Entertainment

You Can't Escape Sharknado


You Can't Escape Sharknado

Illustration by Steph Davidson; Photographs by Getty Images (3)

There aren’t any sharks on the New York City set of Sharknado 2. Of course there aren’t—movie monsters, especially those that swirl up in a tornado, are made on computers. The only fishy thing in sight on this cold February day is a lone shark tooth hanging off Ian Ziering’s necklace. “You know, ’cause of what happened in the last movie,” he says. Ziering, 50, who’s best known for playing the curly-haired jock Steve Sanders on the original Beverly Hills, 90210, is the hero of Syfy’s Sharknado franchise, the second of which premieres on July 30. In the first installment, which aired last July, Ziering’s character rid the world of a menacing tornado of sharks. But, as they say, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …

In the scene that’s filming today, Ziering is supposed to be scavenging the streets of Manhattan for weapons before his final shark battle. So far, all he’s done is emerge from a restaurant with a bunch of knives and pizza slicers. He then meets his co-star, former Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, who contributes a grocery bag full of Super Soakers. They compare weapons, look up at the sky, and frown. A stagehand leans over and explains they’re pretending to gaze at the sharks. “It’s so brilliant!” says the director, Anthony Ferrante, after the second take.

Ziering, McGrath, and other cast members cower at CGI sharksPhotograph by Emeliano Granado for Bloomberg BusinessweekZiering, McGrath, and other cast members cower at CGI sharks

The average budget for a Syfy film is about $1.5 million, and though the network says Sharknado 2 ran a bit higher (it won’t disclose the actual figure), it still cost a tenth of a typical action movie. The film’s extras do their own makeup, the catering tent has only weak coffee and sad-looking pastries, and the stars are trailerless—McGrath gets so cold between takes that he shoves hand warmers in his mittens. The movie takes place in the summer, so when it starts snowing in the middle of a scene, “we just wrote it into the script that the weird weather is caused by the sharknado,” Ferrante laughs.

According to Nielsen (NLSN), only 1.5 million people watched the first Sharknado, which is standard for most Syfy movies. But for reasons that no one fully understands, the film became a social media phenomenon. At one point during the broadcast, an estimated 5,000 people were tweeting about it every minute. ESPN’s (DIS) official Twitter (TWTR) account asked the San Jose Sharks to change their name, Red Cross Oklahoma promised to respond to all sharknado alerts, and everyone from Richard Dreyfuss to Mia Farrow was commenting along with the onscreen insanity. The network capitalized on the buzz with repeat viewings, which got the audience up to 2.1 million on the third try. Within a month, Regal Entertainment Group (RGC) was showing the film in 200 of its theaters across the country. As comedian Patton Oswalt put it, “Based on the Twitter attention it got, Sharknado is our Arab Spring.”

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Syfy, which is owned by NBCUniversal (CMCSA), has been around since 1992 and has a programming list that includes fantasy, horror, paranormal, mystery, and reality TV. In between its original series—such as Defiance, also an immersive online game—the network likes to air supercheesy flicks. It used to buy the rights to air preexisting B movies from studios; in 2002 Syfy started making them itself. “We did it because we had to. We couldn’t find anything to buy,” says Thomas Vitale, Syfy’s executive vice president for programming and original movies. “The genre market had completely dried up.” Syfy reached out to legends such as Roger Corman, the independent director and producer who’s made more than 400 films, including The Little Shop of Horrors and The Fast and the Furious (the original, from 1955). Corman is now one of Syfy’s top producers, having given it Dinocroc, Sharktopus, Dinoshark, Dinoshark vs. Supergator, and this summer’s Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, all of which he says are separate movies with completely different plots. “When our market went away, Syfy really picked up the slack,” Corman says. The network now airs two original movies a month and enlists several production companies and directors, including Ferrante, who had been making low-budget horror movies until getting his big Sharknado break.

A crew member holding an essential propPhotograph by Emeliano Granado for Bloomberg BusinessweekA crew member holding an essential prop

Syfy has a pretty balanced male-to-female audience and an average age of 52, according to Horizon Media, though its movie audience skews younger, usually within the 18- to 48-year-old target audience. “The ComicCon crowd is our [movie] crowd,” says Michael Engleman, the network’s executive vice president of marketing, digital, and global strategy.

Vitale won’t reveal how much Syfy made off the first film nor what it expects to off the second, though it’s probably not very much. “Even if they made a quarter of a million dollars profit, that would’ve been a lot,” says Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, a media and branding research firm. “If they made a million dollars off this new one, I’m sure they’d be thrilled.” The real point of Sharknado 2, he says, is to garner publicity and increase the strength of the brand.

Ziering took the role so he could get health insurance

The network knows its movies are awful. “We’re in on the joke,” Vitale says. Still, there are rules to making a Syfy film. The title comes first (Sharknado, Mansquito), and the plot comes later. There must be a gruesome attack scene in the first few minutes, so people won’t get bored and channel-flip. When possible, boost audience interest by hiring stars who are past their prime; that’s how 1980s pop star Tiffany came to be eaten by an enormous alligator as Debbie Gibson watched from a helicopter in the 2011 film Mega Python vs. Gatoroid. Not every former celebrity wants to submit to such humiliation. “We had a really hard time casting Ziering’s character. A lot of people turned us down, saying, ‘No, no, it’ll kill my career,’ ” Ferrante says. At first, Ziering was one of them: “I got the script, and I said, ‘No way. Sharks? No.’ ” He agreed only because his wife was pregnant and he needed the actors’ union health insurance.

Ziering’s more enthusiastic about Sharknado 2, with its slightly larger budget, increased star power—there are cameos by Kelly Osbourne and Andy Dick; you were expecting Clooney?—and big promotional campaign, including a lead-up Sharknado Week of programming on Syfy. “When I got the call, I felt like it was Martin Scorsese calling me!” McGrath says, only nine-tenths joking. On July 30, Syfy will air the movie simultaneously in all 86 countries where it’s carried, so everyone will be tweeting about it at the same time. Matt Lauer and Al Roker, who appear in the film, have something planned for the Today show. There’s a lot of “cross-platform promotion,” Engleman says, including Subway ads featuring spokesman Jared Fogel eating a sandwich-size shark and a soon-to-be released iPhone and iPad video game. An Indiegogo campaign raised an extra $50,000 and gave fans a chance to appear in the film. Random House has released a book full of Sharknado survival tips. And Ziering is starring in an unrelated Las Vegas Chippendales show timed to the movie.

Director FerrantePhotograph by Emeliano Granado for Bloomberg BusinessweekDirector Ferrante

People don’t necessarily want to watch two movies about shark-filled tornadoes, but then again, many people tweeting about the first Sharknado didn’t see it. The second is sleeker, funnier, and more entertaining, including a meme-worthy scene featuring Tara Reid and a buzz saw. According to Asylum Entertainment, the production house that worked with Syfy, the profit margin on a typical TV movie can be as much as 50 percent. This time it could be much more. If the PR blitz works, Syfy may have its first successful film franchise. Like a movie studio, the network doesn’t know when to stop. There are already plans for a Sharknado 3.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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