'Sharknado' -- How the low-budget flick went from Twitter to the big screen

"Sharknado" poster.

Here at Marketplace we like to cover all the hard hitting financial news we can: GDP growth, unemployment numbers, earnings reports.

And then sometimes, well, we all need a little "Sharknado." That -- for those who somehow missed it when it was on the SyFy network a couple of weeks ago -- is a made-for-tv original film in which, just like it sounds, a tornado comes to Los Angeles and starts dropping sharks from the sky.

The premise, we'll grant you, is a little bit out there, but it's become quite the pop-culture sensation -- even Alan Krueger brought it up in comparison to a debt ceiling fight. And now, it's gonna have special midnight showings in movie theaters across the country tonight.

While the first showing on SyFy had disappointing viewership (1.4 million), the third airing ended up getting 2.1 million total viewers, setting a record for an encore of a Syfy original movie. In many ways, it's the ultimate "long tail" story -- a little low-budget flick, with the help of Twitter and other buzz, gradually gains momentum until it actually hits the big screen.

Midnight showings of cult hits like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" are nothing new -- but heading to theaters so quickly, just weeks after the first TV airing, certainly is.

"Everybody asks, you know, why did this happen?" says director Anthony C. Ferrante. "You can't ask why; it's 'Sharknado.' It's a movie about sharks and a tornado, and it just hit everybody's sweet spot for whatever reason this summer."

Ferrante was quick to add that while many have been mocking the movie, or embracing it for the pretty ridiculous premise, the movie was intentionally over the top. "We have Ian Ziering going into the belly of a shark and chain-sawing his way out. Of course we know the movie that we're making."

The movie stuck to a relatively small budget -- around $1-2 million.

"It definitely felt like all the money was on the screen," says Ferrante.

Its production company, The Asylum, specializes in these kind of made-for-TV movies, turning out a number of "mockbusters" each year. Last year, the company pocketed $5 million in profits. And in contrast to some of the bigger budget flops that we see at the box office, The Asylum has never lost money on a project.

The advertising budget was similarly small. "There's all these theories; I can't say what it was [that made it such a hit]," Ferrante says. "I just know that SyFy did their typical commercials -- they do these movies all the time. We did our own little grassroots thing, created a Facebook page. It was not planned, there was no marketing budget for it."

So how does he feel about having his name attached to this movie for all eternity?

"Making movies is hard, but it was fun," he says. "Think about it: If you're 12 years old and someone says, 'Hey, do you wanna go in someone's backyard, I have this shark thing I built, let's have some guy chainsaw his way out of it and we'll throw blood on him -- you would be there."

"Sharknado 2" has also just been greenlit, and will likely take place in New York. While no one has signed any deals to work on the sequel yet, Ferrante says he'd be happy to come back if they asked.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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