News Column

Campy movies like 'Sharknado' just Syfy having fun

July 24, 2013

YellowBrix

July 24--You have Thomas P. Vitale to thank (or blame) for "Sharknado."

As the executive vice president of programming and original movies for Syfy and Chiller, he's the man also behind "Dinocroc vs. Supergator," "Frankenfish," "Sharktopus," along with a list of other made-for-cable movies with equally giggle-inducing names.

Movies like "Sharknado" aren't supposed to be taken seriously. They're just part of the channel's philosophy to offer as many different types of programs as possible.

"Sci-fi has many flavors," Vitale says. "It's just like when you go out to eat. Sometimes you want pizza and other times you want fine French dining."

That's why Syfy's menu includes over-the-top productions like "Sharknado," serious original series such as "Warehouse 13" and reruns of classic TV shows like "The Twilight Zone."

"Sharknado" is the first movie to blow up social media. It attracted about 1.37 million viewers -- slightly above past viewing totals for the time period -- but it spawned more than 387,000 tweets while it was being broadcast and at the end of the two-hour movie, it was up to 5,000 tweets a minute. You don't see those kind of numbers unless it's a major sporting event.

If you weren't glued to your TV set or didn't see one of the tweets, "Sharknado" features a group of regulars of a beachside bar who must battle sharks when massive tornadoes pick up the sea creatures and begin flinging them across Southern California. It stars Ian Ziering, John Heard and Tara Reid.

Vitale suggests that more serious Syfy programs -- such as "Taken" or "Battlestar Galactica" -- would have also been major topics of discussion if social media had been as prevalent then as it is now.

Syfy has produced original movies since 2002. The first film to feature a wacky name that created buzz was the 2005 offering "Mansquito." The story of a scientist who becomes half man, half mosquito triggered the growing list of campy movies on the channel.

"When we heard the idea for 'Mansquito,' we had to stop and pause. We slept on it a couple of nights. When we made the film, it ended up having a pretty serious tone. What we heard from viewers at the time was that if you are going to make a movie with a name like "Mansquito,' then they would like it to be more over the top," Vitale says. "That's why 'Sharknado' worked so well. It's nothing but fun that goes way over the top. The premise of the movie is what got everyone talking."

Not every idea has worked. Vitale shot down the idea of "Killer Koalas" because while the name sounded like the kind of escapist fun the channel wants from its movies, there was no story that worked. Even if a koala gets tossed into a backyard, it doesn't create the same fears as a shark.

The idea of mixing more traditional sci-fi films with campy movies continues next month on Syfy.

"Invasion Roswell," the story of an alien invasion that started in Roswell, N.M., in 1947 will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Aug. 8. It will be followed by "Ghost Shark" on Aug. 22, the story of a great white shark tortured and killed by a fisherman that then returns from the dead, exacting vengeance on all humans.

As further proof that you can't keep a good shark down, Vitale decided while watching the overwhelming real-time response on Twitter during the initial airing of "Sharknado" to do a sequel. "Sharknado 2" is scheduled to premiere on Syfy in 2014. In connection with the sequel, there's a Twitter contest to help name the movie with an appropriate subtitle, such as "Sharknado 2: Jawsageddon." Fans should tweet their subtitle to @SyfyMovies using the hashtag #Sharknado. Syfy will select the best submission as the subtitle for "Sharknado 2."

"Every once in a while, there is a perfect storm -- on television. The fans are clamoring for a sequel. Or perhaps it will be a prequel. What we can guarantee is that 'Sharknado 2' will be lots of fun," Vitale says. "We'll be announcing more details very soon. But we didn't want our fans to worry they wouldn't get their fill of more shark fin, I mean, fun next year."

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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(c)2013 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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