Sharknado and the Syfy Strategy: ‘If We Don’t Have a Good Title, We’re Not Going to Make the Movie’

SHARKNADO – “Syfy Original Movie” – Pictured: Aubrey Peeples as Claudia – (Photo by: Syfy) Photo: Syfy

If you somehow missed the news, Syfy aired a creature feature titled Sharknado last night, the latest installment in the network’s biweekly Original Movies brand, which has previously offered up such awesomely titled knee-slappers as Dinocroc, Mansquito, and Megapython vs. Gatoroid. (And coming up: August’s Ghost Shark, which is in no way related to Sharknado — as if that even matters.) The buzz surrounding the movie reminded us that, back in 2011, we’d discussed the topic at length with Thomas Vitale, Syfy’s executive vice-president for programming and original movies, and inspired us to fire up that long-dormant (and unpublished) transcript to get a sense of how and why the network keeps churning these lowbrow gems out, so many of which trade heavily on the word shark. Enjoy — just replace the word Sharktopus below with Sharknado.

You guys have been airing movies pretty much since the debut of the Sci-Fi Channel back in 1992 but didn’t start producing your own until much more recently. Why did you decide to make that shift? 
In the early days, we weren’t doing much original content — we were small. But we were able to buy a lot of these independently made monster movies in the marketplace, and they did well for us. As Syfy grew, we had the opportunity to go and commission these movies and have a real hand in creating what we wanted to see. So in 2002, we went from being a buyer of these films to being a developer and supervisor of them. And we’ve been so successful in the last dozen years that we’ve done over 200 of these now.

How much importance do you place on the title?
If we don’t have a good title, we’re not going to make the movie.

Awesome. So, what’s the benchmark?
I think Sharktopus is probably one of our best titles ever. As a creature-feature movie, Sharktopus kind of says it all, right? It tells you it’s going to be a fun romp. It tells you that it’s a mash-up of two creatures. It tells you that there’s something fantastical there — because take a shark and an octopus and put them together and obviously there has to be a fantastical part to the story. It says that we have a sense of humor. It says action. I mean, it says a lot. It’s what you would call a high-concept title.

You use a lot of hybrids. Often of the shark variety.
Yep, there’s even Swamp Shark, where you’re taking a shark and putting it where it doesn’t belong. A shark on the Great Barrier Reef? Not as fun.

Okay, but what if it was a nuclear shark?
Then maybe you do want to put that on the Great Barrier Reef, right? Because it doesn’t really belong there. I might use that: Nucoshark. There’s a title that says it all. We’ll have to name a character after you if we use Nuclear Shark.

Make it happen! Is it all about the title, though?
No. Some of our movies are out and out fun, like Sharktopus. But a lot of the movies are actually about other stuff. A lot have environmental themes underlying them. Like, Snakehead Terror was about an invasive species. From an environmental point of view, there’s certain species that don’t belong in certain ecosystems. The snakehead fish does fine in Asia where it’s from, where there’s a balance of nature. But here, there’s no predators for the snakehead. You put it here and it does turn into a monster in real life. Snakehead Terror was based on the real story about these fish, which wound up in U.S. waterways and have forced the government to go and try to eradicate them. I mean, that’s a true story.

And Mansquito?
Mansquito was medical-themed. It was basically about West Nile Virus. That’s what the scientists were looking for in the movie. They were looking for a cure to West Nile Virus. Science gone too far.

Right. And you also do a lot of natural-disaster flicks.
Sort of. We do a lot of disaster movies, but they have to be unnatural disasters. Take Ice Twisters. The title, of course, tells you a lot because we would never do just a straight tornado movie — because that’s not entertainment, that’s tragic. That’s also not a fun, imaginative movie. But a tornado of, say, ice crystals? That’s fantastical and imaginative and has to have an underlying sci-fi reason for it. Was it aliens that did it? Was it a science experiment gone wrong? What was it that would cause an ice twister? And let’s look at another one, Volcano in New York. If you did a volcano in Hawaii, well, there are volcanoes in Hawaii. There’s nothing fantastical about that. If a volcano in Hawaii went off, that’s tragedy, not an imaginative movie. But a volcano in New York? There would have to be an imaginative, unreal, scientific, supernatural, or alien reason for a volcano to be in New York. So it’s unexpected — an unnatural disaster as opposed to the natural. We’ll leave the natural disasters to other networks.

