LA Times profiles the Mockbuster industry

Throughout the years, I’ve often posted trailers for movies produced by The Asylum, a company that specializes in making cheap knockoffs of the latest Hollywood blockbusters (you may remember The Asylum’s Almighty Thor, starring Richard Grieco as the Norse God of receding hairlines). I think Morton has included at least one Asylum release in every one of his weekly DVD columns. I’ve often wondered aloud if this is an entire industry built on confused moms and grandmas accidentally renting the wrong DVD. What a niche! The LA Times recently profiled the entire industry — ripping off hot blockbusters in direct-to-DVD releases is apparently called “drafting” — and the answer is, basically, yes.

But whereas the expensive versions cost their studios tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, even the least successful knockoffs usually manage to turn a profit.
“The business is as healthy as ever,” boasted [Asylum partner David] Rimawi, who claimed that his firm had never lost money on one of its mockbusters.

Some consumers do feel confused — and cheated. On Redbox’s Web page for “The True Story of Puss ‘N Boots” — yet another knockoff, this one produced in France — the 1,349 consumer reviews are overwhelmingly negative.
“I made the mistake of renting this thinking it was the Antonio Banderas version. BIG mistake,” said one consumer. Added another: “I think it was sleazy of this company to make the same movie another company was making in hopes people would rent/buy this one by mistake.”

But of course, most of the fun of the piece isn’t the industry news, it’s the titles of the knockoffs themselves.

“As people have migrated to these new platforms, it has been a great opportunity for us,” said Sam Toles, vice president of content and acquisitions for Gaiam Entertainment, distributor of the “Happy Feet” knockoff “Tappy Toes.” “We’re not trying to confuse people. We’re trying to take advantage of a level of interest in a concept that exists thanks to the major studio release.”

“It is true that in the new media world, it’s not always clear what movie it is because you can’t see the art clearly, so our buyers have been asking us to change the title more often,” said David Rimawi, a partner at the company. Thus last year’s “Battle of Los Angeles,” released alongside Sony Pictures’ “Battle: Los Angeles,” became “Attack Los Angeles.”

Did you see Battle: Los Angeles? There couldn’t have been a huge difference in quality. I bet Attack Los Angeles had more believable dialog.

Titles, story lines or marketing materials that are virtually identical can invite trouble, however. Universal Pictures sued the Asylum over its “Battleship”clone “American Battleships,” claiming it was “intended to and does confuse consumers.” The companies quickly settled, after which Asylum changed the movie’s name to “American Warships” — which then aired on Universal’s corporate sibling cable network Syfy.

Darrell Van Citters, the head of Renegade and a former animator at Disney andWarner Bros., wanted to call his”Kung Fu Panda”knockoff “Tae Kwan Do Panda.” Attorneys at Gaiam changed that to “Chop Kick Panda.”

Chop Kick Panda rules! He chops with the power of kicks!

Though the knockoffs’ DVD covers look nearly identical to the movie they’re drafting, story lines can be wildly different. The Asylum, which makes several mockbusters a year, gives its filmmakers complete freedom — so long as they stick to a budget typically well under $2 million.

“I tell them they can shoot in L.A. with a crew of 30, or go anywhere in the world with a crew of five, and if one camera breaks down, you’re screwed,” partner David Latt said.

The commercial fate of drafting opportunities is often tied to the performance of the movies that inspired them. The box-office failure of”Happy Feet Two”spelled trouble for “Tappy Toes,” for instance, as did “Battleship” for “American Warships. [via TheLATimes]

That rule of of five people from anywhere in the world can do the same work as 30 people from LA is pretty much standard in any business, not just mockbusting.

Some of my favorite Asylum titles:

Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012)

Paranormal Entity (2009)

18 Year Old Virgin (2009) [?]

The Day the Earth Stopped (2008)

Death Racers (2008)

100 Million BC (2008)

30,000 Leagues Under the Sea (2007)

Snakes on a Train (2006)

The Da Vinci Treasure (2006)

I appreciate what The Asylum does, not just for the comedic value, but for keeping Judd Nelson off the streets.