AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Last year, the animated movie "Puss in Boots," by the company DreamWorks, made a lot of money and was nominated for an Oscar. Its swashbuckling kitty with dreamy eyes was voiced by Antonio Banderas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PUSS IN BOOTS")
ANTONIO BANDERAS: (as Puss in Boots) If it is to be a dance fight, then I will Tuesday night dance fight you to the death.
CORNISH: The computer-generated movie took four years and $130 million to make. But another cartoon, "Puss in Boots: A Furry Tail," was hand-drawn in six months for less than $1 million. It went straight to DVD.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PUSS IN BOOTS: A FURRY TAIL")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) Is that you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) In the fur.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) You're a kitty cat.
(as Character) You always were the observant one.
CORNISH: That's just one example among many of how low-budget filmmakers are trying to ride on the coattails of Hollywood blockbusters. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this story about the knockoffs.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Animator Darrell Van Citters once worked at Disney and Warner Brothers. Now, he's the supervising editor at Renegade Animation, which produced the "Puss in Boots" knockoff and others. He admits to openly piggybacking on the buzz of major studios.
DARRELL VAN CITTERS: Yeah. The idea is to draft on all that free publicity. It's a clever idea. And I think, oftentimes, it works. Sometimes, you end up with customers who feel that they've been cheated, and the idea is not to cheat them. The idea is just that you're aware of this property now, so here are some other alternatives.
BARCO: Before the dancing penguin movie "Happy Feet" won an Oscar, Renegade came out with "Tappy Toes."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TAPPY TOES")
BARCO: And DreamWorks masterful "Kung Fu Panda" was reduced to "Chop Kick Panda."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHOP KICK PANDA")
BARCO: Knockoff films are nothing new. In the 1950s, science fiction flicks like "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "The Blob" sparked cheap imitations. Later, the blockbuster "Jaws" spawned the low-budget "Piranha." And "E.T." generated the laughable rip off "Mac and Me."
KYLE RYAN: 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.
BARCO: Kyle Ryan is managing editor of The AV Club, a sister publication of The Onion. He cites filmmaker Roger Corman as the master of producing inexpensive B movies that have become cult classics, like 1993's "Carnosaur," the story of a mad scientist who recreates dinosaurs to destroy humanity.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CARNOSAUR")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Character) The Earth was scaled to their dimension. Human beings are ants crawling through their living rooms.
RYAN: You could tell they're using miniatures, but they were overcompensating that by, like, ramping up the sound design. So it was like boom, boom, boom.
BARCO: "Carnosaur" starred Diane Ladd and was released two weeks before the larger-scale blockbuster "Jurassic Park," which featured Ladd's daughter, Laura Dern. This summer, just before "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" came out, The Asylum released "Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS. ZOMBIES")
BARCO: Every year, The Asylum cranks out dozens of knockoffs of Hollywood blockbusters. Partners Paul Bales, David Rimawi and David Latt call them mockbusters.
PAUL BALES: Everyone else does it, but we're just out there kind of exposed.
DAVID RIMAWI: We're shameless. And we have a movie called "Transmorphers." I mean, that's The Asylum.
DAVID LATT: "Snakes on a Train," you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SNAKES ON A TRAIN")
BARCO: Blockbuster Video used to give The Asylum its marching orders, but there are now many more distributors: the SyFy channel, Netflix and other ways of streaming content have created a mini-renaissance of mockbusters. So, for example, just before two other "Snow White" movies came out this year, The Asylum released its own version, says David Latt.
LATT: No. 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.
BARCO: For example, Paramount Pictures' upcoming biblical epic "Noah" won't hit the theaters until 2014. But The Asylum has already wrapped up production on its flood potboiler.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "40 DAYS AND NIGHTS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Character) We're going to (unintelligible) like this.
BARCO: With scenes filmed on location at a community college in Compton, Peter Geiger is directing a sort of poor man's "Noah's Ark."
PETER GEIGER: We don't have the animals two by two.
BARCO: Instead of wrangling a cast of thousands from a zoo, the characters instead round up DNA samples in test tubes.
GEIGER: So this is low-budget filmmaking.
BARCO: For new filmmakers like The Asylum's Devin Ward, making fast-turnaround genre films on the cheap is a rush.
DEVIN WARD: In a five-month period, I've done zombies, puppies, bikinis and end of the world. That's how absurd it is. Textbook-definition guerrilla filmmaking.
BARCO: And they're all headed to a small screen near you. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.