Who was the audience for Ator?
March 18, 2017 9:18 AM   Subscribe

The recent article that ranked all MST3K episodes (posted to MeFi) prompted me to revisit some of my favorite MST3K episodes. As I watched, I realized - I have no idea how a lot of these movies got made. I just don't understand the economics. Can someone explain?

I'm not talking about the movies that are from the B-Movie era - I know that was a thing. It's the later movies that I find puzzling.

Cave Dwellers is a good example. It's a terrible attempt at swords and sorcery high fantasy with a plot ripped straight from the imagination of a twelve-year-old boy. It's so bad that in the closing scene the hero rides his horse across a field that has visible tire tracks - and it apparently wasn't in the budget to, like, notice or correct these sorts of errors. The whole movie is a magnificent mess.

But it was made in the eighties, so after the era of the B-Movie. It's hard to imagine that it was intended for theaters. If it had been released today, I'd guess made-for-TV for a channel like SyFy, but there was no SyFy back then.

And while it's low-budget, it still had some budget - big enough that it would really hurt the pockets of a single deluded auteur, while still being below the standard of most decent movies.

There are a lot of other movies like that in the MST3K repertoire. So what was the market for this kind of thing? Were there TV channels commissioning these movies? Was there a direct-to-video market to support it? Did I miss a whole phenomenon of eighties B-movie showings at theaters? Just who paid for these disasters?
posted by Kutsuwamushi to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Looking at IMDB:

Director Joe D'Amato made the movie very quickly, in an effort to cash in on the popularity of Conan the Destroyer (1984).

Made in Italy as "Ator 2: L'invincibile Orion" it had international releases under a variety of names into low end markets. So probably a date flic in second run markets with low costs all around and probably made a small but tidy profit for all concerned. The film markets are insanely nichy and constantly readjusting to technology but need a steady quantity of "new" product and the actual majority of production is by factories that know what can be sold and produce just that an nothing more.
posted by sammyo at 9:48 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

Some really were pet projects by deluded hobbyists. Manos is a well-known example. Remember that different people have different pocket depths.
posted by rikschell at 9:49 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Yes, a number of MST3K films were made cheaply abroad and really more intended for cheap international release. Puma Man, you may have noticed, was an Italian production. So were, I think, most of the Herculeses.
posted by praemunire at 9:49 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

Also, at a certain point "direct-to-video" was a thing.
posted by rikschell at 9:51 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

I worked on a lot of DVD releases for bad movies, and a co-worker once asked me "don't the people making these know they're working on crap?" So I talked it through with him so he could maybe not approach his work and mine with contempt. This comment is a distillation of that.

There are lots of reasons for bad movies from the 70s and 80s.

a single deluded auteur

The delusion (okay, let's be charitable and call it confidence) at every level and role of the entertainment industry is staggeringly high. Another truism is, as accomplished screenwriter William Goldman put it, that "nobody knows anything." If someone is passionate about a property and has some skill in an area of the business like line producing, fundraising or editing, sometimes they get a shot at an orthogonal area of the business like directing, producing and writing. Sometimes it works out (James Cameron), sometimes it doesn't (Robert Shaye).

In 1969, the no-budget flick Easy Rider made 150 times its budget back at the box office. That was shocking to studio executives at the time. It ushered in an era of experimental low-budget flicks, where suits who grew up under the blacklist and actors having exclusive contracts threw anything at the silver screen to see what would stick. Over the next fifteen years, this gave us films as diverse and memorable as Star Wars, The Godfather, Shaft, Days of Heaven, Halloween, Conan the Barbarian and Nashville. It also gave us a lot of studio misses with the same creative teams (Howard the Duck, H.E.A.L.T.H., The Great Gatsby) and a lot of small-time people trying to cash in on what they saw as trends instead of compelling storytelling (Star Crash, City on Fire, Hobgoblins, and yes, our friend Ator).

At the same time, changes in American and Canadian tax laws allowed producers considerable leeway in writing off expenses against films that made a loss. Many, many small-time films were produced and sometimes released solely as tax-dodging or money-laundering schemes. As mentioned above, the booming home-video and cable market and growing overseas markets did change the demand curve for content as well.

Here's the thing: the vast majority of films released do have some merit—some aspect that is compelling to a significant fraction of its audience—even if it's only Joe Don Baker's incoherent, alcoholic rage in Mitchell or Ator's really quite nice abs. Capitalism virtually requires the exploitation of anything with intrinsic merit.

