Shark & Awe

Behind The Campaign To Find Gold In A Sea Of Schlock
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Syfy is about to debut the sequel to a movie whose anticipated success is about as baffling as the premise of the story it tells: how a freak weather pattern brings live sharks raining down into the streets of Manhattan.

In the next four days Syfy will find out if lightning indeed strikes twice (and can take a bigger bite out of the ratings and social-media universe) with the debut of Sharknado 2: The Second One (July 30), as well as film legend Roger Corman’s latest hybrid aquatic monster epic, Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda (Aug. 2).

As scores of young males — the target demo for these types of low-budget horror flicks — butter their popcorn for a night of pure escapist fun, other channels and producers are watching closely. Because the schlocky, tongue-in-cheek, youth-oriented low-budget flicks that were so popular in the 1960s and 1970s from producers and directors like Corman are making a comeback. And other networks are looking to jump in the water.

B-MOVIE REVIVAL

Already producers like The Asylum — which produced Sharknado, Sharknado 2 and dozens of other films for Syfy — as well as Corman’s New Horizons Picture Corp. and Active Entertainment, a Louisiana producer that has spawned Arachnoquake, Swamp Shark and Ghost Shark, among others, have seen a spike in interest from other networks, especially those that are going after a young male audience.

“Sharknado got us a lot of meetings,” said The Asylum partner, sales and distribution David Rimawi, and led to a deal with Animal Planet for Blood Lake, a reality-based movie about killer lampreys. “Other networks are saying, ‘Look, we want a film that the audience is excited about and is talking about.’ Are we signing deals? No. Are we having conversations? Yes.”

RBC Capital markets media analyst David Bank said that all networks, large and small, are increasing their focus on owning more of the content on their channels. And the lowbudget horror movie could more than fit the bill.

“We live in a world where content is more monetizable on a global basis and that genre [low-budget horror] probably works across the globe, as opposed to, say, romantic comedies,” Bank said.

While so-called B-movies have been around since the 1930s — they were essentially second reels in double features — they were transformed in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, as Corman and a growing number of young producers and directors tapped into youth culture with low-budget films that were high on gore and campy humor like A Bucket of Blood, Little Shop of Horrors and Attack of the Giant Leeches.

By the ’80s and ’90s, these films made the transition from the big screen to home video, where they found a new audience attracted to a steady stream of blood, guts and increasingly implausible titles. Corman ushered in the era of the reptilian monster mash-up with Dinocroc, a half-dinosaur/ half-crocodile creature feature that was snapped up by fledgling cable network Sci-Fi Channel (as it was then called) and quickly became its highest-rated movie at the time.

The game changed again with last July’s debut of Sharknado, which on the surface appeared to be just another in a long line of campy, teen-oriented horror flicks.

But Sharknado (and hopefully its sequel) set off a socialmedia firestorm when it premiered on July 11, 2013, generating more than 387,000 online comments during its initial 87-minute broadcast, mostly on Twitter. While the ratings for the first Sharknado airing were ordinary — about 1.37 million viewers, a slight improvement over a typical Thursday for the channel — those tweets (reaching about 5,000 per minute at their peak) helped drive more viewers to subsequent airings.

In its second airing, Sharknado drew 1.9 million viewers and by its third, 2.4 million watched the movie, a record for a Syfy encore. In one fell swoop, Sharknado had proven what online experts have been saying all along: Social media can drive future ratings.

Syfy executive vice president of marketing digital and global brand strategy Michael Engleman added that while the Twitter explosion during the first Sharknado movie was a surprise, his team knew exactly what to do to keep it going.

SOCIAL SURGE

“When we saw it happening we certainly were pouring fuel on the fire,” he said. “And we reacted very quickly to that. We have both a philosophy and an operational ability to immediately, not just old-school, have a one-way conversation, but to have a two-way conversation, listen to what the fans are saying, understand the tone and immediately respond.”

The next task for Engleman’s team was to keep the Sharknado engine humming — the sequel was green-lighted just days after the first airing and a third movie is in the works for next year. “You don’t want to overplay success and you don’t want to be heavy-handed, but in a social and digital world, it’s smart to always keep the conversation going at some level,” he said.

For Syfy, that became a Twitter naming contest for the second movie [Sharknado 2: The Second One beat out other fan candidates like Sharknado 2: Sharkalanche, Sharknado 2: Maimed in Manhattan and Sharknado 2: Global Swarming]. Add to the mix Halloween costume contests, viewing-party kits and late-night theater showings. Later, a book (How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters) and a video game were released a few weeks prior to the July 30 premiere.

Thomas Vitale, executive vice president of original movies for Syfy and its sister network Chiller, is the man largely responsible for the resurgence of the low-budget horror movie on cable, buying inexpensive movies targeting young males for the network as far back as the 1990s. But while Syfy reaped some pretty good ratings from direct-to-video fare like Dinocroc, Vitale took the genre to the next level.

“We realized we could make them better ourselves, if we take some of these independent film companies and tell them, ‘What if we commissioned these movies, developed the scripts with you, got involved in the casting?’ ” Vitale said. “We started doing that and experimented with a few. Eventually, we were doing two a month or about 24 a year. Now we’re over 300 movies later and we’re still going strong.”

Budgets for the films usually range from $1.5 million to $2 million per picture, Vitale said, with Syfy kicking in half that amount. That compares to major studio blockbusters with budgets that average well over $100 million.

Shooting schedules are tight — they usually wrap up in 18 to 20 days — and the time from initial concept to finished product is about 14 months.

