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Schlock-horror! The Twitterati jump the Sharknado

Social media have made a hit of a cheap gore-fest

Almost 40 years after Jaws became the original summer blockbuster in 1975 – the first film to take $100m at the American box office and resting at the top of the charts for 14 straight weeks, an altogether different shark tale is promising to send ripples through the film industry by redefining ways that success is measured. Sharknado, a-made-for-TV movie about sharks transported from the Gulf of Mexico to Los Angeles in tornados and attacking the city from the sky, aired last week on America's Syfy Channel. With an audience of 1.4 million, the schlocky picture would have disappeared without much fanfare had it not been for the unprecedented interest in the film on Twitter.

While the film was airing the public were tweeting with gusto. Mia Farrow posted a recent picture of herself and novelist Philip Roth having lunch, jokingly adding, “we're watching #Sharknado”, Olivia Wilde stated that she was now recording the movie on Farrow's recommendation while Elizabeth Banks joked “there goes my Emmy”, when a sequel starring Wilde and Farrow was mooted. Comedian Patton Oswalt chipped in, as did Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof.

Syfy channel owners NBC Universal reported Sharknado has become the most “social program on all television – broadcast and cable – as well as Syfy's most social telecast.”

At its peak there were 5,000 tweets per minute and 318,232 tweets about Sharknado were made while it aired. More than 100,000 different tweeters contributed to the phenomenon.

Twitter released its own analysis of the phenomenon that included comments from Craig Engler, Senior Vice President of Syfy, noting that about 20 minutes before the film aired they saw that there was a frenzy of activity about the shark attack and they jumped into as many conversations as they could.

The tweeting started to kick up a storm when first Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof began tweeting and then Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Will Wheaton, who has 2.4 million followers, began posting. He started with a countdown, before adding when the film started: “WE HAVE SHARKNADO. I REPEAT WE HAVE SHARKNADO. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

All of a sudden Sharknado became the movie that everyone wanted to talk about, despite relatively few watching it. Google search Sharknado and there are around 14 million results.

Sharknado is as bad as one would expect from an idea seemingly drawn on the back of a cigarette packet after a long night out. It stars Ian Ziering, Cassie Scerbo and Tara Reid – yes! – the one from American Pie and Scrubs. Ziering plays Fin, an ex-surfer and now bar manager who alongside barmaid Novo (Scerbo), head to the house of Fin's mean-spirited ex-wife April (Tara Reid) to save his daughter when they realise something odd is going on with the sharks.

The awful CGI looks like it was designed on a home PC in 1984. But what the film does have is some fantastically cheesy lines combined with some humorous social commentary – one character is convinced Sharknados are part of a government conspiracy. When the sharks do finally attack and helicopters are sent up to help combat them, bikini-clad Nova screams, 'we're going to need a bigger chopper'. Sharknado is meant to be watched ironically, as a spoof of disaster movies, in which the poor quality is the unique selling point.

The reaction and the reporting of the social-media phenomenon marks a sea-change in traditional measures of success such as box-office figures and audience numbers. What was important was Sharknado was being talked about. The media quickly jumped on the audience-led bandwagon, reporting the phenomenon, and all of a sudden a sequel to Sharknado was in the works.

The beauty of the movie was that watching was unnecessary. Even main star Ziering admitted he was busy working with The Chippendales, so was taping the movie to watch later. To enjoy Sharknado you just needed to be able to comment online. Reading the audience reaction and commentary became the event.

What's apparent is that audience appetite for movies made cheaply and featuring bad acting has not been sated, and every so often a film, such as Plan 9 From Outer Space, Bad Taste and now Sharknado, will capture the wider public's imagination.

'Sharknado' will screen on UK Syfy channel in September

The Jaw-Jaw: Critics' views

“Oh sure, it's easy to pick holes in a story about a weather system that makes it possible for sharks to fly and take to the streets, but that's the whole point of movies like this: fabulous in-home commentary. Often accompanied by the consumption of many alcoholic beverages.” (Los Angeles Times)

“There is a durable history of people getting together to watch famously bad movies: 'Plan 9 from Outer Space', 'The Room', 'Gigli', 'Snakes on a Plane'...The shared fun of 'Sharknado' on Thursday night was a reminder of the lingering power of live television. We were all in it together - laughing, cringing, absently checking our email and wondering if we'd miss those two hours later in life.” (The New Yorker)

“'Sharknado' is the most politically uniting thing to happen to America for a decade.” (National Review)