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Syfy’s Sharknado series proves schlock cinema belongs on TV, not in theaters

The back half of 2013 saw the release of two films that share a spiritual kinship and fall under the same broad cinematic classification. One film boasted established characters, an esteemed director, a generous, eight-figure budget, and a cast stocked with name actors, including two Academy Award winners and another with a Golden Globe. The other film was made for only $2 million by an unknown director with actors whose faded glory made them more likely to land a Family Guy cutaway gag than a leading role. The former film was widely panned by critics and ignored by the public, limping to a $15 million box-office haul that fell well short of its $20 million price tag. The latter became a cultural phenomenon, earning rave reviews and spawning (at least) two sequels. The outcome seems counterintuitive at first blush, but it makes perfect sense. Despite the wealth of resources afforded to the higher-profile schlock film, Machete Kills, the more successful schlock film had a crucial advantage—Sharknado premiered on television.

While there are many variables involved in a movie’s success or failure, the disparate fates of Robert Rodriguez’s Mexploitation romp and the Syfy original directed by Anthony C. Ferrante illustrate a trend within the continual blurring of the demarcation between film and television. Schlock cinema is still primarily associated with midnight screenings at landmarked movie houses, but it’s now better served on television, where it’s more warmly received than in theaters. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, Tommy Wiseau’s infamous The Room, and other cult classics with well-established followings will always be able to fill a theater. But for newer films that challenge the boundaries of taste or pay homage to the seediest cinematic subgenres, it isn’t as easy to gain a foothold in theaters. Despite the legitimizing effect of a theatrical run, directors hoping to contribute to the neo-schlock canon would be wise to bring their projects to television.

Syfy, which has quietly spearheaded the shlock renaissance for the past two decades, is about to premiere Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, the third film in its runaway hit series. Ian Ziering and Tara Reid will reprise their roles as they did in Sharknado 2: The Second One, which broke the Syfy viewership record previously held by its predecessor. Ferrante returned to direct the threequel, in which cyclonic columns of carnivorous fish lay waste to multiple locations including Washington, D.C. and Universal Orlando. The theme-park resort was so eager to be a part of the Sharknado phenomenon, the movie’s producers were granted use of the Universal Orlando name and logo so the film could depict what would undoubtedly go down as worst day in the resort’s 25-year history. And the Sharknado siege may not be over; Syfy has said it will consider a fourth installment based on how Oh Hell No! performs.

What’s the secret? After the first Sharknado drew an impressive audience, which grew to 2.1 million viewers in its third airing, there was widespread industry speculation about what contributed to the movie’s success and whether that success could be duplicated. The brilliantly tantalizing title was a significant factor. Though it isn’t fundamentally different from such Syfy fare as Mansquito or Dinocroc Vs. Supergator, Sharknado is a more phonetically pleasing and conceptually bold title. Between society’s shared obsessions with violent weather events and toothy sharks, Sharknado is sci-fi fusion at its best. Better still, the movie lives up to the outrageous title’s promise, and then some. Let it never be said that a movie in which a character cheats death by being chainsawed out of a shark’s gullet failed to reach its full cinematic potential.

As awesome titles go, Machete Kills is nobody’s slouch either. In one sense, it’s unfair to compare a shiny new concept like Sharknado to Machete Kills, a sequel to 2010’s Machete, which was itself the expansion of a faux-trailer from 2007’s underperforming Rodriguez-Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse. But the steep decline from the highly profitable Machete to its insolvent sequel is about more than franchise fatigue. If the loss of novelty was that detrimental, surely the second Sharknado would have fallen prey to it. Machete Kills floundered in theaters for the same reason Sharknado flopped in a one-night-only theatrical exhibition designed to capitalize on its surprise success. Sharknado earned a paltry $200,000 from midnight screenings in 200 theaters. People wanted to watch Sharknado; they just didn’t want to watch it at the movies.

Schlock films are most passionately embraced by cineastes with an intense attachment to celluloid and the moviegoing experience. But schlock truly thrives on television, which is now able to create a collective midnight-movie experience better than any beautifully restored theater could. Watercooler conversations about TV and film were nearing extinction as the rise of DVR time-shifting, midnight movie screenings, and at-your-leisure streaming content turned spoilers into a full-blown moral panic. Those conversations now take place on Twitter, and we take the collective-viewing experiences where we can get them. Social media values currency above all else, be it a military coup, the red carpet entrances at the Met Gala, or a goofy B-movie about a constipated tornado. A televised original movie mandates simultaneous viewing and real-time reactions, which are crucial to the interactive schlock cinema experience. It’s the same idea behind Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show that approximated the experience of seeing a painfully bad genre film with wily, talkative comedians. All the wiliest comedians are on Twitter ready to watch Sharknado with the rest of us and fire off half-baked jokes. Social television combines the irreverent, interactive midnight-movie dynamic with all the comforts of home, obviating the hassle and expense of going to the theater and the indignity of having to speak the words, “One adult for Sharknado.”

Twitter’s emphasis on brevity makes it most potent as a comedy medium, and social television viewers fully expect to spend the whole running time cracking jokes. The expectation of mockery buoys television events that would be doomed to obscurity if not for Twitter’s insatiable appetite for pop-culture chum, like Lifetime’s Aaliyah biopic or NBC’s Peter Pan Live! Compare this to when I saw Black Dynamite, a perfect example of a nu-schlock film that would have demolished Twitter as a television premiere. My friend and I were two of the six people in the theater, which was near silent during the film and far from interactive. Who wants to be the first to break the silence in a performance space in which rapt attention is usually expected? I certainly didn’t, and though I enjoyed the film all the same, the interactive component was sorely missed. More often than not, a theater exhibition adds nothing to schlock cinema except for a premium price, a larger image, and a more reverent audience, hence Sharknado’s dismal big-screen performance.

Will Ferrell understands the symbiosis between schlock and social media. That’s why Ferrell’s plan was to maintain secrecy around A Deadly Adoption, his mostly straight-faced homage to Lifetime’s domestic thrillers, and spring it on an unsuspecting public. When news of Adoption leaked well before its premiere, Ferrell threatened to scrap the project. It only seemed like an overreaction before the movie debuted. Adoption was designed to stoke a slow-building Twitter trend as more people tuned into to try to figure out what the hell it was. Without the element of surprise, it landed with a whimper. Adoption’s fate is reminiscent of 2006’s Snakes On A Plane, perhaps the first film to signal schlock cinema’s migration to television. The internet feeding frenzy around the movie belied the public’s interest in actually seeing it. Box-office prognosticators had predicted a huge opening weekend, failing to account for the same gap between intent and action that determines political elections. Not everyone who displays a bumper sticker will show up to the polls.

Sharknado owes its success to its origin in television, a medium that requires almost no active engagement from the audience, but richly rewards social-media participation at the exact moment when people are most interested. Schlock films are in an unprecedented position to attract large audiences and command the cultural conversation, but only when they forego silver-screen grandeur and harness the power of social television. Most movies acquit themselves best in a theater, but a film like Sharknado demands the same protocols as would an actual sharknado. Remain indoors, stay tuned to real-time developments, and keep smiling until it blows over.