The success of the studio behind the Sharknado franchise points to an elusive ingredient in movies today—fun.
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne
About a year ago, the world met Sharknado, a SyFy channel made-for-TV movie. The film’s posters showed a shark-filled tornado striking Los Angeles, and simply read: “enough said!” And yet, despite the cheesy, sensational ads, we were all pretty shocked at how much we all got into it. What should have been a soft failure, disappearing after its first and only TV run, through word of mouth and pure absurdity, became SyFy’s most popular creature movie ever and a surprise summer hit. It boasts an 83 percent rating on the critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, applauded for being a brainless, indulgent streak of fun. As shocking as the movie’s success was, the story of the studio that made the film, Burbank, CA’s The Asylum, may be even more astounding. These joyous schlock peddlers have, over the past decade, made over 100 movies as bizarre and cut-rate as Sharknado. Yet they’ve never lost money on a single film—an astonishing accomplishment that could change the way a hemorrhaging Hollywood thinks about its productions.
The Asylum formed in 1997, when David Michael Latt, David Rimawi, and Sherri Strain, three former members of Village Roadshow, parent entertainment company behind such hit films as The Matrix, Zoolander, and The Lego Movie, decided they wanted to start producing their own movies. Their first films were confused attempts at drama, like 1999’s Bellyfruit, an adaptation of a Los Angeles Theatre Center play written by teen mothers, or horror, like 2004’s Death Valley: The Revenge of Bloody Bill, which never gained much traction against better produced studio fare. Then, in 2005, they produced a low-budget adaptation of The War of the Worlds for direct-to-video release, just days before Steven Spielberg’s version hit theaters. They promptly received an order for 100,000 copies from Blockbuster Video, their largest win yet. From then on, they adopted a strategy that they call “tie-ins,” but which most critics call “mockbusters,” quickly producing films with titles and plots similar to major upcoming studio films, like 2006’s Snakes on a Train, 2007’s Transmorphers, 2009’s Paranormal Entity, 2010’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, 2011’s Battle of Los Angeles, 2012’s Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, or 2013’s Atlantic Rim.
Photo courtesy of The Asylum
They also cranked out ever-zanier creature features and made-for-TV disaster movies, packed to the gills with sex and violence, devoid of the need to adhere to guidelines that accompany a PG-13 theater rating. They pride themselves on starting a major B-movie shark craze with 2009’s MegaShark vs. Giant Octopus, inspiring other companies to make Sharktopus and Swamp Shark. This all culminated in Sharknado, its upcoming sequel Sharknado 2: The Second One, and plans for a Sharknado 3 are in the works for next year. But driven mainly by demand for what sells, they’ve also started making religious movies under the subsidiary studio Faith Films, after catching wind at a marketing conference that there was Christian demand for a less secular High School Musical. They responded with Sunday School Musical.
Even riding on the name recognition and advertising for other movies, The Asylum would still risk losing money if a low-quality, high-cost film just tanked. But their budgets are small, running $250,000 to $2 million per film—small potatoes compared to the $60 million Hollywood average. And their productions are put together quickly, with scripts written in just over a month, four months to film, and a few weeks to edit and print. As their films are available on video-on-demand services (30 to 40 percent of their profits), Netflix streaming (25 percent of their profits), and DVD (the remainder of their profits), it’s not hard to recoup their costs. One of their films usually nets a 20 to 50 percent profit margin, and with three to five films in production at a time, they hit $5 million in profits in 2012 and were gunning for nearly $19 million in 2013.
Many see The Asylum as hucksters, tricking the clueless by ripping off Netflix content and selling it back to them. They’ve been accused of poor working conditions and profiteering on the labor of an army of interns to churn out better special effects than other B-movie studios. They’ve even faced legal action from Fox and Universal Studios for creative freeloading.
But there’s a lot of love out there for The Asylum as well, with many praising their irony and so-called “amazebad” factor. They deliver exactly what they promise and openly acknowledge that their products are not great films. They see themselves as people having fun and making cheap, ridiculous, and reliably brainless entertainment. In that sense, they’re a lot like longtime B-movie studio Troma, which has produced 1,000 films since 1974, inspiring a cult following and producing classic titles like Poultrygeist, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., and Surf Nazis Must Die. But Asylum has a much larger and more loyal audience, access to Twitter and online streaming, and more special effects know-how than Troma, which has famously used the same car flip over and over in movies, even when the car that needed to be flipped was a different model or color.
Love it or leave it, The Asylum is schlock done right, appealing to both ironic and brainless tastes. And with films like Sharknado, the studio is proving that their success isn’t just about being parasitic and siphoning off Hollywood’s budgets—it’s about having fun. Unlike Hollywood, which sucks up nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in one go to make one sloppy and derivative failure after another, stealing away time and money from more innovative film ideas, The Asylum is proving that you can make popcorn fodder on the cheap and still turn a little profit. With any luck, Hollywood will eventually take a hint from its competition and either lower its lowbrow budgets or leave the schlock to these masters. Maybe then a little more time, money, and energy will be spent producing the kind of films The Asylum can’t knock off—the experimental, thoughtful, or provocative films that deserve to be made as much or more than the dud, money-sucking special effects vehicles we’re stuck with now.