The Number: Zero
The New Yorker, July 12, 2013
Just before 11 P.M. on Thursday night, Twitter users were discussing “Sharknado,” a T.V. movie that features tornado-propelled sharks, at a rate of over five thousand posts per minute. Yet early numbers indicate that only 1.4 million or so viewers actually watched the campy, low-budget feature when it aired on the SyFy channel that night—average at best for a SyFy original movie. Despite its initial lack of viewers and low-grade content, however, the movie is almost guaranteed to be a financial success.
“Sharknado” was produced by The Asylum, a film studio largely known for its rapid and prolific production of so-called mockbusters—cheesy, low-budget takes on major Hollywood films—and cheap TV originals. The studio, which was founded in 1997, has released more than three hundred films, among them “Transmorphers,” “The Da Vinci Treasure,” and “Mega Piranha.”
According to Asylum’s director of operations, Paul Bales, ninety-nine per cent of the studio’s films cost “well under” a million dollars to make; most its film budgets are just hundreds of thousands of dollars. (The Internet Movie Database estimates that Sharknado’s budget was a million dollars.) The films are also made quickly. Jack Perez, who has directed Asylum hits like “Mega Octopus vs. Giant Shark,” has said that he generally shoots movies for the studio in twelve days. The non-union crews sometimes work for twenty-two hour stretches.
The Asylum produces films briskly not only to reduce costs but also in order to ride the publicity waves of big studios; mockbusters are often timed to be released on streaming services like Netflix or networks like SyFy shortly before the real thing is released theatrically, often with a confusingly similar title. (It may be surprising that the studio is not more vulnerable to legal challenges—it has lost only one court case, over a trademark violation regarding “The Age of the Hobbits.”) The Asylum’s business model is highly tailored to video-on-demand services, like Netflix and Redbox: for instance, after realizing V.O.D. sites list movies alphabetically, it began altering the way it titles its releases, beginning with numbers and symbols whenever possible.
The films’ success ultimately depends on the idea that, as The Asylum’s chief operating officer, Paul Bales, says, “If you are a fan of giant transforming robots, you are going to find everything you can about giant transforming robots.” By this logic, a movie doesn’t have to be good to be successful. It just has to be topical.
So far, the formula has worked: between 2011 and 2012, the studio made twelve million dollars in revenue with a fifteen-per-cent profit margin.
As of last March, even after making hundreds of movies, The Asylum has not yet lost money on a single film—making the most important number for this movie zero.