What it comes down to in the end is that the people making these bad movies knew they weren't making art, but hoped they were making something commercial. The last industry truism I'll reference in this comment is "if you're worried about background discrepancies when you're supposed to be watching a star's face through tears, there's a problem with the picture." These movies had compromises that the producers thought wouldn't be problems, but it turned out they were. THE END
posted by infinitewindow at 10:12 AM on March 18 [36 favorites]

There was a huge demand for home video content in the 80s. I think it's part of the reason so many terrible horror flicks and sex comedies were churned out in that decade. Movies could be highly profitable with little attention to quality and minimal money spent on production. I work in the home video business, and listening to people who have been in the biz for the last four decades talk about the immense riches of the halcyon days of video stores makes me curse Netflix's existence.
posted by cakelite at 11:16 AM on March 18 [6 favorites]

IIRC, the cost of those straight to video tapes was also much lower than big budget films by a substancial margin, because studios were much less interested in selling tapes as much as renting them, until the late 80s when video releases for a final sale became more common. It's possible a lot of awful horror/fantasy film collectors may have started out this way in the 80s.
posted by lmfsilva at 12:51 PM on March 18

Also, before the internet existed it was often much harder to know in advance if an unknown movie was truly awful. There were guide books of course. But nothing like Rotten Tomatoes or IMdb or YouTube for trailers.

Think about how much bad pop music has been released. And literature.
posted by spitbull at 1:17 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

But it was made in the eighties, so after the era of the B-Movie.

Oh, dude, there were so many b-movies in the 80s. It was a fuckin' golden-age for cheap-ass horror movies, most of which are still a source of deep joy to me and all other right-thinking sentient entities.

Just 1984, the same year Ator was released, gave us the following movie that I at least think I've seen... CHUD, Children of the Corn, F13 The Final Chapter, Gremlins, Night of the Comet, Nightmare on Elm Street, Razorback, and Silent Night Deadly Night. 1983 gave us Chained Heat, Christine, Cujo, Deadly Spawn, Frightmare, House on Sorority Row, Sleepaway Camp, and Xtro. 1985 gifted us with The Bride, Catseye, Chiller, Creature, Day of the Dead, Demons, F13 A New Beginning, Fright Night, Hills Have Eyes 2, Howling 2, Lifeforce, Mutilator, Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Reanimator, Return of the Living Dead, Silver Bullet, Stuff, and Warning Sign. A fuckin' golden age, I tells ya! GOLDEN!

VHS was a big market by the mid-80s and lots of this stuff appeared on premium cable channels.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:23 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

...and some of them would probably have gone directly to second-run theaters.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:27 PM on March 18

There's some good info here already!

To clarify, my question isn't how did something so terrible get made, but what was the market for low-budget flicks of this type. I assume that they were profitable - well, not necessarily that any particular example was profitable, but that there was a low-end market for similar films. I'm curious about what that market was.

Maybe another way of putting it would be: If I had been in the intended audience when the film was released, where would I have seen it? Would I see it on TV? Would it be shown in a theater? Would I buy it or rent it, and if so, from where?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:28 PM on March 18

I love this question.

Bad movies get made for tons of different reasons. I think the majority of them are made by people who aren't that great at directing, but who can run a production pretty reliably and cheaply, and who know that there's decent money in the direct-to-home-video market. The king of all of these is Roger Corman, who made so, so many awful movies, but also launched the careers of people like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese. You've got directors like Fred Olen Ray (of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers fame), who are totally unpretentious, who are totally upfront about how they're not making great art (there's a commentary track for one of his movies where he admits that he only ever shoots stuff in his neighborhood so he doesn't have to get on the freeway). A lot of these productions sort of check off boxes to be marketable: there's a great documentary (I'll link it if I can find it) about Don Dohler, director of masterpieces like Nightbeast, that shows him having conversations with his producer about "OK, the distributor wants to see at least two topless women." So then they shoehorn in some egregious nudity because that'll be something they can use to sell the movie (this is why so many movies have topless scenes out of nowhere). This category also includes anything put out by Troma.

There's also the first-time directors who probably never made another movie. My favorite of these are the local productions, the movie that was made entirely in a small town somewhere in Nebraska. You can spot the director's dad and best friend in there. You can picture them renting out a local theater for the premiere, with pretty much the whole town turning out and saying "oh look, there's Daniel!" I totally love these because it's really hard to make a movie, and I love that someone was able to scrape together the money, to have the guts to ask people to act and carry stuff and put up with the shittiness of a movie production. It's really admirable that they were able to get it done, even if it didn't turn out that great. If you haven't seen or heard of it, the documentary American Movie captures this perfectly ("nah, coven sounds like oven, man!").

There's weird edge cases, too, like the occasional super wealthy person who decided to make a movie because they could afford all the equipment (the most bizarre example of this is After Last Season). MST3K favorite Manos: The Hands of Fate was famously made by an insurance and fertilizer salesman to win a bet.

Sometimes bad movies are original ideas, sometimes they're desperate attempts to cash in on another movie's success without getting sued for copyright infringement. As sammyo noted, this was the case with Cave Dwellers, which ripped off Conan and that whole "sword and sorcery" era (which I totally love for its total absurdity as a genre). I actually never realized it was directed by Joe D'Amato. He was a very prolific porn director (I know this stuff because I worked in video stores for many years). He, like many porn directors, could shoot a movie in like three days that would have enough appeal (action, or boobs, or hardcore porn, or whatever) that it would do reasonably well. He also, and I really needed to bring this up, directed a a porn movie called Amadeus Mozart which features this scene of Salieri asking Mozart to compose a song to use to seduce women. I've never actually seen the whole movie, but that scene is one of my favorite things ever and I needed to mention it.

