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Movie knock-offs are chips off the new blockbusters

By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Last year’s “Puss in Boots” was made on the lush 13-acre DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, Calif., by 300 people working for four years at a cost of $130 million.

Its knock-off was made on the second floor of an office building just two miles away, by 12 people, in six months, for less than $1 million.

The DreamWorks version, which starred the voices of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, was a box office smash.

The other, produced by tiny Renegade Animation, went direct to DVD.

The animated knock-off is what’s known in the film industry as a “drafting opportunity.” Movies like Renegade’s “draft” off of major studios’ multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns for similarly titled films.

Recent examples include “Kiara the Brave” (based on Pixar’s “Brave”), “Life’s a Jungle: Africa’s Most Wanted” (chasing “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”) and “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies” (the 16th president can currently be seen in theaters as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”). All came out on DVD around the same time their bigger-budget brethren hit the big screen.

Imitation has been the sincerest form of flattery since the earliest days of Hollywood. But the knock-off genre is enjoying a renaissance, insiders say, grabbing for a piece of the $18.8-billion-a-year home entertainment pie. The reason: Newer distribution systems like Netflix and Redbox have made it easier to reach the hurried, not-too-discriminating consumers who are most likely to rent the wrong movie.

“As people have migrated to these new platforms, it has been a great opportunity for us,” said Sam Toles, vice president of content and acquisitions for Gaiam Entertainment, distributor of the “Happy Feet” knock-off “Tappy Toes.” “We’re not trying to confuse people. We’re trying to take advantage of a level of interest in a concept that exists thanks to the major studio release.”

Some consumers do feel confused — and cheated. On Redbox’s Web page for “The True Story of Puss ‘N Boots” — yet another knock-off, this one produced in France — the 1,349 consumer reviews are overwhelmingly negative.

“I made the mistake of renting this thinking it was the Antonio Banderas version. BIG mistake,” said one consumer. Added another: “I think it was sleazy of this company to make the same movie another company was making in hopes people would rent/buy this one by mistake.”

The filmmakers behind such movies say they try to inject as much originality and creativity as possible while working with extremely limited resources, often for financial backers who care more about the box art than what’s inside.

“For the money, I think we’re providing exceptional quality,” said Robert Hanna, the director, co-writer, composer and editor of “Life’s a Jungle,” which was made by 30 people in 13 months for less than $400,000. “It’s for little kids, not people who are going to judge the quality of the fur compared to a Pixar movie.”

The Asylum, a production company in Burbank that built much of its business with what staffers lovingly call “mockbusters,” but which has seen the overall DVD business shrink, has had to make adjustments now that most of its revenue doesn’t come from Wal-Mart shelves.

“It is true that in the new media world, it’s not always clear what movie it is because you can’t see the art clearly, so our buyers have been asking us to change the title more often,” said David Rimawi, a partner at the company. Thus last year’s “Battle of Los Angeles,” released alongside Sony Pictures’ “Battle: Los Angeles,” became “Attack Los Angeles.”

Drafting opportunities have enjoyed a wide legal berth since 1993, when Disney lost a lawsuit against Good Times Entertainment (now owned by Gaiam) over their dueling video versions of “Aladdin.” Disney claimed that a “parasite product (was) causing confusion” among consumers, according to press reports at the time. A U.S. district court judge ruled that the VHS boxes were not similar enough to violate the law.

Titles, story lines or marketing materials that are virtually identical can invite trouble, however. Universal Pictures sued The Asylum over its “Battleship” clone “American Battleships,” claiming it was “intended to and does confuse consumers.” The companies quickly settled, after which Asylum changed the movie’s name to “American Warships” — which then aired on Universal’s corporate sibling cable network Syfy.

In Redbox kiosks around the country, up to six knock-off movies are stocked alongside recent Hollywood blockbusters like “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” All are tied to movies currently in theaters and will disappear before their higher-quality inspirations come out on DVD later this year.

Though the knock-offs’ DVD covers look nearly identical to the movie they’re “drafting,” story lines can be wildly different. The Asylum, which makes several “mockbusters” a year, gives its filmmakers complete freedom — so long as they stick to a budget typically well under $2 million.

“I tell them they can shoot in L.A. with a crew of 30, or go anywhere in the world with a crew of five, and if one camera breaks down, you’re screwed,” said partner David Latt.

The commercial fate of drafting opportunities is often tied to the performance of the movies that inspired them. The box office failure of “Happy Feet Two” spelled trouble for “Tappy Toes,” for instance, as did ‘Battleship” for “American Warships.”

But while the expensive versions cost their studios tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, even the least successful knock-offs usually manage to turn a profit.

“The business is as healthy as ever,” boasted Ramawi, who claimed his firm has never lost money on one of its mockbusters.

That’s why The Asylum is sending a small crew to Cambodia to shoot what could be the hottest drafting opportunity title of the holiday season: “Age of the Hobbits.” If all goes well, the disc will be stocked in Redbox kiosks before director Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” hits theaters in December.

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