The movies have their detractors, of course, as witnessed by strident commentary on the IMDb.com pages of individual flicks (one would-be Ebert writes of Monster Ark: “Every scene is a showcase for the writer/director’s ignorance. … He knows nothing of how scientists talk, how they analyze, how they approach discovery. He is completely ignorant of how military personnel think, how they process situations, how they act and how they carry themselves”). To wit, many sane genre buffs like Miller have proven unsusceptible to the movies’ lowbrow charm. “Given the films I’ve seen — Sharktopus, Dinoshark, Dinocroc vs. Supergator — [Syfy is] aiming a little out of its budget and weight class. Time and time again, it’s the smaller horror films that are most effective,” he says.
Ah, but expecting restraint from a Syfy Saturday-night movie is like expecting a man-squito to refrain from mating with its half-human, half-fly brethren, according to the head of a studio that produces many such flicks. “The people who make them, like us, are fans first,” says David Latt, one of three partners at the Asylum, which will produce 20 low-budget flicks before 2012 is out. “We want to sit there and be excited and entertained. We’re not trying to make this moving drama, this Spirit Award–winning Sundance borefest.”
TV and movie execs may differ in their opinions about the films, but they all express some variation on the following sentiment: Making them ain’t as easy as it looks. So how, pray tell, is a Syfy Saturday night movie birthed?
The key to the success of the Syfy flicks isn’t as simple as a we’re-in-on-the-joke wink. In fact, one might argue that the movies succeed because they take themselves relatively seriously. “When you deliberately try to make something bad and kitschy, it almost never works. The first people to buy velvet Elvis art bought it because they thought it was beautiful,” Thompson notes.
Makers of the Syfy flicks have to contend with a host of distractions — in no particular order, iPads, children, sleeping, snack-filled pantries and 600 other cable networks. Given that they air on commercial-supported Syfy, the movies have to be paced with periodic breaks in mind — roughly eight per hour. Vitale notes that the network tracks ratings for each movie on a minute-by-minute basis to gauge viewer patterns. The data is then parsed to ensure that viewers get what they want precisely when they want it; that a lull doesn’t coincide with the top-of-the-hour break, for example.
“There’s a big difference between the way a theatrical movie is built and the way one of our movies is built,” Vitale explains. “In the theater, people pay and they’re sitting there and they’re locked in; the audience will wait 20 minutes before the first piece of action. With a TV movie, you have to give them something right away, before the first commercial. You have to tell them, ‘We are going to consistently entertain you.’ ”