“You’re in a different mood in the summer,” says Thomas Vitale, executive vice president, programming and original movies, Syfy. “You, as a viewer, want different things. There’s a reason that Oscar movies come out at a different time of year, and ‘popcorn’ movies come out in the summer. We really try to be cognizant of the rhythm of the viewing patterns, what viewers want when. And popcorn and the summer just seem to go together, and June is a good time to kick off the summer.”
Vitale is explaining his network’s ambitious slate of original movies premiering this month — a first for Syfy, which is something, considering its original movie franchise has been around about 10 years and has incorporated over 200 titles. The films have become a part of pop culture, with Vitale relating a story of how NYU students once approached him on the subway as he was reading a Syfy movie script and were in awe of his job. And the movies’ popularity continues to grow. Vitale tells me that this year, total viewership for Syfy’s original movies is up by about 10 percent over last year. Interestingly, the films have also gotten gender-balanced — movies that at first glance might appear to be just a “guy thing” are actually viewed by roughly 50 percent female audiences.
So perhaps it was time to strike while the iron was hot with their summer event.
“This June, we’re doing something that we’ve never done before,” Vitale explains. “We have four movies, four weeks in a row. Usually, the movies are only twice a month, every other week, but June we decided to kick off the summer big.”
If you’re familiar at all with Syfy titles, you know that these films fall under the aforementioned “popcorn” category, with Vitale proudly offering that each of the four titles is “more entertaining than the next. … The May sweep is over, the broadcast network finales happen in May, and now there’s a little less on, and the viewer is hungry for more, and we want to feed them with our own brand of food — our own brand of craziness.”
That brand does indeed get crazy (in a good way) with the four titles premiering this month — with the actual film titles themselves, naturally, often being part of the fun:
Jersey Shore Shark Attack — Premiering June 9, the story of this film unfolds during the Fourth of July weekend at the Jersey Shore, where angry sharks are devouring residents, and locals must save the day. This title has drawn in the star power of some veteran actors who like the cachet of appearing in a cult classic, who like the fun of working on escapist entertainment, or both. (“Whenever I meet actors, they all say, ‘I’ve gotta get in one of those movies!’” Vitale says.) Here, Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), Tony Sirico (The Sopranos) and Jack Scalia (Dallas) appear, along with ’N Sync’s Joey Fatone, William Atherton (looking like he might play a dick again, like he did so memorably in Die Hard, Die Hard 2 and Ghostbusters) and Vinny Guadagnino of the original Jersey Shore series.
I talked with Sirico, who plays longtime Jersey Shore local Capt. Salie in the film, about his draw to the project, which came down to the fun of the story, and his love of playing this particular character.
“I love Capt. Salie,” says Sirico. “He’s so full of shit … pardon my French. … He knows how to spin it, and he’s very dramatic. … He’s a tough old-timer … a great storyteller, and he’s always spinning tales about the old days to the young people who hang out [at his pub]. Though most of the tales are exaggerated, still, the tales are true. … He has stories from the past about shark attacks in that area, [so] his role is not an action-packed role. He don’t fight the sharks, but he talks a lot about them. … It’s a wonderful role.”
The role, like the film, combines elements of comedy, drama and suspense, and Vitale states, “the movie is a satire.” It particularly takes jabs at, of course, Jersey Shore, and programs like it that have taken heat for what can be seen as negative portrayals of Italian-Americans.
“In this movie,” says Vitale, “the Italian-Americans are the heroes, really. So I think what we’re doing is, we’re taking the stereotypical paradigm of a show like Jersey Shore and turning it on its head. … The heroes are this group of regular folks, and the sharks are obviously the antagonists, and then the human antagonists are the rich kids. I think it’s tapping into the public desire to see regular people step up and be heroes. … Now, I’m talking in a very serious way. The truth is, this movie is all sorts of fun!”
Sirico also had fun working on the movie, as briefly as he did, with the young cast, who play familiar-sounding characters like “The Complication,” “Nooki” and “J-Moni.”
“These kids that I worked with,” he says, “great actors. It was just wonderful to work with them. And I was there only a couple of days — bada bing, bada boom! I was right out. I had a lot of fun yelling at them, telling them stories. These kids can act; these kids are really into their moment. I loved it.”
Piranhaconda — This June 16 premiere stars Michael Madsen and Rachel Hunter in a story about a monster billed as “part fish/part snake/all killer.” With a title and description like this, it might not surprise B-movie aficionados that the movie comes from the legendary Roger Corman.
“On the heels of Sharktopus,” says Vitale, “this is Roger Corman’s next movie for us. Roger is eternal; he just keeps going and going, and making these fun movies. And what’s a better mashup than Sharktopus? Piranhaconda! I think it’s as good a mashup, if not better.”
(Interesting aside: Sharktopus and Piranhaconda actually faced off in the championship of last year’s online game Syfy Saturday Monster Madness, with fans eventually voting for Sharktopus as the overall winner.)
Arachnoquake — Premieres June 23. “This has a little disaster element in addition to the creature element there,” says Vitale. “It’s got Tracey Gold, who I think our viewers know and love from Growing Pains.”
The film does indeed combine two of what seem to be Syfy’s favorite genres — disaster and monsters — as the story follows a horde of giant albino spiders that terrorize New Orleans after being freed from a subterranean prison by massive earthquakes. Bug Hall (The Little Rascals), Ethan Phillips (Star Trek: Voyager) and Edward Furlong (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) also star.
Bigfoot — Syfy ends its big movie month on June 30 with what may be one of its more pedestrianly titled flicks. But it makes up for that with its quirky cast.
“Last year,” explains Vitale, “we did Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, which was pitting Tiffany against Debbie Gibson. Now we have Danny Bonaduce from The Partridge Family and Barry Williams from The Brady Bunch as rivals. We all grew up thinking of The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch as two rival shows. Over the years, you always heard that Mr. Bonaduce and Mr. Williams had kind of a fun rivalry — remember they did Celebrity Boxing? So they’ve had a fun rivalry, and they’ve known each other and worked together over the years. Now we have a chance to have fun with that, and have a little fun with the fact that these two gentlemen are perceived to be rivals. They had a blast together.”
The film’s cast is rounded out by Howard Hesseman, Sherilyn Fenn, Andre Royo and Alice Cooper, and is directed by Oscar and Emmy nominee Bruce Davison. “He really knows how to work with these actors,” says Vitale of the director, “and get the right spirit. He really understands the spirit of what these movies are.”
Audiences certainly seem to also understand and enjoy the spirit of these movies. And if they don’t yet, they will have plenty of opportunities to discover it in June.
Photo credits: © Syfy. Credit: Lara Solanki