“I think we broke three devices last night,” says Thomas Vitale, Syfy’s head of original programming, about the social media storm kicked up by Sharknado.
“My wife was checking hashtags on her iPhone, my 10-year-old daughter was on her iPad, and I was on the PC,” Vitale said in an interview with Buzzfeed Friday. “We were on social media for about four to five hours, I didn’t go to bed until about 2:15 a.m.”
Viewer fascination with sharks is nothing new, of course. Discovery long ago took the idea of developing a week of programming around sharks during the lazy summer months and turned it into “Shark Week,” an internationally recognized franchise which in August will celebrate its 26th year on the air. And Syfy has developed a number of what network executives describe as “escapist entertainment” movies with shark themes, including Jersey Shore Shark Attack, Swamp Shark, Shark Swarm, and — who could forget the classic — Sharktopus.
Syfy has historically shied away from programming its shark-related movies during the late July–early August period when Discovery typically airs “Shark Week.” That is, until now.
So immense was the swell of social media support for Sharknado that Syfy is not only bringing it back for an encore presentation next Thursday night, but also is considering running it to compete directly with some of Discovery’s “Shark Week” programming.
“It is up in our minds, we are considering it, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet,” said Vitale.
Vitale also declined to say if he has signed off on a Sharknado sequel, though that seems like a no-brainer. Syfy does have another shark-themed original movie, Ghost Shark, on the schedule for late August to satisfy audience cravings.
Final ratings figures aren’t in yet, but preliminary data suggests Sharknado drew around 1 or 2 million viewers. But on social media, the movie, which stars Tara Reid and Ian Ziering of American Pie and Beverly Hills 90210 fame, respectively, blew up Twitter. At its peak around 11 p.m. Thursday night, the movie generated around 60,000 Twitter mentions and became a trending topic on that social network and on Google.
According to a Syfy press release, the movie generated 5,000 tweets per minute and had 387,000 social mentions, more than Big Brother and The Big Bang Theory on CBS, which ranks as the top-rated broadcast network, and within 2,500 tweets of Game of Thrones’ much-discussed “Red Wedding” episode.
For Vitale, the buzz creates a virtuous cycle that allows Syfy to, among other things, get bigger-name actors and budgets for its productions, and makes it easier for the network and its partners to sell international rights. Indeed, Syfy’s production partners, The Asylum, have already been selling international distribution rights to Sharknado.
The success of Sharknado also underscores the importance of original programming for cable networks like Syfy. Clearly, Sharknado isn’t going to win any Emmys or receive critical praise the way Mad Men does for AMC, for instance. But for Syfy, which has quietly been rated a top-15 cable network for years, it goes a long way to confirming the investment its new owners at Comcast are putting into the network.
Comcast, which owns Syfy’s parent company NBCUniversal, reportedly sunk $100 million into Defiance, a science-fiction show and multiplayer online video game whose first season began airing on Syfy in April. It immediately become the network’s most-watched scripted series in seven years.
In total, Syfy airs between 20–24 original movies a year, said Vitale, who has been with the network for more than two decades and is responsible for green-lighting what he estimated to be around 250 movies since it began developing original programming about 12 years ago.
Vitale said budgets run between $1.5 million and $2 million per movie, with Syfy splitting the cost with its producing partners. On average, Vitale said the network spends just less than $20 million a year on original movie production.
But if viewer appetite for movies like Sharknado continues to grow, it is likely that Vitale’s budget will too.