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The Weird History of the "Ashcan Copy"

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Earlier this year, an incredibly rushed and slapdash TV version of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series The Wheel of Time was shown late at night on the FXX cable channel. It was confusing. It wasn’t part of an ongoing series, it was only a half-hour long, and it seemed to have been made for almost no money.

The adaptation, which was broadcast essentially as an infomercial (producers paid to have it shown), is only the latest example of a phenomenon known as the "ashcan copy."

What exactly is an ashcan copy, anyway?

It’s a film likely created so a company (Red Eagle Entertainment, in this case) can retain the rights to produce an adaptation of a sought-after intellectual property. Litigation with Harriet McDougal, widow of Wheel of Time author Robert Jordan, is now under way, so the wrangling is far from over. 

The phrase comes from the Golden Age of comic books. Publishers would sometimes print a handful of quick copies (meant for the ashcan, or trash) to retain legal rights to character names, titles, or work they had commissioned. Just like today, it was the basic concepts that companies were trying to protect—not the work itself. 

A fantastic film? Hardly 

Perhaps the most notorious earlier example of an ashcan copy is the unreleased, awful Fantastic Four movie from 1994. 

Produced by B-movie impresario Roger Corman, the whole production cost $1.5 million, was shot on a tight schedule, and was never officially released

The whole production is a far cry from the massive superhero movies released these days, but the cast and crew seriously believed they were making a film for a wide audience. A documentary about the film—and their dashed hopes—is on the way.

Not so hellish, really 

Dimension Films is also responsible for an ashcan copy. The studio had made some eight Hellraiser movies, and while the original, Clive Barker-directed film was a grisly classic, successive installments of Pinhead’s S&M-themed horror escapades produced diminishing returns. 

The studio decided to apply the usual Hollywood solution to a worn-out franchise—rebooting it. But as plans dragged on, executives realized they were at risk of losing rights to the entire property. Thus, they slapped together plans for a ninth film, giving the cast and crew just two weeks to create it.

Hellraiser: Revelations was shown in a single theater and later released on DVD. Barker’s response to the film was classic, if crude. But he’s apparently forgiven Dimension; he’s been working on a script for that reboot. 

For there to where again?

Lest you think that ashcan copy cinema is a recent development, there was a simplistic version of The Hobbit made for the same, mercenary reasons back in 1966.

Animation director Gene Deitch created an elaborate story treatment of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel for producer Bill Snyder. But a potential deal with 20th Century Fox fell apart in early 1966, leaving the property in limbo.

Meanwhile, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings became a massive success in paperback, and The Hobbit was red-hot. Snyder realized he had an opportunity: His contract “merely stated that in order to hold his option for The Lord of The Rings, Snyder had to ‘produce a full-color motion picture version’ of The Hobbit by June 30, 1966. Please note: It did not say it had to be an animated movie, and it did not say how long the film had to be!” Deitch wrote in his book How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

So Deitch filmed a 12-minute montage of still images and narration, which was (again!) shown in a single theater. Snyder kept the rights, later selling them for a tidy sum.

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15 Must-Watch Facts About The Ring
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DreamWorks

An urban legend about a videotape that kills its viewers seven days after they see it turns out to be true. To her increasing horror, reporter Rachel Keller (then-newcomer Naomi Watts) discovers this after her niece is one of four teenage victims, and is in a race against the clock to uncover the mystery behind the girl in the video before her and her son’s time is up.

Released 15 years ago, on October 18, 2002, The Ring began a trend of both remaking Japanese horror films in a big way, and giving you nightmares about creepy creatures crawling out of your television. Here are some facts about the film that you can feel free to pass along to anybody, guilt-free.

1. DREAMWORKS BOUGHT THE AMERICAN RIGHTS TO RINGU FOR $1 MILLION.

There were conflicting stories over how executive producer Roy Lee came to see the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, Hideo Nakata's adaptation of the 1991 novel Ring by Kôji Suzuki. Lee said two different friends gave him a copy of Ringu in January 2001, which he loved and immediately gave to DreamWorks executive Mark Sourian, who agreed to purchase the rights. But Lee’s close friend Mike Macari worked at Fine Line Features, which had an American remake of Ringu in development before January 2001. Macari said he showed Lee Ringu much earlier. Macari and Lee were both listed as executive producers for The Ring.

2. THE DIRECTOR FIRST SAW RINGU ON A POOR QUALITY VHS TAPE, WHICH ADDED TO ITS CREEPINESS.

Gore Verbinski had previously directed MouseHunt. He said the first time he "watched the original Ringu was on a VHS tape that was probably seven generations down. It was really poor quality, but actually that added to the mystique, especially when I realized that this was a movie about a videotape." Naomi Watts struggled to find a VHS copy of Ringu while shooting in the south of Wales. When she finally got a hold of one she watched it on a very small TV alone in her hotel room. "I remember being pretty freaked out," Watts said. "I just saw it the once, and that was enough to get me excited about doing it."

