A mockbuster (also known as knockbuster or a drafting opportunity) is a movie created with the intention of exploiting the publicity of a major movie with a similar title and/or subject. Mockbusters are often made with a low budget. Unlike films which are produced to capitalize on the popularity of a recent release by adopting similar genre or storytelling elements, mockbusters are generally produced concurrently with upcoming films, and released direct-to-video at the same time the mainstream film reaches theaters or video outlets. A mockbuster may be similar enough in title, packaging, etc. that consumers confuse it with the mainstream film it mimics, but their producers maintain that they are simply offering additional products for consumers who want to watch additional films in the same subgenres.
Mockbusters have a long history in Hollywood and elsewhere. For example, the 1959 Vanwick film The Monster of Piedras Blancas was a clear derivative of Creature from the Black Lagoon, complete with a creature suit by the same designer, Jack Kevan. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman spawned Village of the Giants; The Land That Time Forgot spun Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds.
Such films tend to fit the classic B movie model, produced on a small budget and derivative of the target film and other similar projects. The reduced costs made available by using modern video and computer graphics equipment, and the tie-in to the mainstream film's advertising, has allowed the mockbuster to find a profitable niche in the home video market. Blockbuster, at one time one of the largest DVD and video-game rental chains, gave implied support to the concept by buying 100,000 copies of The Asylum's version of War of the Worlds in time to coincide with the theatrical opening week of Steven Spielberg's film based on the same novel starring Tom Cruise.
Most mockbusters capitalize on the popularity of theatrically released movies, but some are derivative of a TV series or other popular form of media. The 1979 film Angels Revenge bore many superficial similarities to the popular TV series Charlie's Angels; its promotional materials even resembled Charlie's Angels' graphic style. This same principle can also work in reverse: Mister Ed, a television series about a talking horse, debuted after the popular film series Francis the Talking Mule. (In this case, the same creator was behind both the film and television series.)
GoodTimes Entertainment was notorious for distributing animated "mockbuster" counterparts to popular Disney films in the 1990s (such as those made by Golden Films); because Disney was creating its films based on public domain folk tales, GoodTimes' actions were completely legal and survived Disney's legal challenge against it. Similarly, Vídeo Brinquedo is a Brazilian CGI animation studio that in 2006 began to produce low-budget direct-to-video films that are for the most part knockoffs of movies from Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks. Their titles and the films they are considered to be derivative of include Little & Big Monsters (DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens), The Little Cars series of cartoons (Pixar's Cars series), Ratatoing (Pixar's Ratatouille), Tiny Robots (Blue Sky's Robots), What's Up?: Balloon to the Rescue! (Pixar's Up), and The Frog Prince (Disney's The Princess and the Frog). In every case Vídeo Brinquedo's knockoff has been released suspiciously close to the release date of the more professional, higher-budgeted film that inspired it.
Dingo Pictures, a German animation company, also created traditionally-animated cartoons based on fairy tales and concepts similar to those used by Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks. These cartoons are characterized by low-budget animation, small voice casts, and character designs that are very similar to equivalent characters in more high-profile movies. The cartoons have also been dubbed into Scandinavian languages, notably Swedish, and also into Romance languages, notably Italian, and all of them have been released direct-to-video in Germany in their original languages. A company called Phoenix Games collaborated with Dingo Pictures in the early 2000s to produce interactive video game versions of some of their films for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2. These games included the film as well as a small collection of mini games. Phoenix Games went out of business in 2009.
The 2011 film Aliens vs Avatars was named to market it as a crossover to Alien and Avatar, even though it has no connection with the two films. The film follows the intergalactic battle between a quarrelsome alien race and shape-shifting extraterrestrials, while six college friends find themselves in the middle of the interstellar war.
A 1993 science fiction horror film titled Carnosaur, produced by Roger Corman and starring Diane Ladd as a mad scientist who plans to recreate dinosaurs and destroy humanity, is loosely based on the 1984 novel of the same name by John Brosnan, but the two have little in common. It was released by New Horizon Picture Corp two weeks before the blockbuster Jurassic Park. Carnosaur may be considered a mockbuster. Diane Ladd's daughter Laura Dern starred in Jurassic Park.
