs out a draft in 10 days, then hands it off to a producer; revisions are made, then the Asylum shoots the film, fast.

In 2-Headed Shark Attack, “Carmen Electra is a doctor,” Horton tells me with a mix of glee and disdain. The question is: For the love of God, why?

“The short answer is: We don’t know,” says David Michael Latt, the Asylum’s co-founder and head of physical production, who pushes as many as 25 films into production each year. “It’s not like we said, ‘There aren’t enough crappy B-level movies out there, so we must corner that market!’ We don’t really know the consumer. The consumer is too big and too fractionalized. All we know is we’re making a film for Netflix, and they tell us what they want.”

IN THE AGE OF Internet streaming and mouse-click piracy, we appear to be living in a world of unlimited choices, all screened directly into our homes on demand. It’s just that many of those choices are of the sort churned out by modern B movie producers like the Asylum—high concept, low budget, and mega everything, except good.

When B movies first rose in the wake of the Great Depression, moviegoers had no choice but to take in the crap. Theaters started screening double features to lure people in with “the perception of more value for the money,” says Blair Davis, an assistant professor in the Media and Cinema Studies program at DePaul University. But not all features were created equal. Under a regime called block booking, Hollywood studios cut costs by forcing theaters to buy a shoestring-budget B movie attached to a star-studded A-level movie. When the U.S. Supreme Court busted up the monopolistic practice in 1948’s United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., independent production houses—like the 1950s-era American International Pictures, where director Roger Corman made his name—set up shop to exclusively churn out low-grade films. Drive-in-movie-theater owners of the post-war era snapped up the cheap fare to pacify captive viewers stuck in their cars. “As long as people were heading to the snack bar,” Davis says, “exhibitors didn’t care.”

Today, the dynamic between low-budget producer and content-hungry distributor has flipped. Netflix doesn’t just stream films—it wills them into existence. The composition of contemporary B movies is dictated by middlemen like Netflix and Redbox, international direct-to-DVD distributors, and cable networks like Syfy, all of which pad their offerings with Asylum originals tailored to their needs. If a Japanese DVD company wants a submarine, and Blockbuster needs a monster, the Asylum will make a sailors-meet-sea creature movie, then tweak the concept further to sell to all its potential platforms. The nimble creative process is “cashing in on this shifting moment in film consumption between the demise of the video store and the rise of streaming,” says Davis.

At surviving brick-and-mortar stores like H. Perry Horton’s, renters gravitate toward the big-studio releases shelved at eye level. But on Netflix, “You click through and see all the titles—new Hollywood releases mixed in with direct-to-video,” Davis says, all crammed into a grid of thumbnail posters. Filtering in low-budget films with the high-budget versions “fuels this perception that there’s a wealth of new content.” And in the endlessly filterable world of Netflix, where your preferences are sorted into hyper-specific genres, a full page of results for horror films with nightmare-vacation plotlines makes you feel like Netflix is tailoring its product just for you. “The bottom line is that it’s there, and you saw it,” Davis says—even if you didn’t actually watch it.

When Latt runs down the list of the Asylum films slated for production in the first half of this year, it sounds like a list of hot-button search terms: zombies, sharks, haunted houses, talking dogs. It’s almost as if the Asylum doesn’t even have to make the movie—but it does, for “just a little bit less” than what they will collect from the Netflix-Redbox-Syfy group of middlemen who are likely to buy it. It doesn’t matter how unwatchable it is.

ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL, I drove out to a preposterous mansion in Sherman Oaks to see how the sausage gets made. “We’re producing a feature called Bone Alone,” Asylum executive director Courtney Hagen told me when she set me up with the day’s call sheet. “A movie with puppies. Oh, I guess it’s called Holiday Heist now—thank God.”

Last fall, the Asylum pushed out Golden Winter, in which talking puppies save Christmas. This spring, it started production on Holiday Heist, a slight permutation—adult talking dogs save Christmas. “Goofy traps. Silly puffs of flour and hot sauce. Cute dogs. Lots of cute dogs,” says the film’s 25-year-old line producer, Devin Ward. “Six- to eight-year-olds will love it.”

“It’s not like we said, ‘There aren’t enough crappy B-level movies out there, so we must corner that market!’ All we know is we’re making a film for Netflix, and they tell us what they want.”

Ward is responsible for keeping Holiday Heist cheap, which means a skeleton crew, a clipped shooting schedule, and fewer dogs. The 2008 big-studio film Marley & Me employed 22 dog actors to play its titular yellow lab; the Asylum makes do with one. More often than not, that dog is Hooligan, a nine-year-old salt-and-pepper cattle dog who will be playing Holiday Heist’s lead character, Bone, with the help of Hooligan Hounds trainers Vickie and Jamie Day. Previously, the Asylum has turned Hooligan into the living dead (in Zombie Apocalypse), morphed his mouth with CGI to hurl verbal threats at a litter of puppies (in Golden Winter), and directed him to crawl under the blankets in a young woman’s bed in order to—Vickie Day would rather not go into it.

