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What Does the Success of 'Sharknado' Reveal About Social Media?

In 2013, Syfy's Sharknado became a trending topic on Twitter and a pop culture phenomenon. Here's why none of it matters.

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.

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