sharknado Syfy

Cabler's telepic chief calls response to cheesy disaster pic a 'happy accident'

Syfy has been bringing TV auds campy telepic fare for about a decade now, but Thursday’s “Sharknado” far surpassed the NBCUniversal cabler’s expectations when it came to online buzz and audience reaction.

And yes, a “Sharknado” sequel is already being discussed at the Syfy headquarters, though official plans have yet to coalesce. For now, the cabler is planning a rerun of the pic next Thursday at 7 p.m. to serve as a lead-in to Frankie Muniz-starrer “Blast Vegas.”

“We’ve had other movies where the titles would catch some buzz, like ‘Sharktopus’ or ‘Jersey Shore Shark Attack,'” explained Thomas Vitale, Syfy’s exec veep of programming and original movies. “But the level that ‘Sharknado’ reached, that was a surprise. It’s one of those happy accidents.”

“Sharknado,” starring Tara Reid and Ian Ziering, is about exactly what the hodgepodge name implies: a shark-filled tornado that wrecks havoc on Los Angeles. Poster art for the pic even reads: “SHARKNADO…ENOUGH SAID!”

Like a good deal of Syfy’s original pics, “Sharknado” was internally driven, and a co-production between the net and The Asylum, the shingle behind other Syfy creature features including “Mega Piranha” and “Mega Python vs. Gatoroid.”

Often, the Syfy team will spin a TV movie off a title idea alone, a testament to the importance of the marketing potential of a pic propelling the greenlighting of the film. (Vitale mentioned that, at times, Syfy has passed on certain film ideas that he loved because the title wasn’t up to par.)

The exec recalled the inception of 2010’s “Sharktopus,” for example, saying the concept arose when an employee in the Syfy offices simply said offhandedly one day, “You guys should make a movie called ‘Sharktopus.'” From such straightforward, nonchalant roots, the creature feature was born.

“If you don’t have a good title,” Vitale said, “it’s hard to get people to come see it. There are too many choices for people now [on TV], so the title is tremendously important.”

With a budget of about $1.5 to $2 million, Syfy footed just shy of half the bill in the co-production of “Sharknado.” Public interest in the title and key art — which went viral after an unveiling at Cannes in May — drove no-cost promotion of the film. While Syfy markets its original movies on air and on its Internet properties, the cabler doesn’t put its wallet behind traditional off air marketing, knowing that with the right title and concept, these kind of campy creature features market themselves. And free-media buzz on social platforms is arguably worth as much as any billboard or bus side to drive tune-in.

“The key takeaway for me when it comes to ‘Sharknado’ is how much social media has grown over the last couple of years,” Vitale said.

“Sharknado” was at times driving 5,000 tweets per minute on Thursday, a sizable presence for a cable telecast, even though the network didn’t do anything out of its normal range of social promo for the film. While quirky mash-up titles can help spur audience interest in a pic via word-of-mouth, these film names have in recent years also turned out to be incredibly exploitable when it comes to hashtags.

The tag “#Sharknado” trended nationally on Twitter not only on Thursday but also Friday morning, as local and national media climbed on to the bandwagon. Morning TV shows gave as much attention to the Internet response to “Sharknado” as they did to the hokey pic itself. Director Anthony Ferrante told “KTLA Morning News” that he hoped the big bounce from “Sharknado” would go a long way to furthering his career. Writer Thunder Levin told Variety he was surprised to be trading Tweets on Thursday night with no less a prominent showrunner/screenwriter as Damon Lindelof, who sent dozens of Tweets about the pic as it unspooled Thursday night.

All of that grassroots buzz for the pic was a gift for Syfy.

“We’ve had movies that are buzzy in the past, and each one gets a little buzzier. With 2005’s ‘Mansquito,’ you’d hear that people were getting a kick out of it, but not much more past that. ‘Sharktopus’ got some buzz on the internet, but it wasn’t as big as it is now. With Twitter and social media being so big, the future is going to be a lot of fun.”

“Sharknado” joins Syfy’s archives of shark-themed pics, though the standalone originals are not connected as a franchise. Vitale estimates that out of the 250 or so original movies Syfy has launched since 2002, “about 15″ were shark-oriented. The use of sharks as a starting point for telepic concepts derives mostly from the “innate reaction” that they inspire in people, according to Vitale.

“There’s got to be an emotional reaction immediately, and an inborn fear,” Vitale explained. “You can’t do the giant ant film of the 1960s anymore. It’s about sharks, snakes, spiders, alligators, piranhas, creatures that spur an immediate, visceral reaction. That’s a good starting point.”

Vitale, who is still reeling from audience and critical response to Thursday’s premiere, said “Sharknado” was the perfect example of the experience Syfy strives to deliver with its over-the-top disaster and thriller pics.

“When we were first doing this, audiences and critics didn’t quiet get it. They couldn’t figure out if we were trying to make serious films, or escapist movies,” Vitale said. “But if you followed Twitter yesterday, in every single tweet, they all got it. The point of the movie was to allow people to kick off their shoes, lie back on the couch, and have a few laughs with no pretentiousness. They all understood.”

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