By Christopher Moloney, OutFront producer
Snakes on a Train.
Da Vinci Treasure.
They're called "mockbusters (or knockbusters)," movies produced to capitalize on the marketing of a mainstream feature, and they were all produced by one studio.
The Asylum was founded in 1997 by David Rimawi, David Latt, and their former partner, Sherri Strain with the intention of producing straight-to-video low-budget films. They had limited success until 2005, when The Asylum produced an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, which was released on DVD to coincide with the theatrical launch of a Steven Spielberg film based on the same novel.
Blockbuster ordered 100,000 copies of The Asylum version, a significantly larger order than any of the studio's previous films, which led to a new approach to film selection and distribution by the company.
A year later, Paul Bales – "a friend of the Davids for decades" – joined The Asylum as a partner and he now handles the day-to-day operations of the company and domestic sales.
"Some of our most successful titles include "Megafault," and "Mega Piranha," Bales told OutFront. "In terms of audience awareness though, "Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus" is, by far, our most successful film but not necessarily one of the most profitable."
Profitability plays a big part in The Asylum's film selection and the studio never green lights a movie without knowing they'll recoup the investment. And while they don't always turn a profit on films, the studio has never actually lost money. "We basically have three average budgets," says Bales. "Our sexy comedies like "18 Year Old Virgin," and "#1 Cheerleader Camp," and our "found footage" films like "Paranormal Entity," have budgets around $100,000; our regular "mockbuster" and creature films are between $200-750K; and our network originals like "Zombie Apocalypse" are $1-2 million. In terms of gross, it varies widely. Our sexy comedies and found footage movies are usually the most profitable, with margins upward of 50%."
The company's movies often feature more sexuality and graphic violence than films produced by the major studios.
"Based on the correspondence we get, it seems our films are universally hated and generally considered 'the worst movies ever made.' But for some reason, people keep buying them. I can't recall anyone complaining about the sex or violent content except for the time our DVD replicator accidentally switched one of our titles with a porno movie."
A situation like that could have been disastrous, particularly because The Asylum also operates Faith Films, a production and distribution company dedicated to creating "exciting films that honestly portray subjects, themes, and people of faith." Bales says the idea for Faith Films came from one of The Asylum's buyers, who noticed the Christian market was under served. "Our first two Faith Films, "The Apocalypse" and "2012: Doomsday," were hugely successful, so we made about three more all of which under-performed. We've since come to the conclusion that the first two films worked because Christians and non-Christians really seem to enjoy movies about the end of the world. We don't plan on making any more overtly Christian films, but we do plan to make more movies that are appropriate for families and children."
Still there are no plans to abandon the films that made them successful. Bales thinks "American Battleship" and "Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies" (two mockbusters set to be released in May) are going to be very successful and their second film for the Lifetime network, "Adopting Terror," could be one of the top-rated films on the network this year.
But which upcoming film is Bales most excited about? "Since I wrote it - "Nazis at the Center of the Earth."