In some cases, the knockoff film may bear little or no resemblance to the original. In 2012, Super K – The Movie, an Indian fantasy/science-fiction animated film about an artificially created boy named "Super Kloud" with superpowers, was released direct-to-video in the United States as Kiara the Brave. Its title and cover art focused on an incidental female character with red hair (i.e. Mérida), in an obvious try to evoke the redheaded female protagonist of Brave, a Disney/Pixar movie set in medieval Scotland.
In other cases, the knockoff film simply renames an already existing film into a name that is similar to a popular film. For example, The Legend of Sarila was renamed Frozen Land to cash in on Disney's 2013 film, Frozen. In another case, a collection of animated shorts from the 90s animated series, Britannica's Tales Around the World, was rereleased under Tangled Up by Brightspark to cash in on Disney's 2010 film, Tangled.
Asylum CEO David Michael Latt responds to criticisms about loose plot lines by stating that "We don't have spies at the studios. We have a general sense of what the film is and we make our movie completely original, just based on that concept."
Mockbusters are low budget, and their revenue is based entirely on the sales of their DVDs. Low budgets also mean that directors need to think of creative yet cheap ways to achieve the endings that they desire. For example, Snakes on a Train capitalized on the Internet hype surrounding Snakes on a Plane. Consumers wanted what they saw. Latt said, "With only four days left of shooting my partner called and said everyone is really excited about Snakes on a Train, but they’re more excited about the poster, which showed a snake swallowing a train. It was meant to be, you know, metaphorical. But the buyers wanted it, so I was given the mandate that the ending had to have the snake eat the train." At the same time another representative of Asylum, David Rimawi, says that while a handful of their movies do have "artistic elements", that's just not something they're concerned with. The Asylum does not claim to be an "artsy" production house.
Mockbusters often use a title with a similar-sounding name to the mainstream feature it intends to piggy-back upon. For instance, the 2006 mockbuster Snakes on a Train traded on the publicity surrounding the theatrically released Snakes on a Plane. The Asylum created Snakes on a Train, The Land That Time Forgot, Transmorphers, AVH: Alien vs. Hunter, The Da Vinci Treasure, Battle of Los Angeles, and Paranormal Entity.
Foreign knockoffs and illegitimate sequels
Mockbusters and ripoffs are often filmed and released outside of the original movie's country. Low-budget studios in foreign countries may produce completely illegitimate sequels to pre-existing higher budgeted movies, movie series, or media franchises that began in other countries. These sequels are unofficial and often even unknown to the creators and producers of the original films. These unofficial sequels are rarely or never released in the original country, usually due to licensing issues. In other cases, a film released in other countries is renamed as a sequel to another film in contrast to the original title. Production companies in other countries may change the plots of major American blockbusters to a plotline that better fits their national sentiments. For instance, the Indian Superman mockbuster Ultraguy has Superman getting his powers from a god.
Star Wars, its various sequels, and its popularity spawned foreign knockoffs such as the 1982 Turkish film Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (often commonly referred to by the unofficial title "Turkish Star Wars", but its title translates to "The Man Who Saves the World").
The 1968 Charlton Heston film Planet of the Apes inspired the short-lived Japanese television series Time of the Apes, made in 1974.
The 1993 film Jurassic Park spawned many dinosaur films, including Carnosaur, Dinosaur from the Deep, Dinosaur Island, and Future War.
Two Italian directors directed unofficial sequels to George A. Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead: Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 sold itself as the sequel to that film (which was called Zombi in Italy) and even used a line originally written for Dawn of the Dead. Bruno Mattei released Hell of the Living Dead in 1980, was widely considered Mattei's attempt to rip off Dawn of the Dead. The movie even goes as far as to illegally use music from the original soundtrack of Dawn of the Dead without the permission of anyone involved in that production.
Mattei also directed the film Strike Commando in 1987, a knockoff of Rambo: First Blood Part II. It also drew elements from movies such as Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Rambo: First Blood Part II also inspired the 1986 Turkish cult film Rampage. In 1988 Mattei filmed Robowar, a try to cash in on the successful 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Predator. This version featuring a low-budget "military robot" (an actor in a motorcycle helmet and a black flak jacket) as the antagonist rather than an intergalactic hunter. Both Strike Commando and Robowar featured cult-favorite American actor Reb Brown of Space Mutiny fame in the lead role. The first one had a sequel, Strike Commando 2, starring Brent Huff, which also ripped off Rambo: First Blood Part II.
