The first time he heard the word “sharknado,” Thomas Vitale, Syfy’s executive vice-president of programming and original movies, laughed. And then he said, “We’ve got to do that.”
The product of that split-second decision, the disaster movie/creature feature that is Sharknado, premiered last night alongside an incredible amount of buzz. According to the cable network, Sharknado was generating nearly 5,000 tweets a minute, with social-media mentions from celebrities, politicians and normal folks alike. “Normally, when something’s trending, as soon as the event’s over you quickly fall off the trending list, but Syfy and Sharknado continued to trend from 11:00 till 1:00 a.m., when Sharknado repeated,” says Vitale. “When I woke up, we was still number 1.”
That many of those tweets weren’t exactly praising the artistry of the movie — in which a tornado brings hungry sharks in contact with us land-lubbers — doesn’t bother the network. Their attitude? Go ahead and laugh; we will too. “If they’re laughing with you, that’s great. They get that you’re in on the joke,” says Vitale. “Laugh and the world laughs with you.”
It wasn’t always so funny. Vitale says that Syfy has done about 250 original movies over the course of about a decade; they currently premiere about two a month, in a variety of genres. At first, the disparity between the escapist entertainment of those titles and the traditional science-fiction tastes of longtime viewers caused confusion. Disgruntled fans would write letters asking just what the heck the network thought it was doing — critics and reporters wondered whether execs at Syfy knew what they were doing.
“It took a long time, and it was a lot of work from marketing and our press people,” says Vitale, “to get people to understand that we know that you know that we know, that we want you to know that we know what we’re doing.”
Perhaps because of that learning curve, earlier movies along Sharknado lines—from Sharktopus to Arachnoquake—never managed to really capture the public imagination the way Sharknado did. Another possible factor, Vitale says, is that even a few years ago social media couldn’t really make or break a movie. Now, it drives engagement—the median viewer age for Sharknado (46.8) was the network’s lowest for a movie since 2011′s Zombie Apocalypse, a feat that a network spokesperson attributes to Twitter—and helps the network gauge not just how many people are talking but what exactly they’re talking about and when.
Now that the ratings are in, we know that 1.369 million people tuned in to watch Sharknado. That’s fewer than half of the viewership for the night’s winner, Hollywood Game Night, which scored 4 million viewers (on network television, to be fair) but Vitale says network viewed the movie as a success even before they saw any numbers. Vitale says there are no precise plans at the moment for another disaster-creature movie in the near future—but it’s easy to see how the social media that made Sharknado what it was could easily lead to a follow-up.
“The funny thing is with this movie the Nielsen rating isn’t as important as the social media and the engagement,” he says. “We already know that this movie was a success.”