Universal Studios and SyFy, the cable outlet formerly known as the Sci-Fi Channel, are teaming to open their own boutique theatrical studio. Their plan is to produce one to two lower-budgeted films per year, which Universal will distribute.
While most major studio science-fiction films have budgets that easily hit nine digits, SyFy Films is hoping to fill a niche by creating films budgeted in the $5 to $25 million dollar range. Universal pairing with one of its corporate siblings is a strategy similar to the one that lead Paramount to team with fellow Viacom entertainment outlets MTV and Nickelodeon to create MTV Films and Nickelodeon Films.
There is definitely room for a studio to release this kind of film as well as a precedent for it doing well. Last summer’s District 9 was made for what some would consider a paltry $30 million but it managed to bring over $210 million at the box office. Cloverfield cost $25 million and made nearly $171 million in global box office receipts.
However, I think that the studio will have a big hurdle to overcome – One of the public’s perception. For years, SyFy has been airing numerous cheap, bad movies under the branding of “SyFy Original Movies.” Most of these were actually produced independently with an eye towards a direct to DVD release with SyFy only coming in after production has been finished to buy the broadcast rights. Produced on shoestring budgets, they often sport a recognizable name actor struggling with a poorly written script and reacting to badly rendered visual effects. The channel claims that these films – with titles like Sharktopus and Monster Ark – get good ratings, but I don’t know of anyone who actually admits to watching them. (Maybe I just have more discerning friends.) If SyFy Films intends on bringing in an audience, they are going to have differentiate their output from that of what airs on their channel.