“It used to be cool to hate us, and now it’s become cool to like us.”
So says Paul Bales, COO of The Asylum, the B-movie flag-bearers who have cornered — in somewhat notorious fashion — one of the most beloved, derided, schlocky and, well, inexpensive rungs of Hollywood’s lower echelons.
This year, The Asylum has its 25th anniversary, marking a quarter-century of super-prolific, low-budget filmmaking, unashamed studio piggybacking and some of the most comically ludicrous concepts (and posters) ever made. And sharks. Truck loads of sharks (so many it’s difficult to actually pin down an exact figure).
And it’s a birthday the company — whose vast library includes the likes of Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, Avengers Grimm, Asteroid-a-Geddon and, of course, the six-strong Sharknado franchise — is celebrating not simply with a huge party on Santa Monica Pier during the American Film Market, but by unleashing yet another typically Asylum model into the industry. This time: low-budget TV.
Like so many Hollywood success stories, The Asylum’s initial seeds began with a firing. Three, actually.
When David Rimawi and Sherri Strain lost their jobs at the L.A. office of Village Roadshow (Rimawi assures, “everyone who was working there was fired around the same time”), they teamed with David Latt, who had been working at education software company Chimera Multimedia (“It was CD-ROMs, we may as well have been dealing in cassette tapes and cave drawings,” he says), launching The Asylum in 1997. Primarily a distributor, they used Latt’s graphic art skills to make posters and cut trailers on the titles they acquired.
Early success came with exclusive deals with several major video chains in the U.S., Canada and Australia, but as that started declining in the early aughts, they stopped buying and moved into in-house production, focusing on the films that had reaped the biggest rewards: genre. Inspired following a lunch with their DVD replicator — who said “business is good!” — they set a target of one low-budget movie per month, the first official Asylum title out the gate being 2002’s dark crime thriller King of the Ants. Directed by Re-Animator’s Stuart Gordon and based on Brit author Charlie Higson’s novel, the film starred Cheers alum George Wendt as a foul-mouthed, alcoholic and Hawaiian-shirted electrician.
“It was basically about the most creative ways to kill people without using any traditional weapons,” says Bales. “So refrigerator, golf club …”
King of the Ants was largely well-received. The Asylum was off and running.
“And that was really the launch of what it looks like today,” says Rimawi.
Around this time, Strain left the company, with Bales — whom Rimawi had been friends with since the age of 8 — joining from SAG in 2006. “I didn’t lose my job,” Bales notes. “I’m the only one here of my own accord.”
But a year before Bales’ arrival, The Asylum had a major, company-defining, breakthrough.
Latt claims he had never intended to ride on the coattails of Paramount’s big-budget Steven Spielberg-directed, Tom Cruise-starring blockbuster War of the Worlds when he set out to write and direct his own — much, much cheaper — adaptation of one his favorite sci-fi novels in 2005.
But an enthusiastic response from The Asylum’s buyer at Blockbuster had provided enough encouragement for the company to keep going with its $500,000 project, despite coming up against an incoming $100 million-plus studio Goliath.
Would people bother watching their straight-to-DVD alternative? “Absolutely they will,” they were told. And when H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (which became either Invasion or H.G. Wells’ The Worlds in War in certain territories due to rights issues) was released the day before Paramount’s tentpole hit cinemas, they did. It became The Asylum’s biggest hit, with around 100,000 copies bought across video stores nationwide. The checks started flowing. A light bulb went ping.
Rimawi and Latt moved quickly and before the end of the 2005, had made and released King of the Lost World ($1 million budget) just in time for Peter Jackson’s King Kong epic adaptation ($200 million).
The “mockbuster” may not have been a new concept, but Asylum (who it should be noted prefer the term “tie-in”) would soon become its most famous proponent, churning out scores of sub-$1 million, shot-in-a-few-weeks and straight-to-DVD films that each sounded — almost — like major studio titles with expensive marketing campaigns that just so happened to be releasing at the same time. The Da Vinci Treasure, Pirates of Treasure Island, Transmorphers, Alien vs. Hunter and Snakes on a Train were just a few of the earlier features that helped amass scores of fans purely for their comical audaciousness, while more recent offerings include Bullet Train Down, Moon Crash, Jurassic Domination and Top Gunner.
There were — perhaps unsurprisingly — a few calls from lawyers. 20th Century Fox complained about the similarities between 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Day the Earth Stopped, although nothing happened. Warner Bros. had better luck in 2012 against Middle-earth rip-off The Age of Hobbits in 2012, which was eventually changed to the distinctly un-Tolkienesque Clash of the Empires. In a more comical complaint, Latt recalls an interview with The Da Vinci Code producer Brian Grazer in which he compared The Asylum to the “pollution in Hollywood, in that you’ve just got to live with it.”
Despite the snootiness from Hollywood’s loftier heights, Bales suggests studios should actually take their mockbusters as a compliment. “Because one of the things we found is that there’s definitely a correlation between how well the studio film does and how well our film does,” he says. “So if we decided to do a mockbuster of a production, we think it’s going to be successful.”
