The Weird History of the "Ashcan Copy"


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.