David Michael Latt: Zombies, Sharknados, and Success
Today I am excited to share a Success Story Interview with David Michael Latt who is one of the co-founders of The Asylum. The Asylum is the studio behind hits like Sharknado, Z Nation, and Megalodon.
My questions/comments are in bold, David’s follow in plain text
How Did The Asylum get Started?
The Asylum is 21 years old this year. David Rimawi and I started it when we both got fired from our respective jobs. I worked at a production company and David Rimawi worked at Village Roadshow. We had been previously making movies, just like once every year and a half. I direct, and he produces.
When we got fired we kind of used it as a clarion call to go and start our own business of making movies and distributing films and whatnot. That’s kind of how we started. We worked out of his apartment for the first four years and then kind of slowly expanded. We were a very cautious company.
So, we take things slowly, but I guess that’s part of our longevity. We have 30-plus employees and make two films a month and have two television series,
It’s pretty exciting.
What’s one thing that, looking back, you find kind of surprising?
The fact that we’ve been able to fool people for 21 years and make a business out of something that we’re passionate about. The older that we get, the more, I guess, lucky we feel about …. At the same time, our struggle is a passionate struggle, so when we have leaner times or fatter times, it’s all part of the process and full of surprises.
How involved are you in the creative process of selecting these movies?
Right, so I’m not involved in selecting the movies. My partners select the shows, and I get in when something is green lit. I’ll be involved in the shepherding of the scripts and hiring the director and the line producers and the PDs and actors.
That said, we’re all creatives and we’re all involved in all in every aspect. I’m the one who’s kind of in charge and running point for production. I’m also involved in the dailies and the first edit. Rimawi will take over on the post side of things because I’m producing two films a month also overseeing a couple of TV series.
We’re big fans of the Sharknado series and it’s been a huge pop culture phenomenon. Did you know early on that it was going to be such a big success?
You never know with anything, including Star Wars. Nothing’s a sure thing.
There are pretty good bets, but nothing’s a sure thing, so you never really know what’s going to hit or what’s not going to hit and certainly, this is well above and beyond anything that we could’ve ever hoped and dreamed for.
That said, we’re always optimistic that something will catch on and in this case, it did in ways that no one ever really saw coming.
Was there a moment when you realized that, “Wow this thing really has some legs?”
Oh, the first day. I didn’t know that we’d be six movies in, but it was just exciting to look at the tweets and see how explosive it was and how impactful it was. Again, not really understanding the longevity of it, but just seeing that “Wow we really did a number here.”
And then the news talking about it the next day through the whole week, it was just on top of the news cycle. And everyone just was bizarrely interested in this film that we’ve made a hundred times before, literally.
So, you can sense there was something going on that was different from anything else we’ve ever made.
I didn’t realize you make these movies with some lean budgets. I think the number that I saw was almost five hundred thousand dollars which I find it hard to believe, you really make a hundred dollars seem like ten thousand. What’s the key to thriftiness?
You put it on the screen, that’s the big thing. We don’t do swag. We don’t pay people very well that’s for sure, but we pay people.
There’s one thing that you can never say about The Asylum is that we don’t pay people. We pay people. Just not well. Our budgets are not inflated or bloated. When you can pair it down to what’s just essential, you can make money go far.
No one talks poorly about the experience. Everyone involved with your projects has nothing but nice things to say, and they treat the fans great, what the secret to building a community?
I try to only hire people that can play nice in the sandbox. Making so many movies and stuff, the moment that someone really has a problem, they’re pretty much let go. We’re here to make movies, we’re only here because we have guilty pleasures of this experience and we’re passionate about telling a story.
If you’re here because you’re going to get a paycheck, if you’re here because you can’t keep your Wal-Mart job, I don’t know. You’re not going to have fun.
There are long, grueling hours. These are very stressful times and if you can’t get along with the person next to you, if you can’t treat them with respect, and you can’t have a sense of humor about the whole thing, yeah, you’re going to be miserable and you’re not going to last on our shows.