The French-Spanish film The Pod People in its early stages had a plot based on replicating evil aliens, but the producers demanded that rewrites be made in order to cash in on the success of the Steven Spielberg film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The film was released in its final form in 1983 with a furry, orange ripoff of the character E.T. with a trunk. The alien befriends a little boy (who nicknames him "Trumpy") and has seemingly magical powers that somewhat mirror those of the original E.T., but which are brought to life with lower-budgeted special effects.
In 1983, a year after the American release of Disney's cult classic science-fiction film Tron, a South Korean studio named Namyang Planning released an animated science-fiction film called Computer haekjeonham pokpa daejakjeon, which was later released internationally by Joseph Lai under the title of Savior of the Earth. The plot centers on an average video game fan being transported into cyberspace by a mad scientist and being forced to play video games in order to survive. Its unofficial title is "Korean Tron". Despite being animated, it contains a number of obvious narrative and visual elements that were lifted from Disney's Tron. These include the luminous body-armor, the identity-discs, several of the vehicles featured in Tron, and direct animated adaptations of characters from the original film, including SARK. Both films even feature a cameo appearance of the popular video game character Pac-Man.
Japanese animation has also been the target of mockbusters. When Mazinger Z was popular in South Korea in the 1970s, animation director Kim Cheong-gi created Robot Taekwon V as the Korean counterpart. After the success of Taekwon V, 70 animated features were produced in South Korea between 1976 and 1986, many of which lifted stories, characters, and designs from Japanese anime. In 1983, South Korea released Space Gundam V. Despite its name, the series is not related to Mobile Suit Gundam; instead, it is a knockoff of the Super robot genre featuring an unauthorized depiction of the VF-1 Valkyrie from Macross. The 2010 Chinese animated series Astro Plan has been criticized for being a ripoff of Macross Frontier and Mobile Suit Gundam 00.
The Gamera film series originated as Daiei's attempt to join the Kaiju genre popularised by the Godzilla series, though it developed its own distinct identity over time.
Bollywood (home of the Indian film industry) has churned out hundreds of unauthorized remakes of Hollywood movies domestic consumption. The remakes conform to the preferences of their native audiences, with songs added to scripts of any type, resulting in unusual (to Western audiences) variations as a singing and dancing Tarzan film.
The Philippine film industry is also known for its unauthorised adaptations of popular Western franchises. The popularity of the Batman franchise, most especially the 1966 TV series, has led to numerous unauthorised remakes and pastiches, such as James Batman starring comedian Dolphy, Batman Fights Dracula, and Alyas Batman en Robin. Dolphy also played leading roles in other mockbusters, including Wanted: Perfect Father, a comedy-drama based on the 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire, and Tataynic, a 1998 parody of James Cameron's Titanic. Other Filipino knockoffs include Bobo Cop (a parody of RoboCop) and Rocky Plus V (a spoof of the Rocky series).
In 1980, Alien 2: On Earth tried to cash in on the 1979 international blockbuster Alien. Aside from having some alien creature killing people, the Ciro Ippolito-directed "sequel" has little connection to Ridley Scott's film either in story or concept. Other science fiction films of the time that borrowed elements from Alien include Inseminoid (1981) and Xtro (1982). The Asylum has produced two mockbusters of the Alien franchise: AVH: Alien vs. Hunter (based on the crossover Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) and Alien Origin (based on Prometheus)
Bruno Mattei's Shocking Dark, aka Terminator II in some countries, was released in Philippines and Italy in 1990 as a supposed sequel to the 1984 American film The Terminator. This was almost a full year before the release of the James Cameron film Terminator 2: Judgment Day in America. Despite its title, the film's plot is closer to being a mockbuster of James Cameron's 1986 hit film Aliens, though one of the characters featured is a robot disguised as a human that is presented and played in such a way that it clearly mimics Arnold Schwarzenegger's iconic character in the movie The Terminator. The script for Terminator II was written by cult Italian B-movie writer/director Claudio Fragasso, most notable for being the director of the cult classic horror film Troll 2 (itself a mockbuster sequel to Troll).
In 1995, a low-budget direct-to-video movie called Jaws in Japan (also called Psycho Shark) was released. However, only Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge were ever officially released by Universal Pictures as sequels to the 1975 Steven Spielberg movie Jaws. Jaws in Japan even reused the same found footage multiple times, and shark footage used in the film (made in CGI) are mangled versions from other killer shark films.
