As a film student in the 1970s, producer David Latt reveled in the work of Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.
But as a little kid, there was one title that captivated him: “Giant Robot.” Known in the U.S. as “Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot,” the late-sixties Japanese import employed bad special effects and was highly campy.
“As an 8-year-old kid I would run around playing ‘Giant Robot’ all day. I loved it,” Latt said. “You have to remember that in those days, there were three channels (on TV).”
As the head of production for B-movie studio The Asylum, Latt was one of the people behind the “Sharknado” franchise. This summer, 9.5 million people tuned into the SyFy channel to watch “Sharknado 2,” a number that nips at the heels of AMC’s series finale of “Breaking Bad,” which brought in 10.3 million viewers.
Latt and his partners know exactly what they’re producing -- what they call low-budget “mockbusters” on their website -- and the studio has never lost money on a film in more than two decades of cranking out anywhere from 10-20 films per year. It’s a meticulous, film-on-demand business model built more on breaking even than swollen profit margins.
“If anyone could make a huge profit off of these movies, the major studios would’ve made a $200 million version starring Russell Crowe,” Latt said. “This happens to be an untapped market.”
And it’s clear the crew at The Asylum is enjoying the work as much as fans enjoy laughing at it.
“The success tells me that there’s a fan base out there that’s hungry for what we’re doing,” Latt said. “It’s exciting to be driving that train even though I feel like a passenger on it most of the time.”
So where does that consumer hunger come from? Critics, writers and producers have weighed in, saying:
1. The death of the video store
Video rental stores became a fond memory in the late 2000s, with Hollywood Video shutting its doors in 2010 and Blockbuster closing the last of its stores last year. With rental options like Red Box only offering new releases and Netflix’s catalogue changing every few months to include a variety of films for streaming, many cult favorites can slip through the cracks. As a result, Latt said, more people watch these films on TV, which gives channels like SyFy a ratings boost.
“You used to have the video stores and you’d have studio films next to B movies and the B movies always had a constant audience,” Latt said. “Since the video stores have left us and you can’t find these titles easily on-demand, you have the audience turning the TV to something like SyFy and saying, ‘Here it is.’”
2. The Internet changed access
At the same time, the Internet has made finding bad movies easier than ever before, said producer, writer and bad-movie enthusiast Daryn Tufts.
“You have access to every bad movie ever made now with the Internet, and it’s immediate,” Tufts said.
Doug Walker, creator of online review show “Nostalgia Critic,” agreed that the Internet has changed what audiences find entertaining, whether it’s finding a trailer for a cult classic or a clip from YouTube.
“It can just be fun. We don’t care where our entertainment comes from and the Internet opened that up,” Walker said. “That’s why a celebrity can take the Ice Bucket Challenge and it can get the same kind of attention as a video of your dog doing something really silly.”
3. Nostalgia, irony and lowered standards
Latt theorized that the bar for regular movies has become so low that viewers have developed a nuanced appetite for camp and farce.
“They’re so outrageous and cartoonish and dumb that a shark in a tornado is as acceptable as a guy in an iron suit flying around helping people,” Latt said. “Sometimes, you just want to check your brain at the door and enjoy.”
In that vein, Tufts said, today’s audience isn’t judgmental about the difference between art cinema or a quirky YouTube video.
“A movie that’s so bad it’s good has legitimate entertainment value. People love irony,” Tufts said. “Entertainment is entertainment even when it’s ironic.”
4. Viewers are more sophisticated
In an age where movies are talked about online from script to screen, Tufts and Walker said viewers have become so familiar with the way the film industry works that bad films have become fascinating.
“We train ourselves to see good movies that we know what a good movie looks like, so when we see something so bad, we want to figure it out,” Walker said.
“What we expect raises a little every year, so it gets tougher for filmmakers to show us something original without just shocking us,” Tufts said. “It appeals to a lot of people who have an understanding of film and it appeals to our wanting to be smarter than the movie we’re watching.”
And, Tufts said, it’s a chance to make a potentially bad viewing experience fun.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000 enhanced the art of making fun of movies. The worse the movie is, the greater your ability to make jokes from. It’s oddly empowering,” Tufts said. “That’s why we embrace movies like ‘Sharknado 2’: It was telling us a joke and we all got the punch line.”
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