Those who like cheese with their fish will certainly be enticed by Friday’s special: “Sharknado,” the small-screen disaster epic that’s getting a one-time bite at the big screen. Regardless of whether it lands in theaters like a dead mackerel, it’s already become part of hallowed American tradition: the “so bad, it’s good” school of film appreciation.
Playing at midnight Friday in theaters nationally, including in Virginia and Maryland, the Syfy original — which received about 400,000 mentions on Twitter before its debut, while delivering slightly less-hysterical ratings on television — arrives on a tsunami of publicity.
Helping out have been a number of cultural arbiters, including “The Soup,” “Extra,” Opie & Anthony, and the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi: Judge Michael P. Mills, ruling last week in a much-publicized copyright-infringement case between the William Faulkner estate and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” said he was “thankful that the parties did not ask the court to compare ‘The Sound and the Fury’ with ‘Sharknado.’ ”
It may border on nostalgic to say so, but Syfy actually thinks that people will want to watch the film in the same room with other “Sharknado” devotees, on a 40-foot screen with state-of-the-art sound and bonus features they won’t get on TV (behind-the-scenes material, special-effects demos and bloopers). And the media contagion is helping make the sale.
“Al Roker talked about ‘Sharknado’ on ‘Today,’ ” said Thomas Vitale, executive vice president of programming and original movies at Syfy. “On the Mets game the other night, they talked about ‘Sharknado.’ There’s a video on Politico where Alan Krueger [chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers] said that a fight over the debt ceiling would be worse than a Sharknado.”
Vitale said that bringing the movie into theaters is a way of rewarding fans and moving the “Sharknado” experience from the virtual world, where it has thrived, to the physical. Whether it’s more than a one-night stand “will be up to viewers,” Vitale said. “It’s a different world now than when ‘Rocky Horror’ first broke, but it’s within the realm of possibility.”
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which has been in continuous release by 20th Century Fox since it debuted in 1975, is the granddaddy of midnight movies, having enjoyed a years-long run at the bygone Waverly Theater in Manhattan, in Seattle and elsewhere. Interactivity was key: Audiences wore costumes and recited dialogue back at the screen, and the biggest “Rocky Horror” night of the year was always Halloween.
Other unlikely films have enjoyed cult followings, too: “Pink Flamingos” and “Reefer Madness” in the pre-“Rocky Horror” days, and since then, “The Warriors,” “Eraserhead,” “The Big Lebowski,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” “The Last House on the Left” and “Office Space.” Obviously, audience devotion isn’t always the result of inept direction, misshapen dialogue and wooden acting, although it helps. A lot: One obscure cult “classic” — “Troll 2,” which for years has enjoyed a zero rating on Rotten Tomatoes — even had a documentary made about it.
No one’s expecting a “Rocky Horror”-style run for “Sharknado,” said Dan Diamond, senior vice president for Fathom Events, which is behind the movie’s theatrical opening (Fathom’s repertoire includes the remote Metropolitan Opera presentations). He said “Sharknado” had integrated itself into the culture so quickly that Syfy and the Asylum, the film’s producer, knew they had to strike quickly. “We have people walking around saying things like, ‘Today has been a real Sharknado,’ ” Diamond said. “Maybe it’ll end up in Merriam-Webster? You never know.”
You never do. But “Sharknado” is certainly swimming into the national conversation. “Am I aware of it?” asked Greg Laemmle of the Los Angeles-based art house theater chain. “Yeah — and I’m not even sure why I’m aware of it. It’s not from business; we’re not playing it. I don’t know how awful it is, but you can’t buy this kind of publicity.”
Whether that publicity translates into ticket sales, Laemmle said, remains to be seen, but he knows how such phenomena work: “The Room,” a romantic drama/love triangle, has played Laemmle theaters since 2003. It was eviscerated in the press (Entertainment Weekly called it “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies”) and was promoted via a single billboard on Hollywood’s Highland Avenue, featuring the squinting visage of writer, director, producer and star Tommy Wiseau. The film made $1,800 on its initial opening.
“But there were some people who thought it was so bad it was good, and from there it developed,” Laemmle said. “It was nothing we did. I wouldn’t trust a so-bad-it’s-good kind of concept, but the filmmaker himself embraced it. And when he shows up at screenings, the grosses are insane.”
Why audiences like “bad” movies — and how and why camp works or doesn’t — is among the more slippery questions in cultural studies.
“It’s sort of a secret formula which artists stumble upon, rather than consciously create,” said Rob Craig, author of “Ed Wood, Mad Genius,” about the notoriously “bad” director whose oeuvre includes the cult classic “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Craig pointed to the “crowded junkyard” of failed attempts at consciously camp filmmaking.
He said he didn’t think camp can be manufactured, “only discovered by others, stumbling onto wonderful, bizarre misfires of popular culture which were almost certainly intended to be taken seriously in their original incarnation.”
No one sets out to make a bad movie, Laemmle said. “But maybe in the case of ‘Sharknado’ they did.”
Vitale of Syfy disagrees. “These movies are made to be entertaining,” he said. “They are made on purpose to be fun; they’re not created to be a ‘Troll 2’ or an Ed Wood movie. ”
He said there were several reasons for the success of “Sharknado” (the Syfy ratings, though modest, have grown with each airing). There’s the plot, of course — tornadoes pick up sharks and drop them all over Los Angeles. The poster (“Sharknado: Enough Said”). The fact that it was on social media from coast to coast (tweet from the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein: “we need to vote soon or I won’t be able to catch sharknado” — house member overheard on cspan”). And the title. “It’s a great title,” agreed Vitale. So great that, even if you’ve never seen “Sharknado,” you’ll be saying “Sharknado” for years.
Anderson is a freelance film critic in New York and the co-editor of “The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love.”