The first two films in the Evil Dead trilogy of films were released in Italy under the titles of La Casa and La Casa 2. In 1988 Joe D'Amato acted as producer for a completely unrelated sequel called La Casa 3, also called Evil Dead 3. This was five years before Sam Raimi would direct and release Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness in the US. La Casa 4 was another further unrelated sequel to the Evil Dead series, also produced by Joe D'Amato and also released in 1988, starring David Hasselhoff and Catherine Hickland. The film alternately bills itself as both Evil Dead 4 and Return of the Exorcist, making it also an unofficial/illegitimate sequel to the 1973 American film The Exorcist, 11 years after the official U.S. release of Exorcist II: The Heretic. D'Amato would again act as producer for another illegitimate Evil Dead sequel in 1990 with the release of La Casa 5, also called Evil Dead 5—this time directed by Claudio Fragasso.
The 1975 low-budget Italian film Naked Exorcism (Un urlo nelle tenebre) also bills itself as The Exorcist 3. This was 15 years before William Peter Blatty directed and released The Exorcist III and eight years before he wrote the novel on which it was based.
The 1987 Italian war film Eroi dell'inferno was released in America by Asiavision under the title of Inglorious Bastards 2: Hell's Heroes. Despite the original The Inglorious Bastards/Quel maledetto treno blindato being a war film set in World War II, Inglorious Bastards 2: Hell's Heroes is set during the Vietnam War. Both films feature actor Fred Williamson (playing different roles).
Mockbusters based on popular animated films are known as a "drafting opportunity." For example, Kiara the Brave (a mockbuster of Pixar's Brave) and Puss in Boots: A Furry Tale (a mockbuster of Puss in Boots) use soundalike titling to "draft off" the marketing success ("slipstream") of popular films. "Can you trademark an actual noun? The idea of a battleship?," asks Boxoffice magazine editor Amy Nicholson. The original Puss in Boots was made by DreamWorks Animation by 300 people working for four years at the cost of $130 million. The mockbuster, with nearly exactly the same name was made by 12 people, in six months, for less than $1 million. For these large production houses, it wasn't just a question of free riding on the marketing success of these more popular films; mockbusters have become a source of bad publicity. Customers who had accidentally bought the mockbuster Puss in Boots: A Furry Tale but did not know that it was a mockbuster gave the original movie bad reviews. Mockbuster producers have had no legal troubles with drafting off as a result of Disney losing a case against GoodTimes Entertainment, which had used similar packaging for their own version of Aladdin.
Mockbusters have also had legal complications with false advertising. They supposedly tweak the plot lines and the titles just enough to skirt legal trouble and yet ride on the publicity of major blockbusters. Until the Hobbit case, mockbuster production houses have been able to achieve soundalike titling to such an extent that even actors in the movies have been confused about which movie they are starring in. Some actors starring in the original have gone on to become fans of the mockbuster model. Kel Mitchell was the star in the mockbuster Battle of Los Angeles, the mockbuster to the original Battle: Los Angeles. His friend was in the original and they began promoting both movies together. Kel has since then became a fan of the studio's formula: "I laugh out loud when I see that a film is coming out; I wonder what The Asylum is going to do with it. They're going to remix that name and put it out."
In late December, The Walt Disney Company filed in California federal court to get an injunction against the continued distribution of the French film The Legend of Sarila, retitled Frozen Land. In their suit, Disney alleges: "To enhance the commercial success of Sarila, the defendant redesigned the artwork, packaging, logo, and other promotional materials for its newly (and intentionally misleadingly) retitled film to mimic those used by [Disney] for Frozen and related merchandise." The suit was filed against distributor Phase 4 Films.
Intent to deceive
Because mockbusters are deliberately similar to more famous movies, some movie studios have sued mockbuster studios for allegedly tricking consumers into renting or purchasing the wrong movie through intentionally deceptive marketing.
In one such lawsuit, Walt Disney Pictures sued the U.K.-based studio Brightspark, complaining that the studio was "misleading consumers with numerous releases that confuse and undermine the trust those consumers have in Disney." Among Brightspark's films mentioned in the lawsuit were Braver, Tangled Up, The Frog Prince, and Little Cars, which resemble Disney's Brave, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, and Cars, respectively.
