MARCH/APRIL 2008
ROLF POTTS

HUMOR DOESN’T TRANSLATE INTERNATIONALLY

THE STRANGELY EARNEST BUSINESS
OF MAKING MOCKBUSTERS

DISCUSSED: John Ford, The Formulaic Variance Principle, Barf Bag Gimmickry, The Cannibalization of Successful Templates, An Emaciated C. Thomas Howell, Sexy Lesbian Commandos, T. S. Eliot, Ambiguously Ethnic Actors, Porno-Movie Nomenclature, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Sister, Jules Verne, The Expressed Desire to Veer into Camp, Foam-Latex Alien Teeth, Christian Thrillers, A Serious Movie about Giant Robots

THE NOTORIETY TRADERS

In his influential 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, scholar Daniel J. Boorstin noted that “the successful dealer in literary, dramatic, and musical commodities is one who discovers a formula for what the public wants, and then varies the formula just enough to sell each new product, but not enough to risk loss of the market.” For the entirety of its hundred-year existence, mainstream American cinema has so faithfully operated on this formulaic-variance principle that it’s hard to watch a Hollywood action movie or romantic comedy without instinctively knowing what’s going to happen next. Even when these movies surprise, the audience knows that all surprises exist within the accepted formula of what is and is not expected.

Historically, B movies have existed as simplistic, inexpensive distillations of Hollywood’s big-budget genre fare. When a mainstream film like John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach dazzled western fans, B westerns began to mimic its flashier elements (blazing gunfights, constant suspense, “type” characters) to attract audiences. Similarly, when Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho thrilled moviegoers in 1960, B horror films went to outrageous lengths to provide similar shocks and frights on a small budget. Since most B-movie plots derived from better-financed A-movie formulas, they were forced to set themselves apart through gimmickry: outlandish characters and settings; titillation and exploitation; silly PR stunts (such as distributing barf bags before gore-horror movies, or installing seat-buzzers to startle sci-fi fans); and titles so outrageous—think Women in Bondage, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!—that the name alone could help a movie achieve cult status.

In recent years, the most vivid legacy of this B-movie gimmickry has been the emergence of “mockbusters”—cheaply produced straight-to-DVD films with names like Transmorphers and The Da Vinci Treasure—created with the clear intention of trading in on the notoriety of theatrical films like Transformers and The Da Vinci Code. In one sense this is nothing new, since mainstream movies and B movies alike have always cannibalized successful templates. What sets mockbusters apart, however, is that these films are deliberately released on DVD just as their blockbuster namesakes hit the big screen, thus creating a niche market based on simple consumer confusion.

Track the history of mockbusters, and you’ll find that one independent production company, the Asylum, is responsible for most of the titles in this curious sub-genre. In 2005, for example, the Asylum released a DVD version of War of the Worlds to video stores one day before the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name appeared in movie theaters. American movie fans who rented this DVD were no doubt startled when the sci-fi tale opened with a T and A nude scene, and starred an emaciated C. Thomas Howell instead of a buff Tom Cruise. A few months later the Asylum beat Peter Jackson’s King Kong to the video shelves with its own giant-ape movie, King of the Lost World, featuring Babylon 5 alum Bruce Boxleitner and a certain Jeff Denton. In 2006 the Asylum’s The Exorcism (featuring Jeff Denton) found video store shelf space alongside The Exorcist around the same time its Pirates of Treasure Island (also featuring Jeff Denton) jumped the gun on the newest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. By the end of that year, the Asylum had also produced direct-to-DVD movies titled 666: The Child and Snakes on a Train.

Of all the films in the Asylum catalog, few movies reveal the quirks and contradictions of mockbusters quite so vividly as Transmorphers (released to coincide with the Michael Bay 2007 blockbuster Transformers) which mashes elements of The Matrix, Star Wars, The Terminator, Starship Troopers, and Battlestar Galactica into a cheaply produced, virtually incomprehensible movie about evil robots controlling the earth. In addition to its borrowed plot elements, the movie’s dialogue resonates like an ongoing tribute to sixty years of action-movie clichés: The team is still inside! They’re launching a massive offensive! We’re running out of time! Everybody get back! Cover me! Watch the crossfire! They’ve breached all perimeters! Start the evacuation process! We have to wait for the others! I’m going back for her! Suit up, it’s going down! I wouldn’t miss this for the world! We got one! Follow me! I’ve always loved you! I always will!

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (Random House, 2003). His essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, and the 2000 and 2006 editions of The Best American Travel Writing. When not traveling, he is based in rural Saline County, Kansas.

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