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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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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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Columbia/TriStar

If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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Keep Tabs on 100 Classic Films With This Scratch-Off Poster
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Pop Chart Lab

Do you get a weird kind of buzz from scratching off the silver foil coating on instant lotto tickets? Do you like watching movies? Then Pop Chart Lab has something for you. The company is set to release a 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart, an 18-inch by 24-inch wall hanging that lets you keep track of which classic films you’ve seen and which are still in the queue.

A look at a scratch-off poster featuring 100 classic films

The curated films are arranged in chronological order, from the works of Buster Keaton all the way to 2017’s Get Out. The silver foil obscures a portion of the artwork, which reveals more iconography from the movie when etched away with a coin. The $35 poster is due to begin shipping in September; you can purchase your copy now.

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