3. THE RING AND RINGU ARE ABOUT 50 PERCENT DIFFERENT.

Naomi Watts in 'The Ring'
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

Verbinski estimated that, for the American version, they "changed up to 50 percent of it. The basic premise is intact, the story is intact, the ghost story, the story of Samara, the child." Storylines involving the characters having ESP, a volcano, “dream logic,” and references to “brine and goblins” were taken out.

4. IT RAINED ALMOST EVERY DAY WHEN THEY FILMED IN THE STATE OF WASHINGTON.

The weather added to the “atmosphere of dread,” according to the film's production notes. Verbinski said the setting allowed them to create an “overcast mood” of dampness and isolation.

5. THE PRODUCTION DESIGNER WAS INFLUENCED BY ANDREW WYETH.

Artist Andrew Wyeth tended to use muted, somber earth tones in his work. "In Wyeth's work, the trees are always dormant, and the colors are muted earth tones," explained production designer Tom Duffield. "It's greys, it's browns, it's somber colors; it's ripped fabrics in the windows. His work has a haunting flavor that I felt would add to the mystique of this movie, so I latched on to it."

6. THERE WERE RINGS EVERYWHERE.

The carpeting and wallpaper patterns, the circular kitchen knobs, the doctor’s sweater design, Rachel’s apartment number, and more were purposely designed with the film's title in mind.

7. WATTS AND MARTIN HENDERSON HAD A FRIENDLY INTERNATIONAL RIVALRY.

Martin Henderson and Naomi Watts star in 'The Ring' (1992)
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

The New Zealand-born Henderson played Noah, Rachel’s ex-husband. Since Watts is from Australia, Henderson said that, "Between takes, we'd joke around with each other's accents and play into the whole New Zealand-Australia rivalry."

8. THE TWO WEREN’T SURE IF THE MOVIE WAS GOING TO BE SCARY ENOUGH.

After shooting some of the scenes, and not having the benefit of seeing what they'd look like once any special effects were added, Henderson and Watts worried that the final result would not be scary enough. "There were moments when Naomi and I would look at each other and say, 'This is embarrassing, people are going to laugh,'" Henderson told the BBC." You just hope that somebody makes it scary or you're going to look like an idiot!"

9. CHRIS COOPER WAS CUT FROM THE MOVIE.

Cooper played a child murderer in two scenes which were initially meant to bookend the film. He unconvincingly claimed to Rachel that he found God in the beginning, and in the end she gave him the cursed tape. Audiences at test screenings were distracted that an actor they recognized disappears for most of the film, so he was cut out entirely.

10. THEY TRIED TO GET RID OF ALL OF THE SHADOWS.

Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli used the lack of sunlight in Washington to remove the characters’ shadows. The two wanted to keep the characters feeling as if “they’re floating a little bit, in space.”

11. THE TREE WAS NICKNAMED "LUCILLE."

The red Japanese maple tree in the cursed video was named after the famous redheaded actress Lucille Ball. The tree was fake, built out of steel tubing and plaster. The Washington wind blew it over three different times. The night they put up the tree in Los Angeles, the wind blew at 60 miles per hour and knocked Lucille over yet again. "It was very strange," said Duffield.

12. MOESKO ISLAND IS A FUNCTIONING LIGHTHOUSE.

Moesko Island Lighthouse is Yaquina Head Lighthouse, at the mouth of the Yaquina River, a mile west of Agate Beach, Oregon. The website Rachel checks, MoeskoIslandLighthouse.com, used to actually exist as a one-page website, which gave general information on the fictional place. You can read it here.

13. A WEBSITE WAS CREATED BY DREAMWORKS TO PROMOTE THE MOVIE AND ADD TO ITS MYTHOLOGY.

Before and during the theatrical release, if you logged into AnOpenLetter.com, you could read a message in white lettering against a black background warning about what happens if you watch the cursed video (you can read it here). By November 24, 2002, it was a standard official website made for the movie, set up by DreamWorks.

14. VERBINSKI DIDN’T HAVE FUN DIRECTING THE MOVIE.

“It’s no fun making a horror film," admitted Verbinski. "You get into some darker areas of the brain and after a while everything becomes a bit depressing.”

15. DAVEIGH CHASE SCARED HERSELF.

Daveigh Chase in 'The Ring'
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

When Daveigh Chase, who played Samara, saw The Ring in theaters, she had to cover her eyes out of fear—of herself. Some people she met after the movie came out were also afraid of her.

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12 Facts About Disney's The Jungle Book
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Walt Disney Studios

It may not have followed Rudyard Kipling's book exactly—in fact, Walt Disney preferred that scriptwriters not read the book—but The Jungle Book was a toe-tapping box office success. Here are a few "bare necessities" you should know about the 1967 animated classic, which was released in theaters across America 50 years ago.

