On Friday, the world – or at least the Internet – was still reeling in the wake of “Sharknado,” the cheesy Syfy original movie that everyone, or at least it seemed online, was watching Thursday night. Though its ratings were relatively modest, even for cable, it was nothing less than a phenomenon on Twitter, where it racked up mentions at a rate appraching the infamous Red Wedding episode of "Game of Thrones."
But the HBO hit at least benefited from a huge built-in audience of fans, the anticipation of fans who'd read the books and knew what was in store, and the spectacularly violent events it portrayed. "Sharknado," by comparison, had Tara Reid, a few thousand dollars' worth of red corn syrup and lines of dialogue like "They took my grandfather, so I really hate sharks."
Maybe the most curious thing about the film's viral success is that it's hardly the first absurdly titled B movie to come from Syfy. The network first dabbled in the genre with 2005’s “Mansquito,” but since then social media has boomed, changing the way that TV is watched and the success of individual shows is measured.
As everyone knows, there's no better place to snark than on Twitter. (See also: "Smash," "Liz & Dick," "The Newsroom.")
“It used to be you’d sit and watch movies with your family, and throw comments at the screen,” said Thomas Vitale, the network’s executive vice president of movies, invoking the example of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the ‘90s cult comedy series in which sarcastic robots offered running commentary on schlocky sci-fi and horror movies. “Now with social media you can have that experience with millions of people. It adds so much.”
Vitale was swept up into the "Sharknado" buzz himself Thursday night, as he watched with his wife and 10-year-old daughter. (It was the first time she got to watch one of the network's originals.)
“The three of us sitting there watching this movie, one’s on an iPhone, one’s on an iPad, I’m on my PC," he said. "I couldn’t believe that it was trending No. 1 through the whole movie."
Still, the rise of social media alone doesn't account for the "Sharknado" frenzy. After all, Mia Farrow wasn't tweeting about "Chupacabra vs. the Alamo," starring Erik Estrada, when it aired earlier this year.
“I’d love to take credit for myself," said screenwriter Thunder Levin, "but I think it was simply a combination of the title be the end-all, be-all of ridiculous movie titles, and a simple but obvious marketing strategy.”
Though Syfy takes external pitches – as with the William Shatner-produced “Fire Serpent” – it also generates some of its best (read: worst) ideas in-house.
As you might imagine, the “ridiculous” titles often come first. The idea for “Sharktopus,” starring Eric Roberts, was first mentioned as a joke in the office. The title for next month’s offering, “Ghost Shark,” came from Vitale’s 8-year-old daughter, Ava (no, she didn't get a producer credit), and the clumsy, ridiculous portmanteau “Sharknado” was the product of another brainstorming session.
It just so happened that the team at the Asylum, the low-budget studio that has produced many of Syfy’s original movies, were already cooking up their own project, “Shark Storm.” Great minds think alike, it seems.
Partner David Michael Latt wouldn’t disclose an exact sum, but said “Sharknado” cost “a few million,” and their projects typically range from $500,000 to $2 million. In any case, a shoestring budget given the demands of the script. “The story posed a lot of challenges. Once everyone agrees on that, it becomes a question of how do we flood L.A., how do we convince name talent to get involved?” said Latt.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting the humor just right, being self-consciously ridiculous without ever winking to the camera. "The characters can’t know that they’re in some sort of farce, but on the other hand you have to let the audience in on the joke," Levin said.
According to the writer, his first draft -- yes, there was more than one -- had more obvious jokes, but many of them were killed to maintain the comedy equilibrium.
"This is not a traditional comedy, it’s its own category: a purposefully campy, action-oriented ride," said Vitale.
Few genre hits fail to produce a sequel, but as of Friday afternoon, Syfy wasn't ready to say whether windswept sharks would rain down on SoCal again anytime soon.
“People are talking, but there’s no announcement that can be made just yet. Today has been a whirlwind,” Vitale said. Pun intended -- we think.