News Column

Proving Social Media Has Bite

July 18, 2013




Never try to outrun a sharknado.

Seek shelter in a shark cage in a low-lying area. And remember, sharknadoes usually travel southwest to northeast. Except when they're hungry.

These safety tips are brought to you by SyFy -- the cable channel which is now an authority on this toothy meteorological phenomenon, thanks to the cheesy made-for-cable movie "Sharknado," a social media sensation.

"Sharknado," which first aired on July 11, turned into such a Twitter bonanza last week that SyFy is re-airing it tonight, ahead of the premiere of "Blast Vegas" (starring, among others, Frankie Muniz of Wood-Ridge). Last week's "Sharknado" tweeting blitz made the nightly news, and was fodder for talk and comedy shows for days.

"It's like lightning in a bottle," says Larry Landsman, a Wyckoff producer and film writer ("Planet of the Apes Revisited") who worked at Syfy from 2002 to 2010, and still creates independent material for the channel.

What, you may ask, is a sharknado? Well, it's what happens when man-eating sharks are sucked into the air by a freak hurricane, and then come spinning out of the sky in twisters, intent on devouring most of the population of Los Angeles. Luckily, they can be dealt with by tossing bombs from helicopters, as stars Tara Reid (of Wyckoff), Cassie Scerbo, John Heard and Ian Ziering discover just in the nick of time.

The film was watched by 1.37 million viewers last week, but the real story was how it trended on Twitter: Among the tweeters were Wil Wheaton, Mia Farrow and -- poignantly -- "Glee" star Cory Monteith, who tweeted about it shortly before he died Saturday. There were nearly 400,000 tweets during the film's airing, and many more afterward, says Thomas Vitale, executive vice president of programming and original movies for SyFy.

"You can't plan for this," he says.

"I think social media is now reaching an apex, a tipping point," Landsman says. "Never before has social media played such a large role in forming opinions. And I think the sense of humor [in 'Sharknado'] struck a chord."

"Sharknado" was the top-trending term on Twitter for hours during the initial run of the film, according to Variety, and dozens of tweets were arriving per second, from the famous and not-so-very, who all found "Sharknado" the perfect snark-portunity.

"This movie is such a ripoff of THE BICYCLE THIEF," tweeted Teaneck-native writer-producer Damon Lindelof ("Lost"). "I can only hope the sequel is SQUIDQUAKE," tweeted TV producer Glen Mazzara ("The Walking Dead"). "I wish I could join in the shenanigans, but I had a cousin that was killed by a sharknado back in '93," tweeted "Saturday Night Live" alum Horatio Sanz.

As with "Snakes on a Plane," the sheer shameless idiocy of the title and premise seemed to get under the skin of tweeters.

The question remains: Why "Sharknado"? Why not "Alien Lockdown," "Frankenfish," "Piranhaconda," "Dinocroc vs. Supergator," "Sharktopus" or any of the more than 250 fantasy and science fiction films -- not all of them so deliberately campy and over-the-top -- produced by the network? (Syfy, originally called the Sci-Fi Channel, dates to 1992.)

"You can say that accidents happen, but you have to lay the groundwork," Vitale says.

The groundwork for "Sharknado" was laid, in part, three months ago, when an online poster for the film went viral, and comic Jimmy Kimmel riffed on it on his show. "We knew that the buzz for 'Sharknado' had been building," Vitale says.

The crazy, campy films that Syfy has been turning out for years now, with input from such B-movie giants as producer/director Roger Corman and Asylum Pictures, have always had a fan base.

The difference is the explosion in social media. There was barely a Facebook, and no Twitter at all, back in 2005, when "Mansquito" -- probably the first of SyFy's deliberately campy thrillers -- first looked disbelieving TV viewers in the face and dared them to laugh.

"The characters have to take it seriously," Vitale says. "They want to survive. You throw these characters into completely outlandish, over-the-top situations, but they have to take it seriously."

It remains to be seen how "Blast Vegas" strikes viewers. In tonight's film, spring breakers steal an ancient relic that unleashes a disastrous curse upon Las Vegas.

"We don't expect lightning to strike twice," Vitale says. "But I think all of these films are buzzy in their own way."

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