These “tie-ins” would soon become a mainstay and make up a large chunk of the 12-plus titles The Asylum began pumping out annually. But in 2013 — a decade and a half into the company’s existence — came another unexpected turning point.
Sharknado — which began its life as an AFM pitch — was never supposed to become a cultural phenomenon and should by all accounts have enjoyed a minor splash of fame before joining the likes of 2-Headed Shark Attack and Mega-Shark vs. Crocosaurus in Asylum’s ridiculous low-budget comedy-disaster waters. But — for reasons that can’t quite be explained — the film’s name and a tale of a twister sucking up sharks from the ocean and flinging them across Los Angeles went berserk on social media the night of its release on Syfy. Millions would tune in to see what all the fuss was about over its subsequent airings, and a C-list celebrity-starring B-movie legend was born — spawning five sequels and raising The Asylum’s profile in the process.
“Up until that point, even with the notoriety that we had, if you’d speak to anyone and be like, ‘Hey, I’m a filmmaker, have you seen anything I’ve made?’ the answer would be, ‘No,’ ” says Bales, “but with Sharknado we became known.”
Sharknado also landed at a difficult period of transition, when the market was dramatically changing and people were turning to subscriptions rather than transactional purchases. “So it was good to have a hit,” acknowledges Rimawi.
Although the Sharknado film series drew to a close with 2018’s The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time, the franchise — much like a shark — is unlikely to ever stop moving. “We still talk about how to exploit it in every production meeting,” says Latt, who points to an amusement park that opened in Malaysia and talk of a Sharknado musical (which sadly died due to COVID) as helping keep the insanity going. He also notes that Stephen King actually called for a seventh film on Twitter.
On the business side, Sharknado helped move The Asylum into the episodic TV world with Syfy’s zombie horror series Z Nation, which ran for five seasons. “Z Nation was our reward for Sharknado,” explains Bales. “They wanted a zombie series, and we’d made a film a few years prior called Rise of Zombies, which Z Nation is sort of loosely based on, so they gave us this series even though we hadn’t made one before.”
The Asylum was now in the TV business, and Z Nation would get a Netflix spinoff in Black Summer. Also on the TV side, Pluto would approach the company to set up its own dedicated Asylum AVOD channel for its titles, a linear concept Rimawi thought was utterly “ridiculous” and out of touch with viewing trends. “So we were like, ‘Good luck with your failure, but here’s some movies.’ ”
But the royalties began rolling in and it soon became clear that this “insane” idea of free films in exchange for ads was working. Pluto became Asylum’s No. 1 revenue generator, and they’re now looking to differentiate their channel in classic Asylum style, producing breaking news alerts in which news hosts interrupt the programming to discuss an incoming giant asteroid or tornado filled with sharks.
Over on fellow AVOD platform Tubi, a surprise hit — by some margin — was Titanic II, an oceanic disaster film set 100 years after the first (“I talk a lot of shit about our movies; that one’s actually pretty good,” says Latt). When Tubi execs decided that they wanted to start getting into original programming, a(nother) sequel was an obvious choice. So Asylum made the supernatural horror flick Titanic 666, the first of 12 original productions it’s produced for Tubi over the past 12 months.
“What’s exciting about working with Tubi is that they’re a general audience platform, so we’ve been able to try some different genres,” says Rimawi. “We’ve done some kids stuff, action-adventure sci-fi, which we know so well, and even Westerns, which we don’t get the opportunity to do.”
The Asylum also has a brand-new concept up its sleeves, one that came from producing Z Nation and experiencing firsthand just how expensive the TV series business is.
“We decided that there must be an Asylum way to make television,” says Bales, “so we’ve made a low-budget disaster series.”
Currently called Crisis Earth, the show follows a team of scientists and military personnel who go around the world looking to stop disasters before they happen. Shot as three different feature-length films, it was written so that it can be cut — or not — into six episodes. It’ll be selling for the first time at this year’s AFM.
“We’ll see how the market responds to the idea of a lower-budget, action-packed, special-effects-filled TV series,” says Bales. “We think shortform content is the future, and if it can be done at a budget, it makes sense.”
Whether buyers swoop for this new B-movie twist on TV — in an age when HBO is spending a reported $20 million on each episode of its latest dragon drama — remains to be seen. But if it doesn’t take off, it’s unlikely to trouble The Asylum, which has perfected a model that simply never leaves too much at stake.
“One of the reasons we’ve remained in business for 25 years is that we make a movie for exactly less than we think we can earn from it,” says Rimawi. “And we make the movies that the market — whether it’s the direct audience or the people distributing to the direct audience — tell us to make. People say all the time, ‘Why don’t you make a $20 million original production?’ And our answer is because we’d like to stay in business.”
And it’s a business The Asylum is only too happy to poke a comedic and very self-aware finger at, as will be seen in the opening scene of a recently finished movie specially made for its 25th anniversary.
“It opens up with a grandmother giving her grandkids a DVD that she thinks is a studio film,” says Latt, “but really, it’s one of ours.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Nov. 1 daily issue at the American Film Market.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter