In terms of the swath it cut through social media, "Sharknado" was an epic F5, even if the ratings barely kicked up a cloud of dust.
Syfy's latest schlocky made-for-TV guilty pleasure struck Twitter on Thursday like, well, a swirling cyclone of bloodthirsty fish. In fact, the network said that at its peak the corny B-movie about a shark-laden tornado that devastates Los Angeles was hurling nearly 5,000 tweets a minute. Bosses announced plans for an encore next week and mulled a possible sequel.
And yet the ratings? "Sharknado" hit 1.4 million total viewers — no better than Syfy's typical draw for such a movie. NBC gathered an audience nearly three times as large with "Hollywood Game Night" — itself no ratings monster.
You might say "Sharknado" is the one that got away, a fish far bigger in the telling than in real life. What happened?
Credit the power of Twitter to operate as an alternative, crowd-sourced network, amplifying things that the mainstream media miss or downplay. Just don't believe there's an exact correlation between number of tweets and real-world performance. "Sharknado" reminded many users of "Snakes on a Plane," the 2006 movie that got enormous pre-release buzz online and then crashed at the box office.
"There are certain things that social media loves," said Sree Sreenivasan, a social-media expert and the chief digital officer at Columbia University. The ready-for-joke-writers title — coupled with a relatively slow news cycle — helped "Sharknado" catch on.
"The sheer absurdity of it means it inherently gives you a place to be funny and show your wit to tens of thousands of people," Sreenivasan added.
But that doesn't translate into actual popularity. "Just because someone's writing about you doesn't mean they'll buy your product," he said.
For Syfy, though, "Sharknado" may count as a hit — if only in brand awareness.
"This type of free press on social media has helped put the network and these grade-B movies on the radar of viewers," said Brad Adgate, an analyst at ad firm Horizon Media in New York.
Indeed, the combination of an absurd yet self-explanatory premise, a clumsy portmanteau title, visual effects that would have embarrassed Ed Wood, and D-list stars proved to be the perfect storm for Twitter snark. Everyone — or at least everyone related to the media industry — seemed to have something to say.
Former "Lost" writer-producer Damon Lindelof live-tweeted the movie, at one point joking, "I am going to write the Sharknado sequel and I am going to do it before Shaknado is over." NBC newsman Chuck Todd observed, "I follow about a thousand folks. Every one of them tweeting about SharkNado." (NBC and Syfy are both owned by Comcast's NBCUniversal division.)
The film's director, Anthony Ferrante, even remarked on the social media frenzy: "I have never been part of something this crazy ... the whole world is watching my insane little movie and talking about it."
It's not the first absurdly titled B-movie from Syfy. The network first dabbled in the genre with 2005's "Mansquito," but since then social media have boomed, as have the network's campy originals. (See also: "Dinoshark," "Chupacabra vs. the Alamo." )
"It used to be you'd sit and watch movies with your family, and throw comments at the screen," said Thomas Vitale, the network's executive vice president of movies, invoking the example of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," the '90s cult comedy series in which snarky robots offered running commentary on schlocky sci-fi and horror movies. "Now with social media you can have that experience with millions of people."
Said the film's aptly named writer, Thunder Levin: "I'd love to take credit it for myself, but I think it was simply a combination of the title being the end-all, be-all of ridiculous movie titles, and a simple but obvious marketing strategy."
Though Syfy takes external pitches — as with the William Shatner-produced "Fire Serpent" — the network also generates some of their best ideas in-house.
As you might imagine, those "ridiculous" titles often come first. The idea for "Sharktopus," starring Eric Roberts, was first mentioned as a joke in the office. The title for next month's offering, "Ghost Shark," came from Vitale's 8-year-old daughter, Ava, and the clumsy, ridiculous portmanteau "Sharknado" was the product of another brainstorming session.
It just so happened that the team at the Asylum, the low-budget studio that has produced many of Syfy's original movies, was already cooking up its own project, "Shark Storm."
Partner David Michael Latt wouldn't disclose an exact sum but said "Sharknado" cost "a few million" and their projects typically range from $500,000 to $2 million. "The story posed a lot of challenges. Once everyone agrees on that, it becomes a question of how do we flood L.A., how do we convince name talent to get involved?" said Latt.
Given the Twitter response, a sequel might seem a foregone conclusion, but Vitale wasn't ready to say whether carnivorous sharks would rain down on SoCal again any time soon.
"People are talking, but there's no announcement that can be made just yet. Today has been a whirlwind," he said.
Pun intended. We think.