So, the key is to find that chemistry that everyone really gets along. I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways too because, for the most part, people follow that mold and that model where they’re nice. We hire nice people. We hire talented people. We’re not very ego-driven and that’s from the top down, where “This is my show and you’re going to do it my way!” It’s very collaborative, it’s very creative.
There are definitely people that go into this business because they see that big cars and the big houses, and they go, “This is all I want to do is make money, money, money, money.” That’s not our motto, it’s not our company.
So, if you are driven by something else, and hopefully this desire to be in this business for whatever reason, you’re not going to have a good time. Everyone that is a part of our crew from the PA to the lead star, they’re in it because they can’t think of doing anything else in this world.
Putting out 2 movies a month must keep you busy, do you have any tips for time management?
Set a date. That’s your best thing. If you say, “Hey, let’s go make a movie!” then you better say a date too. The date may move, but if you don’t set it, then you’re going to be just free falling until you get money, until you get actors, until you get it.
But set a date – like January 1st— and stick with it as much as you can. Even if this happens: “Okay, it’s December 25th, we’re all set to go, but oh my gosh, if we just wait another week, we’ll have another possibility of getting Tom Cruise in the movie because Bob’s a friend of his and he thinks he might be interested.” But don’t wait. Just make the film January 1st. Tom Cruise, if he’s interested, will come in later for a pickup.
You must really discipline yourself to meet these deadlines. It’s very important. That’s probably the biggest thing.
That and treat other people’s money with respect. When you’re going into these things you’re making a movie, you’re not just making something for yourself, you’ve made it for the audience, you’re making it for the investor. You don’t want to be blowing people’s money whether it’s for a studio or independent, your mom and dad, a dentist down the street, etc. These people are trusting you to make a product that will be released into the market place that will hopefully generate more money.
I know this sounds crass, but you are not making a painting. You are making a product that will be consumed on a mass level. If you want to just make art for yourself, go paint. You are making a product that will be hopefully well-received by an audience. So be very conscious of that, be respectful and mindful for that.
Your model may be, you want to win festival awards and critical acclaim and what not, but still be respectful that it’s made for an audience with other people’s money. Don’t just make some art project that you’re reading the yellow pages or your reading a dictionary for two hours in black and white. That may be art, but unless you are paying for all of it, it’s irresponsible, at least from my point of view.
What advice do you have for people who want to get into your industry?
Have your standards, but be willing to say YES. If you want to do porn, do porn. But if you don’t, don’t do that.
Don’t turn down an opportunity. I think any old actor, any old filmmaker that survived this business will tell you that their biggest regret is saying no. Because they thought they were too big, they thought they were too above it. Or they just didn’t gel with it. Just find a way to serve your passion.
Just don’t say no. My wife is on a TV series, a top ten TV series for two years and she was still doing student films at USC. And I’m like, “Why are you doing that?”
She’s like, “Well you never know. First of all, I love acting. Secondly, you never know these kids from SC are going to be huge in about five years and bring me on.” And you know what? She was right. brought her something else when they hit it big. So you never know what leads to something else. Whether you’re a huge actor, small actor. You just never know; so just say yes.
You’re active on social media, what advice do you have for people on social media? What mistakes do you see people routinely make?
Don’t take it personally. If you put yourself out there, you will get a lot of the slings and arrows from loudmouths and drunks and me (or a little bit of both). That’s not to say that there aren’t great people out there. I’ve met some wonderful fans that are now friends. But you do have to distractions and haters.
I love the connection, I don’t necessarily see a reason for social media outside of that, so for me, I like the human connection, I like being interactive. If you don’t like that, don’t do it. No one really cares about your opinion on Trump, whether you like him or not. No one really cares about your religion or whatever. You may think people care, but no one cares.
I stay away from the politics, but that’s just me.
What’s next? What upcoming projects do you have working on or looking forward to?
Besides the two movies a month kind of thing that we have, we have two TV series that we’re very active in.
One of them is Z Nation on Syfy and the other is a new show on Netflix, which will be out next year called Black Summer. Both are just so damn good I can’t wait to put them out there. It’s very exciting.
We’re huge fans of Z Nation and we’re looking forward to Black Summer.
Did you have any idea how successful that would be because that’s really taken?
No, in fact, this is our first experience with a series and we get renewed at five seasons and everyone is just like floored. But I think this is just natural. I’m like, doesn’t everybody? No. No one gets five seasons. It’s usually over by three.
What do you think the key to success has been with Z Nation?
The ensemble. The chemistry. The stories.
I love that we approach each episode with a sense of humor and humanity. I think the humor in the writing is fantastic. Plus it feels real. Cheese Wheel and all. The humor is gallow humor. It’s a zombie apocalypse for God’s sake. People suck.
This isn’t Seal Team Six. This is just a bunch of regular people trying to survive the worst of it. And now have even more to kind of deal with, years after the first outbreak
From the get-go, there’s a very definitive plot, there’s very definitive, outrageous moments in there that make people talk. Again, I go back to the writing. It’s just great, great writing, and great performances too.
I think they cast extremely well. These people are these characters. It’s kind of morphed back over the years, so now we’re writing for these actors, even from the get-go, these people had the essence of those qualities.
So, what can we expect in the upcoming season?
Season Five is a little bit different than the previous seasons so I’m a little bit curious how it’s going to play out with the fans. Because although there are some outrageous and funny moments, it’s really much more episodic, it’s much more binge-worthy.
This one, everything plays next to each other. It’s almost like a “To be continued” serial show. You have to kind of watch all of it, so it’s a little bit more focused on this season and a lot more at stake.
It’s also a little more, I don’t want to say dramatic because I don’t want to imply that it’s not going to be funny, or fun, or cheese-wheel-esque, but Season 5 has a much more focused plot like we did in the first season.
I think people are going to really appreciate that.
I think so, it sounds awesome.
Black Summer, what do we have to expect from that?
Black Summeris a spin-off of Z Nation. In the parent series (Z NATION) we talk about the virus hitting the general population. And it’s “manageable” during that time – up until the summer. It’s at that point that 95% of the world’s population dies. This is that moment when everyone dies.
It’s much more intense. It is not very cheese-wheel as it is a non-stop, run and gun, ‘we are going to be killed by zombies’ series’.
It’s eight episodes. It’s crazy intense and really driven by some amazing actors. It’s pretty wild. Like I said, in the dailies, it’s insane. Plus I just saw the first edited episode. I’m blown away like I was blown away watching the first episode of Z NATION.
These scripts are coming in, they’re like half the size of a normal script because it’s just all action.
What is one thing you wish everybody knew?
At The Asylum, we love making movies and we’re passionate about it. We’re not just making widgets. We want to make the best films that we can most of the time when we can. I think it gets lost because people see the number of films we make, and kind of question the ability of our shows and stuff.
Really, we’re making the ten dollars look like ten thousand. That’s the bottom line, but at the end of the day, if you’re entertained, we’ve done our job.
I think the industry could learn lessons from it, you are entertaining your fans, you guys are making great movies.
Some studios spend so much on a movie, that it takes a massive audience to make a profit. Then they complain fans didn’t like the movie or it did make money, but it’s not the fans fault you spent 300 million to make John Carter.
Right. Yeah, I think that’s the most outrageous thing about this business is a studio spending a quarter billion dollars on the films. “Really? What the hell are you doing?” Yeah, sure, they have a huge overhead that they have to take care of – but come-on!
It makes the film itself pretty dumb, and pretty un-entertaining because they’re just really focused on trying to make their money back.
Often it doesn’t seem like a 300-million-dollar film, John Carter doesn’t feel like-
I bet their catering was really good though.
You would hope.
Thank you to David Michael Latt for sharing all of these awesome insights!
Special Thank You to Courtney who helped coordinate the interview and everyone at The Asylum who works tirelessly to bring the fans such great entertainment.