There's a scene in Sharknado in which a great white shark, flung into the smoggy L.A. air by a freak tornado, is bisected by a chainsaw-wielding hero. This was, perhaps, the least shocking thing about the film. What's more amazing is that Sharknado was seen by more than 1 million people, and 300,000 tweeted enthusiastically about it the night of its premiere on the Syfy network.
Sharknado is one example of a "mockbuster," a new genre of film defined by the internet generation's insatiable demand for quirky, cheap content. Call it the filmmaking version of the web's BuzzFeed. These movies resemble contemporary popcorn flicks but are produced in a fraction of the time (months instead of years) with a budget (usually less than $500,000) that would qualify as a rounding error on a big studio production. Despite shoddy quality, such films are finding an ever-growing audience and becoming a booming business.
The undisputed king of the mockbuster is The Asylum, a Burbank, Calif.-based production company founded in 1997. After producing mostly budget horror flicks, the studio released a low-rent version of War of the Worlds to coincide with Steven Spielberg's 2005 big studio adaptation. The Asylum's version became a DVD hit, with Blockbuster ordering more than 100,000 copies. More mockbusters followed. Transmorphers was released to accompany Transformers. Snakes on a Plane gave way to Snakes on a Train. This year The Asylum expects to rake in $19 million thanks to a robust production schedule and distribution deals with Syfy and Lifetime, as well as video-on-demand channels and services such as Netflix and Redbox.
Other production companies also have found a niche serving up ready-made schlock. Glendale, Calif.-based Renegade Animation leverages the PR blitz of well-heeled movie studios to hype its own creations. After the dancing-penguin flick Happy Feet scored at the Academy Awards, Renegade released its own version, Tappy Toes. Brazilian animation studio Vídeo Brinquedo has an entirely different strategy: crude mimicry. Several of its sloppily animated films (The Little Cars in the Great Race; Ratatoing) piggyback unabashedly on Disney/Pixar hits (Cars; Ratatouille).
But what makes the mockbuster palatable? Veteran producer and executive Kathryn Arnold believes it's all about low risk, high rewards: "Taking the blockbuster genre, storyline and creating low-budget versions mitigates risk--the storyline has already been tested and satisfies the audience's hunger for content. If the mockbuster hits a chord with the audience, the fan-generated buzz takes hold, and people flock to see it."