The Economics Of Terrible TV

Late last week the trailer for Sharknado went crazy viral on Twitter:

Thomas Vitale, SyFy’s executive vice president for programming and original movies, explains how much these films cost:

We pay $750,000 or $800,00 for these movies. They cost about a million and a half to two million. The budgets are often helped by tax grants and incentives from the locations we’re shooting in. We’ve shot all over the world, pretty much every continent except Antarctica. They’re done as coproductions with independent companies. The Asylum made “Sharknado.”

Amanda Hess profiles The Asylum:

If the Asylum’s films are naive camp, its marketing strategy is all deliberate. “It’s a parody of the studio system,” Latt says. “We’re making fun of the commerce side of this. You made your movie for $200 million? I’ll make it for 20 bucks.”

Consider the Asylum’s line of “mockbusters,” designed to ride the coattails of the zillion-dollar publicity pushes for big-studio films. When DreamWorks studios came out with Transformers in 2007, the Asylum raced out Transmorphers. When Columbia Pictures released Battle: Los Angeles in 2011, the Asylum countered with Battle of Los Angeles. When mockbusters trip legal threats from the big studios—and they usually do—the Asylum will fuss with the cover art and change the titles to pacify the lawyers, then thank the studios for throwing more publicity their way.

Amelia Schonbek points out that The Asylum is making lots of money:

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.

And Meghan Neal looks at how these films cater to viewers’ preferences:

Netflix is one of Asylum’s regular buyers, along with Red Box, Blockbuster, Amazon, and others. And it buys the whole shebang. It scoops up every new release and has the studio’s entire catalog available. And Netflix doesn’t just stop at licensing new releases. In a sense, it’s influencing their being made in the first place. Netflix provides Asylum with data on what its users are interested in, and the studio obliges.

… The unsettling part is that the masses can be terribly off base, and even the most sophisticated algorithm can’t sniff out, you know, actual art. In the words of this Salon article, viewers are turning into puppets. “Now Netflix is using the same formula to prefabricate its own programming to fit what it thinks we will like,” wrote Salon. “Isn’t the inevitable result of this that the creative impulse gets channeled into a pre-built canal?”