On Saturday, July 11, a perfect storm hit Twitter in the form of Syfy’s original movie Sharknado, an L.A.-set “unnatural disaster” creature feature starring Beverly Hills 90210‘s Ian Ziering and American Pie‘s Tara Reid. With 387,000 total tweets, the film came within 2,500 tweets of tying Game of Thrones‘ “Red Wedding” episode. Here, Syfy’s EVP of Programming and Original Movies, Thomas Vitale — who’s in the midst of developing a New York-set sequel to air in summer 2014 — explains how the phenomenon happened. And people still want to know: Vitale apologized for phoning EW late because, “I had a movie producer in here saying, ‘How can I make you a Sharknado?’ That’s a fact, those exact words,” he said. “‘We want to make your next Sharknado.'” Read more stories behind this year’s top TV and top movie moments throughout the month of December.
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As told by: Thomas Vitale
A MEMORABLE TITLE
Where Sharknado came from is one of the more interesting stories. Some of our ideas come internally — from me, my team, other people who work on the floor. Sharktopus came from a woman in our marketing department whose kid, I think, said ‘sharktopus,’ and we said, ‘That’s a great title! We should make that!,’ and we called up Roger [Corman] and said, ‘Make Sharktopus.’ My kids, people’s dentist, the company president — everyone’s come up with these. And obviously, a lot of writers and producers pitch us things. A lot of times in the pitch process, someone will come up with an idea and then we’ll tweak it. We’ll get on these phone calls where you have five or six people on the line, and it’s that great natural brainstorming that happens. When you’re talking about original fun, escapist-style movies, everybody in the room and on the phone lets their inner 8-year-old come out and just starts to riff on things. Once we have the idea, we enter the serious work of making sure there’s logic and characters and flow, but the imaginative part’s a blast.
What happened with Sharknado is, we had a St. Patrick’s Day movie the previous year called Leprechaun’s Revenge [starring Billy Zane]. Anthony C. Ferrante, who was the director of Sharknado, wrote Leprechaun’s Revenge. As a throw-away joke line in Leprechaun’s Revenge, he used the word ‘sharknado.’ This crazy thing was happening with this killer leprechaun in the town, and a reporter says to someone something like, ‘We haven’t had a situation like this since that sharknado hit last year.’ And we had the same reaction you did: We laughed and thought the line was pretty funny. The word stuck in our head, and then when we were looking for a shark movie to do for the summer — you can’t go wrong with a shark movie in the summer — we were talking with The Asylum [the production company behind the film]. They had pitched a movie called Shark Storm, and one of the guys on my team remembered the word ‘sharknado,’ and we came back and said, ‘No! You gotta do Sharknado!’ Asylum thought that was funny. Anthony had written the line, so he came on as director, and they hired Thunder Levin to write it.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A JOKE AND A MOVIE
When we do these movies, you gotta figure out how far you go: When does the audience say, “I get it, that’s funny, I like it,” and when does the audience roll their eyes and turn away? One of the charms of these movies is that they are played straight. The characters in these movies want to survive. They accept that there’s this crazy thing happening — a sharknado — and from there, they try to play it like anybody would if you were in a disaster situation. What do we do? How do we save our family and friends? Where do we go? That helps keep the audience engaged. The audience is laughing thinking, This is wild! This is crazy! What am I gonna see onscreen?! But the characters are taking it seriously, so then you get sucked into this story and you start to say, “I want Ian Ziering’s character and Tara Reid’s character to survive. I want them to save their children.”
I’ve used this example before: The Killer Koala pitch. I’ve gotten that pitch eight or nine different times over the years. When you hear “Killer Koala”, you’re like, “Oh, I get it. There’s alliteration, it flows off the tongue.” But you know no one wants to see it. That’s just a joke. Koala bears are great on nature shows, but they don’t make this kind of movie. Other times, we’ve gotten pitches about killer rats or killer roaches. There’s nothing fun or imaginative about that. I’ve lived in Manhattan many years, and rat and roach infestations are not really fun. Then you get other pitches, like the deadly squirrel pitch. It’s like, “Well, squirrels aren’t scary.” And then the writer or producer comes back with, “But imagine how scary it’ll be at 10 feet tall, with those little hands and the teeth.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a joke. That’s not a movie.” We always like to say, “If it’s not scary little, it’s not scary big.” Our movies need to connect with some inborn fears that people have. That’s why people have done shark movies to great success. Spiders, snakes, dinosaurs, gators, crocs — there are certain types of animals that people have this natural fear of.