There was a really big Italian film industry in the 80s, and a lot of bad movies were Italian productions hastily dubbed into English (same goes for Chinese action movies, and so on).

On preview, I see that I may not be directly answering your question, but I just spent a while writing it, so I'll keep it. I can say, though, that the biggest market was direct-to-home-video stuff. Some people could buy stuff, but initially VHS tapes were super expensive. Video stores were starting to be a thing, and the store buyer needed to buy stuff to fill out their selection. So they'd wind up with a bunch of cheapish crap that people would probably rent based on the box art alone. Some of this stuff was shown on TV, probably late at night when they needed cheap programming, or on "let's watch bad movies" shows with hosts like Joe Bob Briggs. Sometimes you'd see it in a theater, but that's usually the case with the bigger-budget stuff. But generally what it came down to was that bad movies were (and still are) cheap to produce, cheap to procure, and entertaining enough to get an audience through an evening of bong hits and cheetos.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:34 PM on March 18 [7 favorites]

Maybe another way of putting it would be: If I had been in the intended audience when the film was released, where would I have seen it? Would I see it on TV? Would it be shown in a theater? Would I buy it or rent it, and if so, from where?

I was in the intended audience when those films where released, and I saw them almost exclusively on hbo/cinemax/showtime/tmc and vhs rentals.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:40 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

I think "after the B-Movie era" is a big assumption that's causing part of the confusion. I don't think that era ever ended. Cable TV, small theaters, and VHS were around. Many of us were fans of crappy movies in the 80's.

I feel like this is one of those cases were people confuse the fact that things are easier to access with the internet with the idea that things didn't exist or weren't popular before the internet. Going to the video store and picking up a bunch of movies, some of them crappy, was a pastime. I watched way more movies on VHS than I did at the theater.
posted by bongo_x at 4:49 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

what was the market for low-budget flicks of this type

I'm pretty sure I saw some movies that later ended up on MST3K on the local equivalent of WGN (that is, an independent TV station) during the mid-80s. Warrior of the Lost World, for example.

Movies on VHS were also quite expensive during those days. The average video store was paying ~$115 in today's dollars for each movie and consumers were paying ~$175. Direct to video movies could still make a decent profit if they could keep a tight budget by undercutting those rates.
posted by Candleman at 5:11 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

Even before movies were expensive, major motion picture companies were hesitant to put their movies out on VHS. So small (and bad) movies made up the difference. The documentary film Rewind This! covers some of it.
posted by zabuni at 6:20 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Movies on VHS were also quite expensive during those days. The average video store was paying ~$115 in today's dollars for each movie and consumers were paying ~$175.

Yeahbut you could rent them for $2-5 in 198x money, or the same ballpark as a McDonald's meal. I was out sort of between the exurbs and the sticks and we had a video rental place open next to the Winn Dixie by 82 or 83.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:50 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Would I see it on TV?

Quite possibly, yes. Over-the-air broadcast TV stations (especially UHF channels, which tended to be independent, not affiliated with the Big Three of NBC, CBS, or ABC) had 24 hours of airtime to fill, especially late night. Add the many possible cable channels (most of whom did little or no original programming in the 80's - HBO had no Game of Thrones back then) and there's a big potential market.

Would it be shown in a theater?

Maybe, in some of the bigger cities, NYC or LA. Making prints of actual film for distribution is expensive, so even major films often got rolled out in steps, major cities first, then smaller cities, then on to the suburbs if the flick made enough money. One possible benefit to getting at least some kind of theatrical release was that your flick could get reviewed in a nationally-distributed fan magazine (like Fangoria for horror or Starlog for SF), which would provide some backing for sales to TV stations or video rental.

Would I buy it or rent it, and if so, from where?

Rent it. The video rental business exploded out of nowhere in the early 80's. Renting movies was a regular two or three night a week thing for me & my friends all during high school (82-86). There were at least a couple of either small independent stores or local/regional chains in my nowhere suburb. Plus convenience stores often had a small selection. And that was before Blockbuster really got rolling.

If I had been in the intended audience when the film was released,

Note that the kind of hyper-focused marketing machine as we know it didn't really exist then (not that the producers of these B movies could've afforded it), and there was no IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes or various movie blogs to warn the audience or the TV station buyer or the video store owner whether a movie was good or bad or whatever. As above, maybe these kind of flicks would get a review in a fan mag, but mostly they were counting on cool box/poster art and a good blurb on the back of the box to convince a bored teenager who liked Conan the Barbarian that Ator would be close enough to plunk down a couple of dollars for a rental.

And while I can't say for sure, my own retail experience makes me suspect that flicks like Ator wound up on video store shelves because the store's wholesaler sales rep said, "Buy two copies of this Ator piece of shit and I'll give you ten percent off 5 more copies of Star Trek: The Motion Picture." IOW, while the filmmakers might have had an "intended" audience, sooner rather than later the responsibility for marketing and distributing the movie wound up in the hands of people whose intended audience is "anyone who'll pay, and if I can't get big bucks I'll just have to hustle up a lot of small low-dollar sales."
posted by soundguy99 at 10:49 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

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