5 Ugly Realities Of Making 'Mockbusters' Like 'Sharknado'
Maybe you know The Asylum as the film company responsible for low-budget knockoffs of major blockbusters, like The Terminators, or just as the guys who made a movie where a shark bites a plane:
They're good last date options.
If you can even remember the pre-Internet days, The Asylum is basically the Cracked to Hollywood's Mad Magazine. We wanted to know how our film counterpart operates (and if they're at all interested in making some list-based movies), so we sat down with a screenwriter who spent more than a year pitching for The Asylum. Here's what he told us.
They Don't Know How Silly It Is
I'm sure the first question on your mind is: Why on Earth would a self-respecting screenwriter want to work for these guys?
Who hasn't wondered what it would be like if Jules Verne had been born 80 years later?
Aside from my lifelong dream of meeting Jake Busey, I was mostly interested because I thought it'd be easy to get hired and I wanted the money. Most importantly, it seemed like it might be fun to write an entertainingly terrible movie. I wound up being wrong on all counts. Despite pitching them scripts for nearly two years, I never actually ended up getting hired to write anything for The Asylum. And even if I had been hired, I would have never gotten the opportunity to write an entertainingly terrible movie.
As hard as it is to believe, the trademark awfulness of an Asylum movie is purely accidental. I was specifically warned not to make any of my pitches intentionally campy, or to ever seem like I was 'in' on the joke. In their minds, there is no joke. The way it was described to me is that they don't think they're making bad movies. They're trying to make good movies. They're just really bad at it. So when they spray-paint a NERF gun black and put it in multiple films ...
"NERF? We wish. It's Norf, from China."
They're not trying to give RiffTrax fodder -- they just think NERF looks really, really badass.
They Only Want To Work With Clueless Writers
Back in 2012, Texas Chainsaw 3D was just about to be released, and my writing partner and I had written a vaguely similar script. We figured we might be able to sell it to The Asylum to use as one of their infamous mockbusters. Yes, we were completely willing to sell out. Selling out sure beats not selling anything at all. So we asked a colleague with connections if he could put us in touch with them. Beforehand, he warned us not to mention that my writing partner had won awards for screenwriting. They would be more interested in using us if they thought we were young, hungry screenwriters, willing to work for cheap. If they thought we knew too much about what we were doing, they wouldn't want to hire us. Stop and ponder that for a moment.
Good at your job? Fuck you, you're fired.
He also told us that since The Asylum was so cheap they liked to hire people who could do more than one thing. So if we knew how to do CGI, that would help us.
Note how I didn't say, "well."
My day job is as a producer/editor, so I thought we could push that angle. We emailed The Asylum and waited to hear back. After months of pestering, we finally got it!
Our rejection. Of sorts.
They didn't want our script, but we were still in contention for something. We took him at his word and tried to cover as many possibilities as we could by sending them 10 action movie pitches. Our ideas ranged from a bodyguard trying to rescue his employer from spies on a tropical island to a writer going through hell when he rides along with his cop brother-in-law, to a fight organizer who finds himself fighting in his own lethal underground competition. They didn't take any of our ideas, which is, y'know, fine. None of them were likely to be the next Citizen Kane, or even the next White House Down. But take a look at the 'high concept' action movie The Asylum went with instead:
It's probably easier to think of it as low-concept porn.
Full props to The Asylum, at least that one had an original title. The other action movie they produced that round couldn't have been more generic if they'd tried.
Starring: White Guy!
Some Of Their Premises Are Insanely Specific
They had a new project that they wanted us to pitch for: 'Sexy College Comedy Zombie.' So we're clear, those four words were the entire extent of their directions:
We came up with: Cheerleaders VS Zombies (you can fill in the plot for yourself), President's Day, which was about zombie presidents attacking a college campus, Zombie Hamster Apocalypse, in which a science experiment resulted in a plague of zombie hamsters overrunning a college, and Last Man On Earth. It was about the only man left alive on Earth trapped in a dorm by male zombies and sex-crazed living women. Maybe our pitches were too high concept. Or maybe there just wasn't enough 'high' in the concept. Here's the idea they wound up producing:
Because, if anything, zombies needed to be slower and less coordinated.
