Network’s Original Movies Are Cult And Ratings Hits
“I’m gonna watch these movies till my eyes pop right out of my head
Saturday night, Saturday night, Saturday night on Syfy …”
– “Saturday Night on Syfy” by Sci-Fried
“To have a song written about these movies truly shows that [they] are now part of pop culture,” says Thomas Vitale, proudly, referring to the song quoted above. Vitale is executive vice president of programming and original movies at Syfy, and he’s right – his network’s Saturday original movies, long a target of mockery for their low budgets, sensational titles, cheesy CGI effects and B-grade scripts and acting, have pulled off that hard-to-obtain double feat of cult status and ratings success.
“It’s a very fun position to be in,” Vitale says. “These movies get millions of viewers every time they premiere. And then they repeat and repeat, and they get tons of viewers every time we repeat the movies. … We’ve seen [the movies] talked about on the E! network. The Soup did a big, big thing on Mega Piranha [which aired in April]. Craig Ferguson has done riffs on these movies numerous times. I was talking to some college students and they said every Saturday night, before they go out – the campus party starts at 11:00 – beforehand everyone gets together in the main room with the TV and they watch the movies. And [college] viewing doesn’t even show up in the Nielsens. But we’re their pre-party fun. So I think we’re connecting with a lot of people who are just looking for fun, escapist entertainment.”
Of course, some of the infamous titles of these films can be just too irresistible and may also hold a key to drawing in some curious viewers, whether it’s Mansquito, SS Doomtrooper, one of the various mutated animals with the adjective “Mega” affixed to it or Roger Corman’s upcoming production of Sharktopus.
“We have so much fun titling these movies,” laughs Vitale. “Titling is so important. Sometimes the titles do come first. Sharktopus was a title that actually came first. A brilliant woman in our marketing department … we’re joking around, and she said, ‘You should make a movie called Sharktopus.’ We said, ‘You know what, we should!’ So sometimes it happens that way, but generally we come up with what’s familiar to the audience and how do we put a new twist on it. And then we come up with the title.”
Once past the title and into the movie, a novice viewer might be surprised to find just how seriously the films’ producers take the plot points.
“Even though they’re fun, over-the-top movies,” says Vitale, “the plots all hang together. We’re very strict about the internal logic. So if there is a mega piranha, what are the rules of a mega piranha? Mega piranha can do x, y and z, but you know what? It still can’t do a, b and c because it’s still a fish. It can’t pull up a chair at a desk and start typing on a computer. And if a character says something at the beginning, those plot points must carry throughout. I think we give the audience a good viewing experience because we’re strict about internal cohesiveness, story logic and character logic. [The stories are] fun and they’re campy, but the actors all play it for real. All the characters take the situation seriously.”
This has all combined for a Syfy original movie “flavor” that Vitale is pleased they have come upon. But it certainly does not mean that the same movie is simply remade over and over again.
“We do 24 of these a year, two a month,” Vitale explains. “If we delivered the same original movie over and over, that’s not fun, that’s not interesting. So what we do is give you different flavors.”
Some of these flavors are exemplified in this summer’s upcoming original movie premieres, as Vitale discusses.
“Stonehenge Apocalypse [premiering June 12] is a disaster movie with an alien theme. … One of the things we like to do on these movies is take familiar places, familiar ideas, familiar mythology, and give viewers a new perspective on something that’s very familiar. … Everyone knows Stonehenge, and there’s always a lot of legends about who built it, where did it come from, why was it built? It feels like a place of mystery and power. In our movie, the giant stones of Stonehenge begin to move, and at the same time they’re moving and shifting, cataclysms occur all over the earth. This one stars Hill Harper from CSI: New York.
“If you look at Lake Placid 3 [premiering June 26 title has been moved; network will now be showing Dinocroc vs. Supergator on this date], it’s a sequel to a theatrical franchise. Lake Placid 2 was our highest-rated original Saturday movie ever. And now Lake Placid 3 has a great cast, which includes Colin Ferguson [Syfy's Eureka; Ferguson also directs the movie]. … It’s fun. Like the first two, it’s got action, it’s got comedy, it’s got a family dynamic, it’s got characters you care about, and it’s a rocking good time on a Saturday night.
“In July, we’ve got Jack Hunter and the Lost Treasure of Ugarit [July 31], which is kind of a Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of adventure with a supernatural twist, and it stars Joanne Kelly from Warehouse 13. And then also in July we have Goblin [July 17]. It’s basically a horror and action movie about a family vacationing in a mountain town. They’re haunted by a goblin that steals babies, and it’s up to the family to rescue the baby and keep the family unit together and defeat the threat. It’s a family drama with action and frights.
“We think of these movies as escapist fare for Saturday night viewing. Just put up your feet and relax. You work hard all week, and the stuff you watch on TV – you’re watching serious news programs and heavy dramas. Now it’s Saturday night. Saturday night’s always been the night where people need to have escapist entertainment. It’s the night where you don’t cook, where you order in pizza … the night where you’re a little less serious.”
Along with Ferguson and Harper, some other bigger names recently drawn to these movies have included Eric Roberts, Sean Bean, Lauren Holly, Barry Williams, Tiffany and Lance Henriksen. Vitale compares starring in a Syfy original movie with the cachet that came from appearing on the old Adam West Batman series.
“Everyone in Hollywood wanted to be a Batman villain,” he says. “I’m beginning to learn more and more that a lot of actors want to be in one of these movies. It’s like summer camp for actors. They come off their shows and want to do this just for fun.”
With bigger name stars, 12-14 month shooting times, and international filming locations (“we’ve shot every continent except the poles,” says Vitale, and this Saturday’s premiere movie Witchville was filmed in China) is there a chance of the “Most Dangerous Night of Television” becoming too “legit” and not “dangerous” or “cult” enough? Vitale doesn’t think so, “as long as we keep the flavor of what the audience wants. We look very carefully at every movie. We can get our ratings on a minute-by-minute basis. We look at the Twitter feed, focus groups. We test the movies every which way to try to see what people are responding to. We always want to make the movies more fun, but we always stick to the core, which is what’s going to be entertaining to the audience. That’s the key. As long as we don’t lose sight of what will entertain the audience I don’t think that will be an issue.”