On 11 July 2013, the night on which Syfy’s made-for-television movie Sharknado premiered, the hashtag “#Sharknado” was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. Within two hours of its initial airing, the program was the source of 5,000 tweets per minute, making it television’s most social program of the evening, and Syfy’s most social telecast ever.
To capitalize on this success, Syfy re-aired the movie two more times, and its third airing on 27 July garnered 2.1 million viewers, which holds the record for the most watched original film encore in Syfy history. How did this happen, and what might the surprise success of Sharknado illuminate about social media’s influence on the circulation of media content in the commercial realm?
The question of social media’s impact on content dissemination is paramount if we are to understand the profitability of films in the 21st century. In an effort to answer this timely and relevant question, I delineate social media’s role in contemporary media distribution through a historically researched account of the Sharknado telecast. By observing the film’s production, marketing campaign, and its reception by social media users and professional media outlets , I illustrate what happens when media industries like Syfy incorporate social media into promotional practices, as well as what happens when audiences use social media as a communicative platform from which they circulate their ideas about cultural products like Sharknado.
In order to comprehend the production and distribution of Syfy’s Sharknado, it is vital to situate this one specific product within its larger media industry. Syfy produces about 24 made-for-television movies a year, each with a $1.5 million budget. Syfy has been doing this since 2002 with help of Thomas Vitale, executive vice president of programming and original movies at Syfy, and each Syfy movie is constructed around an absurd concept.
For example, Sharknado is about a tornado of sharks that destroys a Los Angeles community. Claire Suddath wisely places Sharknado within “the Syfy B-movie monster machine” in which the made-for-television movies are “cheap, stupid, and enormously successful.” (“Inventing ‘Sharknado’: Inside Syfy’s Booming B-Movie Factory”, by Claire Suddath, Bloomberg Businessweek, 12 July 2013)
In an interview with Time Magazine, Vitale confirmed that Syfy is in on the joke: “It was a lot of work from marketing and our press people 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.” (“How Social Media Gave Sharknado Teeth”, by Lily Rothman, 12 July 2013) The joke, of course, is that Syfy produces cheesy, cheaply made monster movies that call attention to their absurdity. For example, Syfy movies rely on low-rate CGI effects to construct movie monsters that are often amalgamations of various creatures, like the popular Sharktopus (2010) and its sequel Piranhaconda (2012).
If we contextualize the Syfy network within a broader history of media industries, we can see that Syfy movies present an updated version of the “high concept” marketing campaigns Justin Wyatt describes in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. According to Wyatt, high concept Hollywood movies of the ’70s and ’80s could be “explained in a sentence or two” to attract a mass audience (1994, 10). For example,
Jaws (1975) was a successful high concept film because its premise—a shark terrorizes a small town community—was simple to visualize on movie posters, billboards, and other promotional materials. Wyatt acknowledges that Jaws was promoted to a mass audience and became the highest grossing film of its time, and he credits the film’s marketing campaign for its success (1994: 113).
In terms of marketability, Syfy movies like Sharknado have much in common with Jaws and the other high concept Hollywood movies to which Wyatt refers. Sharknado can similarly be explained in a few sentences, and the image of a frenzy of sharks swirling in a tornado on the movie’s poster resembles the iconic image of a shark approaching the lone female swimmer on the original Jaws poster.
Moreover, the tagline to Sharknado is “Enough said!” whereas the tagline to Jaws was “Don’t go in the water!” and both adhere to the high concept simplicity of their marketing campaigns. However, unlike Hollywood which tried to appeal to a mass audience, Syfy uses the high concept marketing campaign to maintain a niche audience of devoted science fiction fanatics.
Syfy has adopted a number of strategies to cultivate an audience that moves beyond programming. For example, Syfy established an online forum that encourages fan participation, and fans often use the forums to discuss and debate the latest Syfy programs. In addition, the development of Sci Fi Magazine and a daily news wire, Blastr, allows fans to stay informed on the latest Syfy news, and the network will often promote its programs in the pages of these publications.
Finally, Syfy opened an online merchandise store where viewers can purchase product tie-ins like Sharknado t-shirts or Battlestar Galactica coffee mugs. The use of network branding illustrates Syfy’s interaction with its audience, and now is a propitious time to turn to the promotion and reception of Sharknado to explain more explicitly how this relationship can be understood in the digital sphere.