This time, she’s also brought in Torpedo, a blind Boston terrier, to round out the cast. “I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished, but it’s another talking-dog movie,” she says, in a break from teaching Torpedo how to rip apart wrapped presents on command. “They know what they’re doing. It’s tongue in cheek. The filmmakers are all laughing.”

The films themselves tend to play it straight, even when they’re patently absurd. “I wish we could be more self-aware when we’re making these movies, but it’s, like, a rule,” says Jeffery Lando, another ultra-low-budget filmmaker, who directs movies for the Syfy network (though not, so far, through the Asylum). Like Horton, Lando fell into the gig after making a bid for critical relevance—he worked as a cinematographer on indies for a decade, but came away demoralized by the emotional and financial fallout of making labors of love that no one ever saw. At Syfy, Lando follows a strict formula for its movies of the week: an eight-act plot structure, laced with kills every seven minutes, plus a plot recap disguised as dialogue an hour into the feature to brief viewers who are just tuning in. “But the main rule is: You don’t go for the funny,” Lando says. “You’re not supposed to make fun of the movie.”

The sheen of seriousness is another trick for maximizing the film’s reach. In Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” she drew an aesthetic line between “naïve and deliberate” camp films. “Pure Camp is always naïve,” she wrote. “Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.” Taking the naive route allows low-budget films to appeal to both informed genre-movie nerds who get laughs out of feeling superior to the film, and unsuspecting mainstream viewers who are right at the film’s level—and believe it or not, those people exist. When Lando jumped on Twitter during the premiere of a new Syfy movie, he was surprised to find that some people out there were actually terrified by a sharktopus. Then there are those viewers who are dumb enough to watch the movie, but smart enough to be offended. Ward describes a typical Asylum critique: “I hope everyone involved in this production dies and their families die.”

The important thing is that someone watched it—or, at least, clicked on the movie-poster thumbnail. When it comes to a title like Sharknado—Ward’s latest Asylum film—the poster is the movie. “It’s exactly what you think it is—a tornado full of sharks,” he explains. “That movie cannot be bad.” The tagline for Sharknado is simply: “Enough said.” Sometimes the poster is actually superior to the film, as one Redbox renter said in an ostensibly negative review of 2-Headed Shark Attack. And it just wouldn’t make sense for things to work the other way around. On its blog, the company instructs fans to add its titles to their Netflix queues to gin up the perception of “public demand” for the movie, and they couldn’t care less whether that demand translates into actual viewings. “This isn’t about trying to get you to watch our movie,” they wrote. “This is about gaming the system. This is about taking a stand. Against math.”

If the Asylum’s films are naive camp, its marketing strategy is all deliberate. “It’s a parody of the studio system,” Latt says. “We’re making fun of the commerce side of this. You made your movie for $200 million? I’ll make it for 20 bucks.”

Consider the Asylum’s line of “mockbusters,” designed to ride the coattails of the zillion-dollar publicity pushes for big-studio films. When DreamWorks studios came out with Transformers in 2007, the Asylum raced out Transmorphers. When Columbia Pictures released Battle: Los Angeles in 2011, the Asylum countered with Battle of Los Angeles. When mockbusters trip legal threats from the big studios—and they usually do—the Asylum will fuss with the cover art and change the titles to pacify the lawyers, then thank the studios for throwing more publicity their way.

When the Asylum caught legal heat last year for planning to release a low-budget fantasy DVD called Age of the Hobbits the same week Peter Jackson’s three-hour epic hit theaters, it changed the name to Clash of the Empires, then released a statement that said: “We continue to believe that this frivolous lawsuit was filed to divert attention from the adverse publicity and poor reviews received by ‘The Hobbit’ movie.”

Whenever a studio points out that the Asylum’s films are too similar to its own, the Asylum is there to remind the studio the similarities actually run a lot deeper than they think. The big studios are also selling viewers the same concept-driven shlock—they’re just funneling a lot more money into it. As Horton puts it: “Battleship is a $200-million film based on a board game.” And when the big publicity push is over, Battleship will be sitting right next to the Asylum’s shoestring-budget American Warships in the Netflix queue. Which movie looks stupid now?

Amanda Hess
Amanda Hess is a freelancer writer reporting on sex, Hollywood, and technology, and a regular contributor to Slate's Double X.

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