What are some of the premises you’ve rejected?
We do 24 movies a year. We probably hear 2,000 premises a year to come up with those 24. So, we hear all sorts of stuff. Sharktopus was thought up by a woman in our marketing department. Mansquito, someone internally came up with that, too. It’s just — “boom!” — it hits you in the head. But a lot of them come from outside producers. So, to help with what you’re getting at, here’s one premise we’ve had pitched to us from at least a half-dozen different producers: Killer Koalas.

You laugh, but there’s alliteration there. It’s just that the idea of killer koalas — there’s nothing scary about koalas. There’s nothing that stirs anything on an emotional level. There’s nothing that stirs any kind of primordial fear. People have primordial fears of sharks and snakes and large animals and maybe certain types of bugs and creepy-crawly things, like spiders. There’s all these primordial fears that a movie can tap into like we did with Sharktopus or Ice Spiders. But there’s no inner reaction to a koala. So Killer Koalas, even though it makes you laugh, it doesn’t make a movie. A funny title doesn’t necessarily make a movie.

Could you explain your casting strategy? Your movies tend to use a lot of formerly famous people.
It depends on what the movie’s going for. There’s different kinds of movies. For example, Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, which had Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, was going for camp. There’s a range, from comedy to the more serious, action-oriented ones. Manticore was a straight-ahead creature feature that only had a little camp in it. And then there’s some of the medieval things, the period pieces. We don’t want to go too, too serious on anything — you’ve got to have some humor and some escapism. But we also aren’t making comedies. So there’s a range, and casting depends upon where we are in that range. Does the movie want to be campy? Sharktopus wants to be campy. Mansquito’s a more interesting one.

Wait — why is that different?
I don’t think I ever talked about this to a reporter, but Mansquito, that title wants to be campy. I think you call something Mansquito and the audience expects it to be a campy movie. And this was how many years ago, seven, eight years ago, something like that? That title wants to be a campy title, and yet the movie wound up being a more straight-ahead serious creature feature. It’s actually a well-made movie, and it gives some good scares, and it’s got some procedural elements. There’s a police investigation and all. And the movie did fine. But we learned from some of the feedback online that the audience was expecting more of a campy romp with that one. Probably because we called it Mansquito. So you kind of want the title and the casting and the tone to match with each other.

How important is the money shot? You know what I’m talking about.
I do. Let’s call it, like in Sharktopus, the gag where they bungee jump and — surprise! — the Sharktopus gets them mid-jump. You actually want a couple of scenes like that in every movie. The gags are important. Part of the trick to making these movies is to design them for the rhythm of television versus the rhythm of a theatrical film. Theatrical film you’re there and you’re a captive audience, right, for the whole thing. You’ve paid your money, you’re sitting there in the dark and you’re watching a movie for the full hour and a half, two hours, however long the movie is, right? With a TV movie, you’re interrupting a TV movie by commercials. So what is the traditional way of making a television series? You build rising action into the commercial break. And then you try to grab people when you come out of commercials to suck them back in. So you definitely need to build up to a good gag or action sequence between every commercial break and hope that one or two of those moments “pop” every movie. You want the movie to be talked about. You want people to tell their friends. That’s how you build the brand of these movies, you get a little notoriety and you get people saying, “You’ve got to watch this.” I mean, what’s better than having people say, “Did you see that movie last night?”

Do you think Syfy Original Movies will ever jump the Sharktopus?
Hopefully never. Well, okay, if we ever do Killer Koalas, we will have jumped the Sharktopus.

Sharknado: Syfy’s Strategy: Amazing Titles Only