Before its first airing in July 2013, Syfy used a variety of media platforms to promote Sharknado. The most consistent and least risky is the use of the network itself. For example, Syfy aired commercials for the Sharknado premiere during its other programs, and this informed its regular viewers of the movie’s existence. In addition, Syfy circulated these commercials on the internet, allowing fans to watch them at their own convenience on the network’s YouTube channel. Moreover, Syfy informed its viewers of the premiere on its professional website where fans could discuss it on the forums, and Syfy also mentioned the premiere in Sci-Fi Magazine to devoted subscribers. Syfy worked within its $1.5 million budget to develop inexpensive ways to promote the premiere of Sharknado, and the most tech-savvy was Syfy’s use of social media.
According to Craig Engler, Senior Vice President at @Syfy digital, the network used Twitter to build buzz for the Sharknado premiere. As Engler said in an interview, “Hours before the movie even aired we were retweeting the fans talking about how much they were looking forward to watching it and also tweeting out Sharknado ‘warnings.’” (“How ‘Sharknado’ Became a Social Media Phenemonon”, by Pete Pachal, Mashable, 12 July 2013) It is apparent that Syfy used social media to promote Sharknado, and Engler calls attention to the network’s willingness to interact with its audience on Twitter:
We know going in that people already love to tweet about these movies, so our goal is to foster the conversation and amplify it. For instance, we’ll retweet fun posts from our viewers on the @Syfy feed, which the fans love. It gives them their 15 minutes of fame on Twitter and shows them that we’re listening and playing along (Ibid).
There are two important insights to be gleaned from Engler’s words that can shine a light on social media’s role in the promotion of Syfy movies. On the one hand, Syfy uses social media as it would any other promotional platform: to interact with its loyal fan base. On the other hand, Syfy interacts with its loyal fan base with the intention to make a profit. There are no attempts on behalf of Syfy to use social media to gain more followers and garner wider exposure for its products; Syfy is content with its niche audience.
This is because Syfy movies like Sharknado are cheaply produced to guarantee a profit, and if Syfy were to spend money marketing its movies to a wider audience, it would arguably lose money. The initial marketing campaign of Sharknado mirrors any other Syfy movie, and there is no evidence to suggest that Syfy planned for Sharknado to become the social media success that it did.
The first airing of Sharknado earned 1.37 million viewers, which is slightly below the average 1.5 million viewers a Syfy made-for-television movie would normally receive. However, as I mentioned, the premiere became a trending topic on Twitter with 5,000 tweets per minute. In an interview after the film’s premiere, Vitale said that the social media response was enough to make Sharknado a success despite its low ratings: “The funny thing is with this movie the Nielsen rating isn’t as important as the social media and the engagement. We already know that this movie was a success.” (“How Social Media Gave Sharknado Teeth”, ibid).
Vitale’s insistence that the Nielsen ratings weren’t significant to the success of Sharknado echoes a growing consensus in popular culture that trending topics on social media are more indicative of a cultural product’s profitability and relevance. The purpose of this essay is to challenge this assumption. Before I do that, however, it’s important to understand the movie’s overwhelming social media presence.
Sharknado generated over 300,000 tweets during its first airing, but an overwhelming Twitter presence is not sufficient for a cultural product to enter popular culture discourse. What matters more, is the Twitter user responsible for generating the tweet.
In the case of Sharknado, a majority of the tweets came from Syfy fans and casual viewers—whom we might refer to as average users. However, the Tweets that had the most impact in popular culture discourse came from celebrities and similar well-known public figures. This implies that Sharknado would not have been considered a social media success without the celebrity response precisely because the movie wouldn’t have been a trending topic without celebrity participation.
In his book Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age, Dhiraj Murthy identifies a social hierarchy on Twitter where celebrities have more power than non-celebrities because of their social standing in public life. According to Murthy, the social status of celebrities is not altered in various social media spaces, and celebrities retain their influence despite the digital transition.
The reasoning behind this argument is simple, and it bears repeating. In order to maintain a high social status on Twitter, an individual must have a substantial amount of Twitter followers, or other users who subscribe to read their tweets. Since celebrities are well-known in the public sphere, they are naturally going to have more Twitter followers than non-celebrity users who aren’t well-known in the public sphere.
As a result, more Twitter users will see a celebrity tweet than a non-celebrity tweet. This gives celebrities more influence over what becomes a trending topic on Twitter, and ultimately more power. Murthy’s analysis of power in the Twitter realm is therefore useful for understanding how Sharknado entered popular culture discourse.
