By Brian Steinberg
In the vicious battle of MegaPython vs. Gatoroid, NBC Universal is counting on SyFy’s Saturday night to be the big winner.
Yes, movies about giant pythons, mutant sharks, rogue volcanoes and the scantily-clad young’uns racing to keep them from obliterating the planet might seem more at home littering the grounds of some old, abandoned drive-in theater, but the cable net thinks they’re a great tool to use to drum up advertiser support on Saturday nights.
SyFy has been running grindhouse-y movies such as "Sharktopus," "Mega Piranha" and "Alien Apocalypse" since 2002, when it debuted "Interceptor Force 2" — the sequel to a 1999 film that didn’t quite make a splash at the Oscars. Since that time, SyFy has produced more than 190 movies, with one of its latest, "MegaPython vs. Gatoroid," starring 1980s pop stars Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, set to debut Jan. 29.
Up until now, SyFy really hasn’t pitched these B-movies to marketers, said Blake Callaway, senior VP-marketing for SyFy. "There have been occasional advertisers who come in for individual movies, but we want to create a little bit more of a franchise for Saturday night," he said.
SyFy intends to highlight the movies in its upfront presentation this year, when most TV networks attempt to secure ad dollars for the coming fall season. The network also expects to add digital- and social-media components to its offering, so that advertisers can sponsor not only the show but fans’ chatter as well.
"We do think that this is very ripe for fan commentary, fan participation and kind of a two-screen experience," Mr. Callaway said. "Things are in the brainstorm phase," but the network is looking for a way to "aggregate social commentary" and make it an element marketers can sponsor. Meantime, executives say the movies get a lot of buzz and end up referenced on everything from "The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson" on CBS to "Modern Family" on ABC to "Attack of the Show" on Comcast’s G4.
TV tube is filled with movies of dubious quality and standing, but cheese-tastic celluloid on the order of SyFy’s "Meteor Storm" or "DinoShark" knows its place and winks at it — in the process bringing viewers into a community of sorts. The formula is one that has played out successfully in other corners of the TV universe, as anyone who remembers popcorn-flicking commentators such as "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark," the snarky robots from Comedy Central’s late, lamented "Mystery Science Theater 3000" or any of the hosts (Rhonda Shear, Gilbert Gottfried) of USA’s now-defunct "Up All Night" can tell you.
Yet SyFy said its films — all originals — have significant value. In 2010, the flicks averaged a viewership of 1.975 million, the network said, and several that debuted last year — including "Dinoshark" and "Red: Werewolf Hunter" — broke the 2 million viewer mark. "Lake Placid 3" snared 3 million in 2010, SyFy said.
Who’s watching? SyFy executives said they believe the movies spark a lot of "co-viewing": TV sessions attended by families or groups of college students, for example. The economy continues to stir audiences to look for stay-at-home events, Mr. Callaway said.
One ad-buying executive believes the movies skew towards an older audience. "You would think that SyFy-scheduled movie events like this are really going to be that elusive young male demo — the ones who were most easily identified as, ‘you know, the Simpsons viewer,’" said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas’s MPG. "But like the rest of the SyFy lineup, the original monster mash-up movie tends to skew older and somewhat more male," he said. "Instead of getting the ‘Simpsons’ viewer, they’re probably more likely getting the ‘Star Trek’ viewer, remembering a simpler time of the old ‘Creature Feature’ series of ‘nuclear monster of the week’ movies and Vincent Price narrations."
Still, the genre does have broader appeal. The SyFy movies are like drive-in flicks that use "lurid, catchy titles that grab your attention" but keep expenses low by carefully parceling out special effects, said Jim Kendrick, an assistant professor of communication and zombie-film aficionado at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Such films exploit successful formulas with "a shadow alternative to the mainstream," he said.
Others just think the movies are plain old fun. The SyFy films are "pure escapism entertainment," said Rachel Belofsky, founder and director of the Screamfest Horror Film Festival in Los Angeles. "It’s so bad, it’s good."
Even so, SyFy takes pains to make the movies work for TV, not the drive-in screen, explained Thomas Vitale, exec VP-programming and original movies for SyFy and Chiller. "There’s a lot of setup in a theatrical movie, and the action doesn’t happen until the mid-point," he said. On TV, "the audience has to have rising action to commercial breaks, has to have a teaser where something exciting happens immediately, has to have eye candy and action between every commercial break," he said. "We know the audience is watching there, waiting to change the channel."
SyFy strives to tie the movies to current events and pop culture, such as 2004′s "Snakehead Terror," which centered on chemically-altered snakehead fish putting the bite on a small town. Consumers were buzzing about snakeheads at the time, said Mr. Vitale. SyFy typically works with small, indie production houses to give the movies a look all their own ("These guys can pull off things other production companies could not at the price and under the time constraints," he said), but it’s no secret these firms can keep costs in line, especially with so many movies in the pipeline.
To keep things realistic, the network also strives for logic and reason in its plots — something to which the more lax filmmakers in the genre may not pay heed, Mr. Vitale said. "The MegaPython can’t sprout wings and fly because that would be a cool visual," he said. "If there’s a robot, it’s a robot, and it has to behave like a robot should behave." If not, he added, viewers "pop" out of the story.