Syfy Goes HiFi

Posted on February 12, 2011 by

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Gateroid, Sharktopus and Syfy: Invading a cineplex near you.

Giant exploding snakes and steroid-fueled alligators = Best. Petting. Zoo. Ever.

By Melea Dau

Tonight, a meteorite carrying alien bacteria will slam into a junk yard, bringing to life a giant metal monster that will go on a killing spree and bring our planet to its knees.

But no big deal – it was only two weeks ago that exploding pythons and alligators surging with steroids were hell-bent on terrorizing the Florida Everglades, and we got through it – with the help of ‘80s teen pop sensations Tiffany and Debbie Gibson.

So this evening, we can relax: It will just be another Syfy Saturday night.

For a 16-year-old cable property once best known for airing “Battlestar Galactica” and reruns of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Syfy has taken significant strides in the past few years to distance itself from its fanboys-only viewer base in hopes of reaching a broader audience. Although the network was one of NBCUniversal’s most reliable entities, ranking fifteenth among basic cable channels in adults 18-49 and eighth in adults 25-54, Syfy President Dave Howe saw the original “Sci Fi” moniker as a hindrance to future expansion (indeed, when most basic cablers saw ratings growth in 2009, the science fiction network had basically none).

From geek to chic: the Sci Fi Channel's evolution to SyFy. Thanks to http://www.underconsideration.com/brandnew for the image.

Viewers may have initially ridiculed the network’s decision in 2009 to rebrand the Sci Fi Channel as the phonetically identical “Syfy,” but the effort has ushered in a successful programming and publicity metamorphosis. Armed with the tagline “Imagine Greater,” Syfy has not only expanded the range of its science fiction offerings (it now includes fantasy, horror, paranormal, supernatural, mystery and action/adventure under its genre umbrella, as well as new original scripted and reality-based shows), it’s building its reputation as Syfy Ventures, a business portfolio that includes five consumer sub-brands: Syfy Games, Syfy Films, Syfy Kids, Syfy Gear and Syfy Digital.

Rocking a concert in front of the entire student body is way cooler than having two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus.

Essentially, if all goes according to Howe’s rebranding plan, the nerd of cable’s high school could soon become its most popular student.

Galactical domination aside, a vital component of Syfy’s expansion success or failure will hinge on Syfy Films. Starting in 2012, in partnership with Universal Pictures, Syfy Films will produce one to two full-length feature movies for box office release per year with budgets ranging from $5-25 million. Co-headed by Universal Pictures Co-Chairman Donna Langley and recently promoted Syfy Programming President Mark Stern (who also serves as co-head of original content at Universal Cable Productions, the studio behind “Warehouse 13” and USA’s “Royal Pains”), Syfy Films is an extension of the network’s successful made-for-television movies, the most recent of which – Mega Python vs. Gatoroidcaptured a whopping – for cable – 2.35 million total viewers when it premiered on Jan. 29.

And Gatoroid’s success was no genetically-altered abnormality.

SyFy's Sharktopus: Legendary producer Roger Corman's finest hour?

For the past six months, each SyFy original movie has raked in at least two million viewers, including August’s Lake Placid 3 (3.0 million), and the affectionately mocked Sharktopus (2.5 million) in September. Last month, Syfy viewership increased 10 percent among adults 18-34, credited to ratings behemoths like Gatoroid, as well as rising viewership for “WWE Friday Night Smackdown” and the launches of two new series – the scripted supernatural drama “Being Human” and the special effects makeup reality competition “Face Off.”

For Syfy president Howe, it’s not surprising that the network’s guilty pleasure films have cultivated a loyal audience – in an era of disappointing multi-billion-dollar epic fantasies and superhero adventures (think last year’s Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), campy B-movies are a welcome change of tone. “‘It’s about letting escapist entertainment wash over you,’” Howe said to the New York Times. “‘These are fun and easy Saturday night, put-your-feet-up, don’t-think-too-much movies.’”

Times entertainment business reporter Brooks Barnes similarly credits the popularity of movies like Gatoroid to “a simple case of supply and demand.” Syfy’s Saturday-night films recall the B-movie “creature features” that once dominated both television and the cinema throughout the 1960s and ’70s, but disappeared from the entertainment landscape when film rights became more expensive and viewing habits shifted away from Saturday night. But with new B-movies like Dimension Films’ 2010 release Piranha 3D making almost $80 million at the global box office, and Saturday nights now ripe for the television audience-taking (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX almost exclusively air reruns), a market for the low-rent creature features of old still clearly exists.

Whatever happened to Saturday night B-movies? Well, Syfy's going to make us pay for them now.

Whether Syfy’s Saturday night success will translate to the big screen with Syfy Films is another story.

Part of the made-for-TV movie charm is the cheesy special effects necessitated by small budgets (Syfy spends $2 million on each film according to Barnes’ piece), which television viewers accept in exchange for the free at-home showing. But bigger budgets may build audience expectations, and it will certainly take more marketing dollars to coerce crowds to leave the comfort of their homes to spend $10 at their local movie theaters. In short, there’s a greater risk of investment for viewers at the cinema, and the next Gatoroid and Sharktopus knock-offs may not inspire a B-movie box office renaissance.

However, if Syfy Films can secure stable, innovative production companies to breathe new life into the genre (no working relationships with production firms have yet been announced), the success of Piranha 3D may be able to be replicated – or even surpassed.

This image from cellulord.blogspot.com illuminates the shallow truth about 3D films.

Ultimately, a solid creative team will need to be established to craft and choose tales that remain true to Syfy’s Saturday night movie brand promise (campy fantasy fun), but are also able to generate enough consumer interest to cultivate an audience motivated to spend its hard-earned dollars for a big screen experience. Shooting in 3D a la Piranha may prove a vital component (i.e. marketing gimmick) in this regard.

Whatever the strategy, Syfy Films must construct a method to create consumer value above and beyond what its cable parent company can promise. If it can’t, Syfy Films will be doomed to fail.

After all, why buy the cow – steroid-pumped or otherwise – when you can get its radioactive milk for free?

Melea Dau

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