During the first airing, a number of celebrity users tweeted about the movie. For example, actor Wil Wheaton (@wilw) from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) tweeted, “You fools! You foolish fools! We should have taken global warming seriously and now there’s a SHARKNADO!” This tweet was retweeted by other Twitter users 533 times. In response to Wheaton, a non-celebrity Twitter user Brittany (@jellinfelon) tweeted back at him, “At the end of the movie the Sharknado sucks all the sharks back up and puts them back in the sea. Turns out they were only loan sharks.”
This exchange illustrates the Twitter hierarchy that Murthy describes. Wheaton is a celebrity with more Twitter followers than most non-celebrity Twitter users like Brittany, and this gives him more power in the Twitter sphere. To compare, Wheaton has over two million Twitter followers and Brittany has only 19. Wheaton is an actor, gamer, and blogger, and any one of his tweets has the potential to reach fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation, fellow gamers, and his loyal, like-minded readers. Wheaton’s tweet about Sharknado inspired Brittany to tweet back at him, and there is a strong chance that Brittany wouldn’t have tweeted about Sharknado if it weren’t for Wheaton, thereby demonstrating the celebrity’s power over social media discourse.
The combination of different celebrities and ordinary Twitter users who tweeted and retweeted about Sharknado created a domino effect of what Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green call “spreadable media,” which refers to:
The technical resources that make it easier to circulate some kinds of content than others, the economic structures that support or restrict circulation, the attributes of a media text that might appeal to a community’s motivation for sharing material, and the social networks that link people through the exchange of meaningful bytes (2013, 4).
According to Jenkins, Ford, and Green, “Audiences are making their presence felt by actively shaping media flows, and producers, brand managers, consumer service professionals, and corporate communicators are waking up to the commercial need to actively listen and respond to them,” (2013, 2). Jenkins, Ford, and Green are correct to suggest that media industries must listen and respond to their audiences, and this is never clearer than with the social media response to Sharknado.
As I’ve described above, Syfy often interacts with its audience, and it continued to do so during the first airing of Sharknado. In one tweet, for instance, Engler (@Syfy) tweeted back to Wilde and Farrow, “We have roles for both of you in the #Sharknado sequel.” This tweet shows that Syfy made a conscious effort to actively engage with the social media discourse surrounding Sharknado, and it did this to capitalize on its fans’ fascination with celebrity culture. As Engler acknowledged in an interview, “When notable people on Twitter post about our movies… we’ll retweet them so our fans can see what they’re saying, and we’ll also tweet along with them.” (“How Social Media Gave Sharknado Teeth”, by Simon Rogers, Media Blog, 12 July 2013).
The social media response to Sharknado was indeed unprecedented, and celebrities clearly played an important role in making Sharknado the most social telecast of the night. However, it’s intellectually problematic to assume that social media is a powerful communicative platform simply because it generates discourse. In order to comprehend the significance of the social media response to Sharknado, we must come to terms with its aftermath.
No Celebrities, No Sharknado
The unforeseen social media response to the first airing of Sharknado gave Syfy an opportunity to capitalize on the movie’s success. Immediately following the news that the first airing of Sharknado was a trending topic on Twitter, Syfy announced that it would re-air the movie on 18 July 2013. According to Deadline, Syfy announced this before the ratings revealed that the premiere was watched by less than the average amount of viewers a Syfy made-for-television movie typically receives. (“Syfy ‘Sharknado’ Attracts Average of 1.369 Million Viewers—Mostly Journalists and Celebrities”, by Lisa De Morales, Deadline, 12 July 2013) Therefore, if the social media discourse during the first airing of Sharknado didn’t cause more people to watch it, then what exactly did it do?
Rather than contributing to the profitability of Sharknado, the social media discourse highlighted social media’s limitations as a communicative platform. On 12 July, the day after the first airing of Sharknado, professional media outlets began reporting on the movie’s forceful Twitter presence. Ed Payne of CNN, for example, discusses the social media response to the movie as he writes, “Never has social media been so fin-tastic.” (“Oh no, it’s ‘Sharknado’ and it’s ravaging Twitter”) In the article, Payne reports on several of the celebrity tweets about the movie, including one from actor Josh Gad and another from Red Cross Oklahoma (Ibid.).
In addition to coverage by CNN, Ann Oldenburg of USA Today focuses on the celebrity reactions to Sharknado in a similar article. Among the celebrity tweets Oldenburg highlights are from actor Patton Oswalt and Lost showrunner David Lindelof. (“Celebs chomp on ‘Sharknado’, by Ann Oldenburg, USA Today, 12 July 2013) If we allocate these news articles for critical reflection, we can glean several significant insights about the life of Sharknado in the social realm.