For the studios, a close eye on budgets and production schedules has translated into a tidy profit. Corman, who has made more than 400 films over a career that has spanned more than 50 years (see Q&A), has lost money on less than a handful of those pictures. Taking a page from the Corman playbook, The Asylum targets a profit of at least $100,000 per picture before it shoots a foot of film. Spread out over at least 24 films a year — and released via different distribution media, which also adds to the coffers over time — it can add up to a tidy sum for the small producer. “

“We’re risk-averse,” The Asylum partner, administration and operations Paul Bales said. “I think we know that if we really wanted to become giants, we would take a big risk and spend all of our money on a giant action film with the latest action hero. But in many [cases] that doesn’t work out all of the time. We like our model of working within the budgets that we have.”

But even when each dollar is accounted for, there are things beyond the producers’ control. Asylum partner, production David Michael Latt, who directed the company’s first film and has helmed several others, remembered a shoot in Seattle for Bigfoot, a 2012 picture that starred former Partridge Family cast member Danny Bonaduce and Brady Bunch icon Barry “Greg Brady” Williams, during a once-in-100-year winter storm in the region.

“For two weeks you couldn’t go out of your hotel room,” Latt said. “We listened to music. I had the DP [director of photography] go out and shoot a lot of B-roll for a future movie about a snowstorm. And then we just doubled down.”

The weather also played a role in Sharknado 2, which was filmed in New York in February during one of the snowiest and coldest winters on record. That made shooting the film — which was supposed to take place in the summer — especially challenging.

“You just make it work,” Latt said. “We made the weather a character” by way of freakish weather patterns in the plot.

It’s not just the weather that can throw a wrench into filming. Active Entertainment president Ken Badish remembers a shoot where one actor missed his plane and tried to take a taxi cab from Dallas to a location about 60 minutes outside of Baton Rouge, La. (about a 500-mile drive). Needless to say he didn’t make the shoot.

“We have to be light on our feet,” Badish said, adding that the secret weapon for any independent producer is a core team of directors, writers and crew members who know how to make pictures quickly and on budget and can make necessary changes on the fly.

“Two hundred movies ago when we started, every little bump in the road was a catastrophe,” Latt said. “The bottom line is, you have to react in a smart way. Unless something tragic happens, you move on and make it work.”

A growing part of the success of films like these is the ability of the producers to see how certain scenes can drive audience conversations on other mediums. Vitale pointed to a scene in the first Sharktopus movie, which showed the creature leaping from the sea to chomp a female bungee jumper. That 10-second piece of video became a viral You- Tube hit after former Tonight Show host Jay Leno aired the clip on his program.

“The bungee-jumping bit in Sharktopus, that was the money shot,” he said. “The movie was built from the gags.”

SNACKABLE SCENES

Engleman calls it “bite-sized” film-making, adding that the genre is tailor-made for small clips that can be shared as memes, GIFs or Vines, six-second video clips that can be shared among friends.

And it helps when the creature is shown early and often in increasingly outrageous situations. While that is a departure from some classic horror genres, Vitale said it’s a product of the television medium.

“On a TV movie you can’t ask people to wait an hour before they see the creature,” Vitale said. “They’ve got their hands on the remote.”

For Vitale, no movie concept is too crazy, as long as it can be reasonably explained by a nuclear accident, a mad scientist or a genetic experiment gone terribly, terribly wrong. But that doesn’t mean the characters are not rooted in at least some form of reality.

“These are not comedies,” Vitale added. “These are campy, escapist movies. What sets a good B-movie apart is that the character has to believe the situation is real, they have to want to survive the situation and they have to react how that type of person would react.”

And while the movies are somewhat formulaic — something that could be said of practically every film genre — Vitale said the process varies by picture.

“A great idea can come from anywhere,” Vitale said. “Sharktopus came from somebody who works in the promo department; I think her daughter just said the word one night at home and thought it was a funny word. This woman came in to me and said ‘you’ve got to hear this word, sharktopus.’ I said Wow. That’s a movie.”

But in kicking in half the budget, Syfy also has firm ideas about what it expects to get for its money. “We want a certain number of action scenes, we want a certain number of familiar names in the cast and a certain amount of CGI effects,” Vitale said. “There is a budget and there is a way to work within that budget.”

Syfy is involved in every step along the way, from choosing the director and the DP [director of photography], to giving notes on the rough cut, to the scoring and the music.

While ideas can come from virtually anywhere, Vitale said many are ripped from the headlines. For instance, Mansquito, a 2005 picture about a half-man, half mosquito created by experiments to cure a highly contagious infections disease, came about after several reports in the legitimate press about West Nile Virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Other examples include Larva, a 2005 movie about a giant mutant larva monster created by a mixture of diseased cows and genetically altered cattle feed, spawned from concerns tied to organic meat and food additives.

But with a reliance on a typically fickle young audience, producers are well aware that the genre that has fed them so well over the past few years could dry up.

For The Asylum, that means branching out and producing several other types of horror and action movies — like alien-invasion film Age of Tomorrow and Mercenaries, an action movie in which an elite team of female mercenaries rescues a diplomat from a foreign women’s prison — as well as Z Nation, a zombie television series for Syfy that already has a 13-episode order.

It also means making sure that their content doesn’t get lost in the growing avalanche of on-demand entertainment.

“It’s a little disheartening, but the immediate future of The Asylum is about understanding the priorities and strategies of the companies that distribute movies now,” Rimawi said. “You can’t make a movie and the audience just finds it anymore.”

While other networks are beginning to buy product, Rimawi said the biggest challenge is competing with major studios that are increasingly producing shows for cable.

“It has never been so clear to us that we are competing for scraps with the studios,” Rimawi said. “They are more aggressive then they’ve ever been, focusing every set of eyes on every movie-goer.”

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