But finally, Asylum gave us a real shot: They wanted us to write the first act of a film. If they liked it, we'd be paid for the rest. If they didn't, we were done. The movie idea was 'Zoombie' and, well, I'll just give you the same introduction to this premise I got.
So we wrote the first draft and sent it in. They felt like all the characters were stock stereotypes, and the dialogue was forced and unnatural. Having the goddamn Asylum give us that kind of feedback was a ... special moment, in our writing careers. They told us to cut out 50 percent of the dialogue and get to the zombie action sooner. So the dialogue is stilted, and the solution is just "less of it?" The characters are stereotypes and the solution is "turn them into zombies sooner?" Well, the studio's always right and all that. We reworked the characters, trimmed the dialogue down, and sent them another draft. We heard back from them two months later, when they tabled Zoombie -- perhaps the world just wasn't ready for a zombie panda.
The Feedback is Nonsensical
After several more months of fruitless projects they told us, 'We want you to do a flying shark movie.' This was right after Sharknado, so ... you know what? I'll just paste in their exact feedback because there's not much else you can say about it:
To this day I still don't understand that highlighted sentence. But we gave it a shot, anyway. We wrote them a one-paragraph pitch: The military genetically engineers flying sharks, but they escape their lab and eat their way across the country from New York to LA. We came up with what we thought were some pretty great gags, like the sharks swooping down from between skyscrapers in Manhattan to swallow up people on the street, attacking an air show in New Jersey and driving the planes into the crowds, skydivers trying to evade them in free fall, mountain climbers trapped on the side of a plateau while the shark fly by snatching them up, and the sharks leaping from the water and dropping from the sky at the same time to attack parasailers in Kansas.
They had ... notes.
Flying sharks: Let's keep it a little more grounded.
They also took issue with the parasailers in Kansas because they didn't believe people parasailed in Kansas. If you live in Kansas and parasail, please feel free to email The Asylum and let them know.
They Don't Truly Decide What Films They Make
The Asylum produces a lot of original movies -- say what you will about The Coed And The Stoner Zombie, it's not a rip-off. But they're most famous for their mockbusters: Movies made to directly rip off current hits and, hopefully, con well-meaning grandparents into buying them as gifts. I'm talking about films like Transmorphers ...
"Motordroids: Transmorph and ride away!"
The movie San Andreas is coming out soon ...
It's so unrealistic. Like one helicopter could ever lift The Rock.
... so the Asylum added one word to the title, took out Dwayne Johnson, and ...
At least the name makes geological sense, which is more than we can say for Atlantic Rim.
This isn't a case of parallel thinking, just in case you're the most naive person on the planet. They know exactly what they're doing. For example, one time they asked us to pitch them 'Fairy Tale Avengers.' They wanted a carbon copy of The Avengers, just replacing Marvel's very copyrighted characters with public domain characters from fairy tales.
Here's what that ended up looking like:
"I really don't remember 'Magnesium Man' in The Brothers Grimm."
But it turns out The Asylum doesn't decide to make rip-offs ... because they don't actually make the decision to film anything. They only make movies that have been presold. So if The Asylum produces a film, it's because someone else decided to pay for it.
They pitched our 'Flying Shark' movie to the SyFy channel. Our treatment had been good enough for the studio, but if it didn't find a buyer, it wouldn't get made. We had no illusions as to what kind of film we were pitching, but writing about flying sharks beats adding numbers, or masturbating horses, or whatever it is people do for money in the real world.
Tragically, the project died on the vine. The SyFy channel didn't go for it and their sales team couldn't generate enough interest anywhere else to justify making it. They stressed that it had nothing to do with our treatment and told us 'you guys have been great, and you've actually improved a lot in the time that we've been working together. I will keep you in mind for future projects.'
"The animal + natural disaster genre has opened up a lot of doors for us. Bearicane. Kangaroonami. Tarantulanche."
That was the last time we ever heard from them.
Robert Evans is the editor of the Cracked personal experience team, and he has a Twitter.
For more insider perspectives, check out 4 Horrifying Things I Learned Drunk At Work As A Stunt Man and Good Restaurants = More Bugs: 5 Things Exterminators Know.
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