1. WALT DISNEY THOUGHT THE FIRST VERSION OF THE SCRIPT WAS TOO DARK.

Writer Bill Peet was brought on to script the first version of the movie, but Disney believed it was too dark. It’s not clear whether Peet left or was booted from the project; either way, a new team was brought in for rewrites. Floyd Norman, one of the new writers, said Walt wanted the film to have more laughs and more personality, and—true to Disney form—he also wanted sign off on every little detail.

2. MOST OF THE SONGS WERE DEEMED TOO DARK AS WELL.

Composer Terry Gilkyson was hired to write songs for the movie, but as with the script, Disney felt they lacked a sense of fun. Though the Sherman brothers (Richard and Robert) were brought in to write a new soundtrack, one of Gilkyson’s songs did remain in the movie: "The Bare Necessities." We'd say he got the last laugh: Not only is “The Bare Necessities” one of the best tunes in Disney history, it was also nominated for an Oscar (the film's sole nomination).

3. IT WAS THE LAST ANIMATED FEATURE WALT DISNEY OVERSAW.

When Disney died on December 15, 1966, the studio closed for a single day. Then they got back to business working on the last animated feature Disney had a hand in. It was released on October 18, 1967.

4. A RHINOCEROS CHARACTER GOT CUT.

Rocky the Rhino was intended to be a dim-witted, bumbling, near-blind character that would provide some comic relief. His scenes were completely storyboarded before he got the boot: He was supposed to appear after King Louie’s scene, but Walt didn’t want to put the funny sequences back-to-back.

5. THEY WANTED THE BEATLES TO VOICE THE VULTURES.

The Sherman brothers wrote the vultures’ song “That’s What Friends Are For” with The Beatles in mind, even giving the characters similar accents. But the Fab Four turned them down. “John was running the show at the time, and he said [dismissively] ‘I don’t wanna do an animated film.’ Three years later they did Yellow Submarine, so you can see how things change,” Richard Sherman said.

Here’s what the version of “That’s What Friends Are For” would have sounded like, as well as a glimpse of Rocky the Rhino:

6. THERE ARE MAJOR MISPRONUNCIATIONS IN THE MOVIE.

According to a guide written by Kipling, the main character’s name is pronounced "Mowglee" (accent on the 'Mow,' which rhymes with 'cow'), not “Moe-glee,” which is how Disney chose to say it. In addition, Kaa the snake is supposed to be “Kar,” Baloo the Bear should have been “Barloo,” and Colonel Hathi is really “Huttee.”

7. KING LOUIE WAS BASED ON LOUIS ARMSTRONG.

Although jazz singer and bandleader Louis Prima voiced the fire-obsessed orangutan, he’s not the Louis who the Shermans originally had in mind when they began writing “I Wan’na Be Like You” for the character. "We were thinking about Louis Armstrong when we wrote it, and that's where we got the name, King Louie," Richard Sherman told The New York Times. "Then in a meeting one day, they said, ‘Do you realize what the N.A.A.C.P. would do to us if we had a black man as an ape? They'd say we're making fun of him.' I said: ‘Come on, what are you talking about? I adore Louis Armstrong, I wouldn't hurt him in any way.'” In the end, Louis Prima stepped in.

8. A JUNGLE BOOK DANCE SEQUENCE WAS LATER BORROWED FOR ROBIN HOOD.

King Louie and Baloo’s “I Wan’na Be Like You” dance was later repeated, frame for frame, in Robin Hood, which also borrowed dances from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Aristocats. This was achieved through an animation technique called “rotoscoping,” where animators trace over the frames of old footage to use it in a different environment.

9. THE SONG "TRUST IN ME" WAS ALSO RECYCLED.

Originally written for Mary Poppins as “Land of Sand,” “Trust In Me” was recycled with new lyrics for Kaa to sing while hypnotizing poor Mowgli. Here’s what it would have sounded like:

10. THE YOUNG ELEPHANT WAS VOICED BY CLINT HOWARD.

Ron Howard’s younger brother also voiced another Disney youngster: Roo in the Winnie the Pooh movies.

11. PHIL HARRIS BROUGHT NEW LIFE TO BALOO.

Allegedly, Walt Disney chose Harris to voice Baloo after meeting him at a party. At the time, Harris was retired and nearly forgotten in Hollywood. His first day of recording didn’t go so well at first: Harris found Baloo’s tone wooden and boring, so asked if he could try a little improvisation. Once given the go-ahead, "I came out with something like, 'You keep foolin' around in the jungle like this, man, you gonna run across some cats that'll knock the roof in,'" Harris recalled. Disney loved Baloo’s new personality and rewrote lines to suit the style.

12. THERE WAS A SEQUEL.

It came out in 2003 (not direct-to-video, surprisingly) and featured Haley Joel Osment as Mowgli and John Goodman as Baloo. By most accounts, you shouldn’t bother seeing it; it currently has a 19 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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