One important revelation of these professional media reports is that Sharknado wouldn’t have been considered a newsworthy topic without the celebrity tweets. As Graeme Turner demonstrates in his book Understanding Celebrity, celebrities have more social influence than non-celebrities, and they are often the center of media attention (2004, 8). Turner’s point is relevant, and in many ways it adheres to Murthy’s identification of the hierarchy in the Twitter sphere where celebrities have more social power than non-celebrity users.
Moreover, Turner calls attention to our contemporary media culture in which the celebrity lifestyle is consistently considered newsworthy by professional media outlets. We need to look no further than the constant attention devoted to the Royal Baby’s birth, Paula Deen’s civil court case, and Miley Cyrus’ MTV Video Music Awards performance in 2013 to grasp the importance professional media outlets place upon the celebrity.
Thus, Sharknado would not have been considered a newsworthy topic by professional media outlets if it were not for the celebrity participation, even if the program remained the most social telecast of the evening. It’s not unreasonable to propose, given the professional media’s fascination with celebrity culture in general, that it was celebrities and not social media that made the Sharknado reception a news story.
Further, the professional media’s coverage of the Twitter response to Sharknado inevitably brought more exposure to the movie’s social media reception, thereby informing more individuals of the movie’s existence. CNN, USA Today, and other professional media outlets reported the first airing’s social media response to the masses, and this exposure paid off, as the second airing of Sharknado received 1.89 million viewers. This reinforces the established hierarchy between professional media outlets and citizen journalists.
The relationship between professional media outlets and citizen journalists is often contested in media studies for different reasons. In The Revolutions Will Be Blogged: Cyberactivism and the 4th Estate, Courtney C. Radsch claims that citizen journalism is necessary because it is “driven by different objectives and ideals and relies on alternative sources of legitimacy than traditional or mainstream journalism” (2013). Vincent Maher in “Citizen Journalism is Dead”, on the other hand, argues that “citizen journalism is dead” because it is “wrapped in a false promise that this blogging army is co-ordinated and uniformed in its intentions” (2005).
As both Radsch and Maher imply, the debate has less to do with whether or not citizen journalism is a beneficial ideal—they both seem to agree that professional media outlets are rooted in bias—and more to do with whether or not citizen journalism has fulfilled its promise. That is, has “the exclusive domain of the professional,” as Stuart Allan suggests in Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives, been transformed by citizen journalism (2009, 18)?
Ever since the proliferation of social media technologies, scholars have hoped that the circulation of media content would become more participatory. Jay Rosen notes that citizen journalism occurs when “the people formally known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.” (“A More Useful Definiton of Citizen Journalism”, Pressthink, 14 July 2008)
In other words, when consumers of media content begin to produce and circulate media content, they disrupt the established relationship between producer and consumer, and they give rise to a new relationship rooted in democratic content dissemination.
Social media makes room for more interaction and participation, but this doesn’t automatically mean that these technologies overthrow the established relationship between media producer and media consumer. Dhiraj Murthy acknowledges that social media has therefore produced more citizen journalists, but he wisely claims that Twitter-based citizen journalists “experience a short-lived fame as the public follows stories of interest through professional news media outlets” (2013, 52).
Murthy’s analysis of Twitter applies to the social media response to Sharknado and the appropriation of it by professional media outlets. “Twitter-based citizen journalists” reported on the first airing of Sharknado, but professional media outlets used these reports for their own financial benefit, thereby undermining the influence of social media as a communicative platform and citizen journalism as a communicative practice. Moreover, as the ratings for the second airing of Sharknado illustrate, professional media outlets were successful in bringing exposure to the Syfy movie, as it earned more viewers on its second airing than it did on its first, despite the fact Sharknado was a trending topic during its first airing and not during its second airing.
Contrary to the best wishes of many media scholars, social media has not given citizen journalists authoritative power. Rather, professional media outlets retain their power through their loyal, large readerships, and the “exclusive domain of the professional” to which Allan refers remains intact. In addition to illustrating the limitations of social media as a communicative platform by showing the limited power of citizen journalists, the discourse surrounding Sharknado also destabilizes social media as a financially fruitful promotional platform.