Warner Bros. similarly sued The Asylum over their release of Age of the Hobbits. The judge ruled in favor of Warner Bros., writing that "There is substantial likelihood that consumers will be confused by Age Of Hobbits and mistakenly purchase the film intending to purchase The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Most mockbusters follow the trend of releasing their movies close to the release dates of the original:
The Asylum defend this practice, stating their intention is not to dupe customers. The Asylum cites reports from both Blockbuster LLC and Hollywood Video that show that less than 1% of customers who rent one of their films ask for a refund. The fact that the low return rate of their films has been used to argue that consumers are renting The Asylum's movies deliberately. "There's a segment of people who watch them because they know they're bad and they're funny, and they're fun to make fun of with their friends," says Kyle Ryan, the managing editor of The A.V. Club, a sister publication of The Onion.
The Asylum vs. Warner Bros., 2012
In 2012, Warner Bros. Pictures and The Saul Zaentz Company (SZC) sued The Asylum for trademark infringement, false designation of origin, trademark dilution, false advertising, and unfair competition. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant's movie title "Age of the Hobbits" infringed the registered trademarks held by SZC in the designation "Hobbit." Unlike fairytales, which are in the public domain, the J. R. R. Tolkien novels have been exclusively licensed to Warner Bros. and SZC for production and film adaptation. The court described Global Asylum (the defendant in this case) as a low budget company that makes "mockbusters" of popular movies with similar titling. Warner Bros. and SZC submitted evidence to prove that consumers would be confused by the identical title and that they would lose not only ticket sales but also DVD revenue. The evidence included a survey showing that 48 percent of 400 surveyed respondents associated the term “Hobbit” with SZC, d/b/a “Tolkien Enterprises” and Tolkien properties. A separate survey conducted by Nielsen National Research Group showed that approximately 16 to 24 percent of survey respondents were confused about the source of Age of the Hobbits.
The Asylum claimed that they were justified in using the word "Hobbit" as a fair use of scientific terminology after some scientists borrowed the term from the Hobbit stories a few years prior to describe a human subspecies in Indonesia. The Asylum argued that it provided warnings stating that this was not the Tolkien creature. The films also featured major plot differences: "In an ancient age, the small, peace-loving Hobbits are enslaved by the Java Men, a race of flesh-eating dragon-riders. The young Hobbit Goben must join forces with their neighbor giants, the humans, to free his people and vanquish their enemies."
The Federal Court found that Warner Bros. had a valid trademark on the word "Hobbit". The court rejected The Asylum's scientific fair use claims since there was no evidence to suggest that the movie was about prehistoric group of people who lived in Indonesia. The court rejected all of The Asylum's defenses: (i) that it was permitted to use “Hobbits” in the title of its film pursuant to the free speech test of the Second Circuit’s decision in Rogers v. Grimaldi, (ii) that its use of the mark constituted nominative fair use to indicate plaintiffs' movies and (iii) that the “Hobbits” mark was a generic name. The court decided that The Asylum had failed to prove its defenses and on December 10, 2012, found in favor of the plaintiffs and entered a temporary restraining order. This restraining order prevented the use by Global Asylum of the title Age of the Hobbits. The Ninth Circuit court of appeals affirmed in 2013. The film was then released under the name Clash of the Empires.
Successful films frequently spawn pornographic knock-offs with punned titles. Examples include: Gilligan's Bi-Land (Gilligan's Island), Edward Penishands (Edward Scissorhands), Kinky Kong (King Kong), Forrest Hump (Forrest Gump), Raiders of the Lost Arse (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Flesh Gordon (Flash Gordon), and The Devil in Miss Jones (The Devil and Miss Jones).
Some pornographic movies are mockbusters of other pornographic movies. For example, the 1985 film Black Throat is a mockbuster of an earlier, popular pornographic film, 1972's Deep Throat. Pornographic films are particularly prone to unauthorized sequels; Debbie Does Dallas, a 1978 porn film, spawned at least eleven sequels, most of which were never explicitly authorized by the original production team or cast.
In other media
The term has also been used for media besides film, such as video games capitalizing on the success of a known franchise like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. A notable example of this are games developed by the French studio Gameloft. Most of the games in their portfolio bear similarities to popular video game series, with reviewers commenting about the company bringing the experience from those games into mobile platforms.