Hollywood: she’s a fickle mistress.
As the accountants at the Disney studio count their losses on The Lone Ranger, a big-ticket film with a budget of US$200 million which landed with a thud, across down a cheesy, cheap piece of cinematic detritus – Sharknado – has become the biggest film event of the American summer.
Sharknado is the made-for-television B-movie about a tornado which lifts sharks out of the ocean and fires them like bullets into the suburbs of Los Angeles. In it, people are, quite literally, being eaten in the streets.
In spite of its bus ticket budget, or perhaps because of it, Sharknado was transformed into a cultural phenomenon, teaching Tinseltown the cruelest of lessons: that a $200 million budget is no guarantee of success.
Sharknado’s television audience was modest in relative terms – only 1.4 million viewers, putting it roughly on par with an average episode of the Channel Seven reality series House Rules. And remember: America’s television market is roughly 15 times larger than Australia’s market.
But in terms of noise, Sharknado drowned the opposition. Twitter very nearly broke, with more than 5000 tweets a minute during the broadcast. And the channel that produced it, cable network SyFy, already has a follow-up, Ghost Shark.
“Really, it’s a deceptively tough feat that the makers of Sharknado pulled off: making a movie that’s shlockily and campily hilarious without seeming to try too hard to make something shlockily and campily hilarious,” wrote Time magazine’s TV critic James Poniewozik.
“From the opening moments–an almost non sequitur high-seas showdown between an evil shark-fin buyer and more-evil shark-fin peddler that ends with both swallowed by balletic sharks–the movie signals its determination to efficiently get you the balls-out-crazy mayhem you want and not let narrative, budget constraints, or the laws of science get in the way.”
The film won almost universal affection from Hollywood’s establishment.
The writer/producer Greg Berlanti, whose credits include Brothers & Sisters and the comic book spin-off TV series Arrow, tweeted: “Somewhere in Hollywood there is a senior executive yelling at a junior executive for not coming up with Sharknado first.”
Another writer/producer Damon Lindelof – the man behind the TV series Lost and JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise – tweeted: “I am going to write the Sharknado sequel and I am going to do it before Sharknado is over.”
The iconic New York-based theatre and film actress Mia Farrow was almost lost for words. She simply tweeted: “OMG OMG OMG #sharknado.” OMG is an internet contraction for “oh my God”.
Asked by a US media outlet for advice on dealing with aerial shark attacks, the National Weather Service wryly offered this: “As with any waterspout or tornado, the best advice is to be in an interior part of the lowest floor of a sturdy building and not outside, whether sharks are raining down or not.”
The venerable Los Angeles Times newspaper even got into the action, proposing a slew of B-movie spin-offs, including Piranhacane, Twistquake and The Day After the Stormcano.
Significantly, however, the media cyclone of Sharknado has managed to exhume one of the great cornerstones of American culture: the B movie. Born in the 1950s as the companion piece to a movie with A-list stars, screened in a double bill at the local drive-in theatre.
In truth, the B-movie never died. It was just replaced with the direct-to-DVD sequel, like American Psycho 2: Angrier, Deadlier, Sexier, Son of the Mask and Home Alone 4: Taking Back The House.
Sharknado returns the B-movie to its genesis: a genuinely cheaper movie, with a B-tier cast. The biggest star name in Sharknado is former Beverly Hills 90210 star (turned Chippendales dancer) Ian Ziering. The rest of the cast have names like Tara Reid, the sort of “know the name but can’t quite remember the face” kind of actor. And even one Australian, former Baywatch star Jaason Simmons.
In fact, the cable channel SyFy has been quietly reinventing the B-movie, largely because new web players such as Netflix and Hulu Plus have been hoovering up second tier movie content, forcing the channel to take control of its own drama portfolio to replace its dissolving sources.
Some of the gems in SyFy’s library include Chupacabra vs. the Alamo, and Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, a nod to Japanese kaiju films, such as Godzilla and Gamera.
The channel produces more than 20 films a year, and each has a budget of US$1.5 million. They typically have absurd titles, such as Frankenfish (2004), Mansquito (2005), Sharktopus (2010) and Piranhaconda (2011).
In that sense, at least, the LA Times suggestions of Piranhacane or The Day After the Stormcano aren’t so much lame jokes as legitimate intellectual property.
All eyes, now, are on Ghost Shark, the film the channel is unveiling on August. You don’t need a science degree to know what it’s about. In fact, no scientific knowledge whatsoever will probably hold you in good stead. Films like Sharknado and Ghost Shark don’t stand too much scrutiny.
What is interesting, though, is how Hollywood perceives the audience’s reaction to it. The cash registers of tinseltown can smell money, and as the summer blockbusters continue to pile up by the side of the road, traditional film studios may be looking for a new strategy.
This year, between May and August, no less than 17 “blockbuster” films are being released. It is not economically feasible for all of them to be successful, which means most will die a financial death. The Lone Ranger has already tanked.
Still, don’t feel too sorry for Walt Disney Pictures. The Lone Ranger may have tanked, but they’ve banked one billion dollars in domestic gross this year, ahead of their rivals.
Back in May the New York Times predicted the studios were driving over a blockbuster “cliff”.
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“Competition for the spectacle-craving young male and surging international audience has never been more intense,” journalist James B. Stewart wrote.
The answer may not lie in the future, though. Perhaps it lies in the past, with a genre that gave birth to film titles such as Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, Cannibal Holocaust and Plan 9 From Outer Space.
The recipe is simple: just take anything. And add sharks.