Besides being scary, it’s what’s imagination-stirring. We talk about disasters as being “unnatural disasters.” Sharknado‘s the best of both worlds because it’s a creature movie and it’s an unnatural disaster movie. A volcano in Hawaii — that’s not really imagination-stirring because there are volcanos in Hawaii. If we were to do an earthquake movie, we probably wouldn’t do an LA earthquake movie, because it’s something that is real and could happen. When we did [2006’s Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York [starring Alexandra Paul, Costas Mandylor, and Michael Ironside] that movie got a great rating. “A volcano in New York? How did they pull that off? What is that?” That’s stirring the imagination. Then we come up with this pseudo-science plot that makes it make sense. A tornado in Kansas? That’s not us. A tornado full of sharks in LA, or now in the sequel, a tornado full of sharks in New York? That’s imagination stirring…. You’ve got to always figure out where the line is — and is the line moving. I think some years, the line is further than other years. I don’t know if that’s about the mood of the country and the TV viewer during that year, or about other stuff on TV. Would Sharknado have worked every year? Maybe not.
THE SCIENCE OF CASTING
You want to get people who are familiar to the audience and put them in a different type of project than people are used to seeing them in. Tara Reid is someone who’s never done this kind of movie before, so she’s a surprising choice. Ian Ziering is not known for this kind of movie, so he’s another great choice. We did a Melrose Place reunion where we had three or four actors in [2007’s] Ice Spiders. We did a  movie called Bigfoot, which had Danny Bonaduce and Barry Williams, so Danny Partridge and Greg Brady. I’ll tell you, when we did the Debbie Gibson-Tiffany movie, [2011’s Mega Python vs. Gatoroid], we decided to play with the idea that when these two women were both teenagers and popstars they were rivals. We had talked to both of them over the years, and they said they were rivals in the press and in album sales, but they weren’t personal rivals. That was all built up by teen magazines at the time. In fact, they’d barely ever met. Still, that was the perception, so we decided to put them against each other in this movie. No one expects to see Tiffany and Debbie Gibson battling gatoroids and mega pythons. I remember the first time we had Danica McKellar, little Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years. She’s done a number of genre movies, but we put her in her first one. I think it was [2005’s] Path of Destruction [costarring Chris Pratt], and we got a lot of press because you would expect if she’s going to do TV movies, it might be Lifetime, ABC Family, Hallmark-style movies. Instead, she decided to go for a fun escapist movie on Syfy, and that was interesting to people. The perfect cast might be someone familiar to the science fiction audience, mixed with someone from completely left field like a musician, and a couple of up and coming young faces who we think have some talent. It’s always great to get someone who’s got a theatrical movie coming out next year, and we can catch them now before they break.
Ian Ziering and Tara Reid were perfect for Sharknado. They were our top choices and we were lucky we got them. You gotta remember, not every actor can be in this kind of movie. They have to understand that this is a fun opportunity. A lot of the success of the movie is based on the actor getting the tone right. If they go too broad into comedy, it doesn’t work. These aren’t comedies. If they go too, too serious, it doesn’t work either. If you look at their performances, they are spot on for what Sharknado wants to be.
THE SOCIAL PUSH
We trend often on Twitter, but nothing has blown up like Sharknado, and no one can predict that. I think it was a mixture of the celebrities who tweeted along, and then the volume obviously. You can’t make that happen. Usually, I watch the movie at home with my wife and kids. We’ll put the movie on, and at the same time, I’ve got Twitter going, too. I remember I looked over at my wife, and said, “Something’s happening here.” “What do you mean?” She’s on Twitter on the iPad. I’m on the PC. One of my kids, my eldest, is on the iTouch. We’re like, “Ohmygosh, did you see who tweeted?! Mia Farrow just tweeted!” It was person after person. That was a fun experience. All the people at Syfy started emailing each other: “Look at what’s happening. Go on Twitter! Tweet!” And then the next day, with all the press we got on it, it was just incredible. We actually fantasized and joked about that for awhile [asking Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof to make good on his tweet suggesting he write five pages of a sequel, then pass it off to Patton Oswalt, who’d pass it off to someone else], but it just wasn’t something that could actually happen. The fact that so many talented people were having fun with this and talking about it — that’s the goal of these movies. The goal of these movies is so people can come home and relax and have an escapist moment. Different shows, whether on Syfy or a different network, have different goals. Battlestar Galactica won a Peabody — that’s a different kind of show with a different goal. Different types of entertainment, they’re all valid. Sharknado is just the height of escapism on television. The tweeting showed that the audience got what we were going for. It’s up for a People’s Choice Award [for Favorite TV Movie/Miniseries of The Year against American Horror Story, Behind the Candelabra, The Bible, and The White Queen], and I think it has a shot.