Jaws-Dropped: The bizarre phenomenon that was ‘Sharknado’

'Sharknado' was a rating hit for SyFy, as well as a viral one
‘Sharknado’ was a rating hit for SyFy, as well as a viral one

By all accounts, the film to claim the summer of 2013 should have been anything but a Syfy channel original movie. Yet what happened was just that.

Sharknado achieved an astonishing level of popularity, not only bringing in record numbers for its channel but also becoming some sort of event. The subsequent theatrical release sold out in major cities across the country and the –nado suffix has turned into a neologism.

But the simple question remains: Why? What catapulted something that could easily have remained in obscurity to such high levels of attention? In a landscape of big-budget blockbusters and long-beloved franchise figures, why has this particular movie caught on?

The most apparent piece is the title itself. Clearly it can be thought of as silly, but it’s the right kind of silly. The tagline reads “Enough said.” From this title, what this film contains is encapsulated quite bluntly, but so in a way that intrigues of how these two elements could be connected. Films of this ilk would be focused either entirely on a storm or entirely on a predatory creature for the conflict. This would appear to give equal credence to both. How so? One would need to see to find out.

What this also does is let the audience know that the basic rule for safety will now no longer apply. The biggest problem with films that have aquatic creatures as the villains is that all a character has to do to survive is stay away from the water. But a tornado is most certainly not limited to water, and the merger of the sharks with the tornado indicates that they will not be either. To let the audience know that this distinctive convention has been jettisoned builds wonder as to just how such a threat is going to be dealt with.

Ian Ziering takes a chainsaw to a shark
Ian Ziering takes a chainsaw to a shark

The use of social media cannot be discounted. Typical promotion was done with Twitter, but Syfy took it a couple steps further and made a contest for viewers to create a subtitle for the sequel. The prospect of such creative control, which rarely if ever has been the subject of a contest before, would be enticing to just about anyone, even if they weren’t already familiar with Sharknado. And of course, each entry needs to be marked with a hashtag and mention, passing the word along to the followers of the user.

That this film snuck up on people and was ready for viewing may have worked to its advantage in that regard.  Compare this with Snakes on a Plane (2006), another creature feature with a similarly direct and goofy title. That film was able to garner significant online attention months in advance, even enough for reshoots to incorporate audience suggestions. But when it came time for the film’s release in theaters, that interest was not reflected in box office results.

The risk in relying on a fast-paced field to generate is that those in the field may be correspondingly lacking in patience and eager to move on to what will more immediately be the next big thing. The Asylum, the production company of Sharknado, has made it a practice to keep their production schedules relatively succinct and unveil the main details of the picture only a couple months, or perhaps even just weeks, prior to release. Such a timetable does not allow much for idle moments to pass by.

But possibly the most crucial component here is that the big offerings from Hollywood this summer may not be fulfilling audiences’ satisfactions, particularly where a season like summer is concerned and the inherent desire for amusement of a more jovial fare.  The theatrical films similar in genre or that would interest the same audience have by and large been bleak and dreary. Man of Steel was found by many to be much more akin to one of recent Batman films. The title of Star Trek Into Darkness says it all for its tone. Pacific Rim featured giant robots and monsters fighting, but played it completely straight. The Purge and World War Z presented extremely grim visions of the future.

Um, lady, there's a shark behind you!
Um, lady, there’s a shark behind you!

Sharknado is by no means a comedic work, at least not in any overt manner. Nevertheless, as indicated by its title and tagline alone, it does not present itself as gravely serious. This sort of self-awareness only serves to strengthen films like this, in both their appeal to others and overall quality. Indeed, the movie has been receiving favorable reviews, particularly from genre-focused critics. On leading horror website Dread Central, reviewer Foywonder rated the film 4 ½ out 5, writing: “Oh, I’ve seen things on the big screen thus far this summer, and none of the spectacle, none of the idiocy, none of it has been as much fun to watch or brought me as much joy as what I saw on the small screen watching Sharknado.”

Interestingly, the Syfy channel is not the sole network this season to break records with its features. Only weeks earlier, the Lifetime network premiered Anna Nicole to the highest ratings they have ever gotten for original films. This cannot be a mere coincidence, not when there’s also the perception of ticket prices getting higher while TV viewing remains just as free. And if one can mine the same amount of or more gratification from a resource that costs nothing further and does not require leaving the home for, then this trend is not likely to be overturned.

Being the right film in the right place at the right time might be the best way to sum up how Sharknado has managed to become so big. That said, the aspects in place for this to have happened were certainly discernible and can be studied from. Whenever it is that the next low-profile film with an odd title and peculiar concept comes along and succeeds, it won’t come as any surprise. After all, if it sounds nuttier and further off the wall than Sharknado, then it must be something to check out.

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