Thursday, March 10, 2011

Culture Shock 03.10.11: 'Mockbuster' movies aren't what you think they are

This has probably happened to you. You go to the video store — back when there were video stores — and search the shelves for something worth renting, plus pay the late fee for when you forget to return it on time.

Something catches your eye. A glossy DVD cover staring back at you, emblazoned with a familiar name. Is it "Transformers," directed by the auteur of the explosion Michael Bay? No, that's still in theaters.

Instead, it's a low-budget knock-off titled "Transmorphers." Probably you chuckle, shake your head and move on. You're sure "Weekend at Bernie's 2" is around here somewhere.

But sometimes you pick the doppelganger DVD up, read the back cover and say to yourself, "Maybe this will be fun." And the next thing you know, you're home with a pizza, a six-pack of beer and the latest movie from Hollywood's most infamous studio, The Asylum.

Other movie studios make blockbusters. The Asylum makes what the entertainment press has dubbed "mockbusters" — thinly veiled knock-offs of major Hollywood movies, usually featuring no-name casts and not-at-all-special effects.

The Asylum's latest mockbuster release is "Almighty Thor," scheduled for DVD release May 10, just four days after Marvel Studios' big-budget "Thor," based on the long-running Marvel Comics superhero, hits theaters.

I tried to find the trailer for "Almighty Thor" online, but all I found was an interview the star, Cody Deal, gave to what looked like a public-access TV show in Kansas. Deal's previous roles include an uncredited Roman soldier at Caesar's Palace in "The Hangover." (Hey, you have to start somewhere, unless you're Charlie Sheen.)

Jack Kirby may have created Marvel's version of Thor, but the character has his roots in Norse mythology, making him up for grabs. Characters that have fallen into the public domain feature in several Asylum films. When Paramount released "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," The Asylum cashed in with "Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls." When Robert Downey Jr. starred in "Sherlock Holmes," The Asylum released its own "Sherlock Holmes." The Asylum didn't have Downey, but it did have CGI dinosaurs rampaging through Victorian London (don't ask).

The Asylum, founded in 1997, has been riding the coattails of blockbuster releases since 2005. That's when the studio's version of "War of the Worlds," released at the same time as Steven Spielberg's version, received an order of 100,000 copies from Blockbuster Video, about eight times the typical order Blockbuster placed for other Asylum releases, according to the New York Times.

That led the company's owners, who until then had focused on horror flicks, to reconsider their business model.

Studio founder David Michael Latt put it this way in his interview with the Times: "I'm not trying to dupe anybody. … Other people do tie-ins all the time; they're just better at being subtle about it."

Sometimes other studios aren't subtle either. Remember when for every Disney cartoon based on some old fairytale character there was a poorly animated, direct-to-video imitator? You couldn't go into a video store in the 1990s without running into them.

The Asylum also runs Faith Films, a label devoted to movies "that honestly portray subjects, themes and people of faith." But even some of the Faith Films releases tread into mockbuster territory, like "Sunday School Musical," which sounds a lot like "High School Musical."

"Almighty Thor" isn't the only mockbuster on The Asylum's schedule this year. The company will release "Battle of Los Angeles" later this month to coincide with the release of "Battle: Los Angeles," which already looks as dumb as the typical Asylum release, only way more expensive.

It's easy to mock Asylum's mockbusters. They lack the charm of past B movies where up-and-coming filmmakers often displayed genuine craftsmanship that propelled them to big-time careers. (Think of some of the people who worked for B-movie king Roger Corman.) But if The Asylum ever pits its Thor against its "Mega Shark" franchise, that'll probably be fun to watch.

And I'd rather watch a bad movie that cost less than $1 million to make than a bad movie Michael Bay spent $200 million making.

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