In Argo, which opens tomorrow, Ben Affleck reconstructs the real-life story of how a CIA operative created a fake science fiction movie to get some diplomats out of Iran. But that's not the only science fiction movie in history that turned out to be a hoax, or a scam. Or a tax shelter.
Here are the eight biggest science fiction movie hoaxes and scams of all time.
Top image: Starship Invasion, a Canuxploitaiton classic.
The name "Roger Zelazny" is never mentioned in the movie Argo — but in the real life operation that Argo's based on, the fake movie was based on Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light. And the Lord of Light movie wasn't just going to be an epic space opera, on par with Star Wars — it was going to be a world-changing event in the mind of creator Barry Geller. With that vision, Geller collected a creative team that included input from such luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Buckminster Fuller, and Jack Kirby. After filming, the movie's huge, ambitious set would be converted into a theme park in Aurora, CO called Science Fiction Land. In November 1979, Geller hyped the project with a showy press conference filled with actors dressed in alien costumes. But by December 1979, the allegations and arrests for fraud began. As Westword explains:
Science Fiction Land was the brainchild of a Hollywood stuntman named Jerry Schafer, who showed up in Aurora in 1979 with a plan for an amusement park three times the size of Disneyland. It was to feature a 38-story Ferris wheel, a holographic zoo, a 1,000-lane bowling alley attended by robots, security guards equipped with jetpacks, and the "Pavilions of Joy," made up of fourteen Las Vegas-style dinner theaters. The park, Schafer said, would also serve as the set of a $50 million sci-fi flick called Lord of Light, which was to be the most expensive movie ever...
But it turned out to be a scam. Schafer never had a $400 million line of credit. A December 9, 1979 Rocky story revealed that he'd declared bankruptcy in 1978...
On December 14, 1979, the Rocky reported that Schafer had been arrested for securities fraud. Local authorities claimed that he and Geller had "convinced an immigrant who speaks only broken English to give them his life savings — $50,000 — to help finance the park," the Rocky reported. An arrest warrant had been issued for Geller too, but he'd "left the country."
The former mayor of Aurora was arrested, investors were found to be bankrupt and corrupt, and Geller himself was arrested though charges were later dropped. Geller might have been a visionary with a true ambition to create a science fiction master piece, but it seems his backers were just using the showy spectacle for their own nefarious purposes. A Kickstarter campaign is running now to make a documentary about this movie behind the movie.
Here's a Hollywood pro-tip: actors and extras are paid to be in movies. They do not pay to be in movies. An enterprising group of people set up a "production" company to film a horror movie called Wood Evil in Inchnacardoch Forest, near Fort Augustus in the Scottish Highlands. They set about "casting" extras and charging £60 to be in the film. This might have been just a small time scam, but the production company over reached and contacted the tour company VisitScotland in what could only have been an attempt to get busloads of eager tourists to be "cast" in their movie. VisitScotland appears to be the source who tipped the authorities off about the scam. And needless to say, the local constabulary was not amused. Similar scams were set up around the Twilight sequels, as every desperate Twihard was attempting to get close to their chosen hairless idol.
William Shatner, the jewel of self-parody, starred in the reality television miniseries Invasion Iowa in 2005. Shatner and his crew descended upon the unsuspecting town of Riverside, IA under the pretext of filming a science fiction movie. Wacky hijinks ensued, as Shatner and company parodied Hollywood with over-blown antics and tropes in an attempt to get a rise out of the locals, who were hired as actors and workers on the set. Riverside was chosen as the target of the elaborate film hoax because it was the birthplace of Captain Kirk.
It really is pretty tough to film the sequel to a huge hit movie. It seems to be especially difficult for science fiction films, which get mobbed by fans, plagued by paparazzi, and priced-gouged by vendors. That's why most big productions, like Back to the Future, the Harry Potter films and the Matrix sequels, used working titles to hide their activities. The 1981 filming of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi took the charade to the next level. Lucas found during the filming of Empire Strikes Back he was being overcharged — so producer Howard Kazanjian came up with the famous Blue Harvest ruse. The cover story was that the production was filming a horror movie called Blue Harvest, with the tagline "Horror Beyond Imagination." A fictitious logo was used on all production material like shirts, caps, coats, buttons, signs, invoices and stationery. It seemed to work too. During filming in Yuma, AZ a crowd of 35,000 dune buggy enthusiasts descended into the area. By the end of the long weekend, only about 60 of them had figured out what was really being filmed and hung around the set looking for autographs.
To lure all that sweet movie production money into an area, states and even countries often create some extremely... generous tax incentives. In 2008, Tom Wheeler, the director of the Iowa Film Office, boasted about Iowa's 50% transferable tax credits (25% to a film's producer and 25% to the investor), claiming this was the highest incentive offered by any state in the nation. And that's probably why Polynation Pictures decided to film the metaphysical science fiction movie The Scientist, with its estimated budget of $100,000. The funny thing is, the movie's budget suddenly skyrocketed to $2.3 million over the course of filming. Turns out the production company and associates made a profit of $1.3 million dollars, by defrauding the state with fake and inflated invoices. The tax credit program was cancelled by 2009, arrests were made and people were fired. Why bother trying to make and sell an actual movie to a distributor, when you can just turn a huge profit in the making of a movie? To be fair The Scientist was finished — but was held back from wide release, due to it being owned by a company under investigation for theft. Still, it appears to be available on DVD now.
You know you have a problem when an entire era of film-making is named for the corruption of your tax laws. The movies produced in Canada from 1974 to 1982 are known as "tax shelter movies," due to the incredibly generous tax laws Canada had put in place to encourage the movie industry. The system was easily gamed, as large amounts of money were written down on paper budgets for tax purposes, but only a fraction of the money made it to the production. And often enough, movies were never even made — by 1979 over half of the 66 movies in production weren't completed. The majority of movies coming out of Canada were B-grade sci-fi and horror movies. It was bloated genre fare like the Neptune Factor that finally broke the system. At the same time, some of the genre greats cut their teeth on these tax shelter films, like Ivan Reitman with Cannibal Girls and David Cronenberg with Shivers.
What is it with these metaphysical science fiction movies and fraud? Birth of Innocence has been in production for 13 years, without actually producing a film. Malcolm Parker, over that time, has reportedly raised anywhere between $13 million and $28 million from private investors in Vermont for the production. He also just pleaded guilty to wire fraud and fraudulent tax forms in April. His partner Louis J. Soteriou has pleaded not guilty to his 18 counts of wire fraud and money-laundering charges. Over the past ten years Soteriou has received $3 million to pursue "scientific research for the film on how to activate your gene code to become immortal." With that much time and money, he should be published in peer reviewed journals by now.
In the early days of cosmonauts and rocket science, the USSR was really keen on making a cohesive mythos about their space program. This often veered off into science fiction, as they posed cosmonauts in front of fake rockets and technology. The fact that these things were made isn't in doubt, the interesting thing is how they were manipulated later. Each change in political power saw an editing to the films and redistribution to the people to service whoever the current leader was. In the Khrushchev era scenes in the documentary footage where Gagarin and Khrushchev were not together were edited out. When Brezhnev came to power Khrushchev was edited out and Brezhnev put in. In essence the creation and manipulation was really just an elaborate cover for political promotion and power — something that can be far more valuable than coin.
Source: GEROVITCH, S. (2011), "Why Are We Telling Lies?" The Creation of Soviet Space History Myths. The Russian Review, 70: 460–484