For example, on 16 July, two days before the film’s second airing, star Ian Ziering went on the daytime talk show The View. Upon first glance, the interview seems to be an excuse for Ziering to talk to the hosts about the unforeseen social media response, but by the interview’s conclusion, it is clear that Ziering is there to promote the movie’s second airing. This interview reveals numerous important insights about social media’s influence that are useful to my discussion.
The conversation about the Twitter response to Sharknadoconfirms my earlier point about the limitations of social media as a communicative platform, as The View is a popular daytime talk show with a large following. Ziering and the hosts discussed the celebrity tweets during the interview, and it is appropriate to assume that members of the live audience and viewers at home were learning about this for the first time and became interested in the movie because the ladies of The View deemed it a worthy topic of conversation.
Further, Syfy used a form of promotion for the second airing that it didn’t consider for the first airing, and it wasn’t associated with social media. By sending Ziering to The View, Syfy attempted to reach a wider audience in the hope that more viewers would tune in for the movie’s second airing, an attempt that ultimately paid off for the network. This suggests that media industries like Syfy are aware of social media’s shortcomings, and that social media’s limitations as a communicative platform render it an unprofitable promotional platform. This is imperative to note, especially at a time when scholars are overselling the internet’s role in media distribution.
Some may counter-argue that Sharknado wouldn’t have been as popular without social media, and they might be quick to assume that social media can be a profitable promotional platform if media industries like Syfy successfully capitalize on it. If this is the case, then why didn’t other made-for-television Syfy movies receive the same amount of attention?
This question is baffling, especially when we situate Sharknado within Syfy’s oeuvre of monster movies. The concept of Sharknado is undeniably absurd, but it isn’t any more ridiculous than other Syfy movies like Sharktopus (2010) or Piranhaconda (2012). Yet Sharknado was the one that entered popular culture discourse, whereas Sharktopus and Piranhaconda remain overlooked.
To be clear, both Sharktopus and Piranhaconda averaged the same amount of viewers as the first airing of Sharknado, but they failed to become trending topics on social media and they failed to enter popular culture discourse. It’s important to note that these three movies had similar marketing campaigns, and it was only with the second airing of Sharknado that Syfy considered other forms of promotion like ABC’s The View.
Moreover, Syfy released another original movie after Sharknado entitled Ghost Shark (2013), and as the title implies, the film is about a supernatural shark that can kill anyone as long as they are wet. In one scene, for example, a ghost shark appears and attacks a character while she is washing her car, and another character is attacked by the creature in the bath rub. It’s logical to assume that Syfy’s Ghost Shark would capitalize on the discourse surrounding Sharknado, and that celebrities would be tweeting about it, professional media outlets would be reporting on these tweets, and the film would re-air to record-breaking ratings.
This wasn’t the case. As The New York Post reports, the first airing of Ghost Shark averaged the same amount of viewers as those who watched the first airing of Sharknado, yet Ghost Shark failed to generate social media discourse. (“‘Ghost Shark’ lacks buzz bite of ‘Sharknado'”, by Michael Starr, 24 August 2013)
The social media response to Sharknado and the lack of social media response to Ghost Shark reveals the arbitrariness of social media and its trending topics. Trending topics on social media are not indicative of a cultural product’s profitability, which explains why social media isn’t an advantageous promotional platform for media industries.
Plainly put, there is no telling what will become a trending topic, which makes it difficult for media industries to promote their products on social media. As we learn from Syfy’s Sharknado and Ghost Shark, the former became a trending topic whereas the latter did not. Moreover, topics that do trend experience a short cycle of circulation before the next topic takes over.
danah boyd, Scott Golder, and Gila Lotan argue that “Twitter’s value derives from the real-time nature of the conversations it supports. Its search and ‘trending topics’ functionality captures public conversations in real time from its entire user population.” (“Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter”, 6 January 2010) boyd, Golder, and Lotan call attention to the ephemerality of trending topics in particular and social media discourse in general. For example, on Saturday Miley Cyrus’ latest awards show performance may trend, and on Sunday Barack Obama’s healthcare plan could be the hot topic of conversation. This unpredictability is problematic for media industries that are interested in generating a profit.
Sharknado 2: The Second One is scheduled to air sometime in 2014. Its budget is the same as any other made-for-television Syfy movie, and as long as it averages 1.5 million viewers, Syfy will call it a success. It hardly matters whether the sequel garners as much social media attention as the original, because Sharknado has shown that social media attention doesn’t impact the circulation of media content in the commercial realm, and instead remains an arbitrary, ephemeral, and ultimately irrelevant communicative platform.