Ian Ziering battles an airborne great white in 'Sharknado 2: The Second One.'
Ian Ziering battles an airborne great white in 'Sharknado 2: The Second One.'
Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

How 'Sharknado' Went From AFM Pitch Session to Global Sensation

by Alex Ritman
November 01, 2018, 7:30am PDT

What began as a throwaway line from a film about a murderous leprechaun ended up in a pitch session during the American Film Market seven years ago — original title: 'Shark Storm' — and would go on to spawn five sequels, a Las Vegas musical and (possibly) an animated series. The creative team behind Syfy's monster hit 'Sharknado' looks back on how a cheesy, low-budget thriller about airborne man-eaters became an unlikely overnight cultural phenomenon.

While studio execs may flinch when recalling the summer of 2013 (the one in which The Lone Ranger lost Disney about $150 million), over in the (very) independent arena, a quite remarkable moment occurred. On July 13, a schlocky Syfy movie, made for $1 million and not expected to create any sort of lasting impression on the world, somehow became an overnight cultural phenomenon.

Sharknado — an intentionally preposterous tale in which an American Pie star, one of the original castmembers from Beverly Hills, 90210 and the dad from Home Alone battle a tornado that sucks up great whites and hammerheads and spits them out over Los Angeles — was by no means the first insane-sounding monster disaster flick. It wasn’t even the first film with a crazy title about sharks starring D-list talent that had appeared on Syfy.

Sharktopus (half shark, half octopus attacks beachgoers), Super Shark (bulletproof shark threatens to disrupt bikini competition), 2-Headed Shark Attack (self-explanatory) and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (even more self-explanatory) had already come and gone, enjoying minor splashes of notoriety before joining the low-budget, straight-to-video plankton filling out the booths of the American Film Market each November.

But rather than becoming just another outing from The Asylum, the schlock-masters behind an impressive catalogue of cheap disaster, horror and so-called “mockbuster” films, Sharknado sparked a feeding frenzy. Thanks to social media and a growing haul of celebrity fans, the film rode a wave that would produce five sequels and three spinoffs.

That wave has finally come crashing down — for now. With the sixth and final Sharknado installment having aired on Syfy in August, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to director Anthony C. Ferrante, writer Thunder Levin and producer (and Asylum co-founder) David Latt about how it all began with a crazy pitch at AFM.

ANTHONY C. FERRANTE
Director

One day, my occasional writing partner Jacob Hair and I were brainstorming some ridiculous film-pitch ideas for Syfy. One idea we had was Lavabird, a bird that spewed lava, and then Jake said “Sharknado,” and we just fell in love with that name. We submitted it and nothing happened. But Jake and I kept talking about it — we were obsessed. And because I put references to things that make me smile in other projects, when I was writing a script for Syfy called Leprechaun’s Revenge, I put in a line. Someone says, “Look, we don’t want to have happen what happened in that town over. Remember sharknado? They never lived it down.”

Leprechaun’s Revenge, starring Billy Zane, didn’t air on Syfy until March 2012 (it was later released on DVD as Red Clover). But someone at Syfy had already spotted a flash of aquatic potential.

DAVID LATT
Producer

We were having dinner with Syfy execs at AFM in 2011, and they asked what was on our slate. One of the shows we were planning to pitch was called Shark Storm ... basically sharks on the Pacific Coast who get sucked into a cyclone and dumped in L.A. Their response was, “OMG, this is a perfect moment, because for years we’ve had this title that we’ve been sitting on and we couldn’t find a plot for it — Sharknado. We’ll make this film with you if you call it Sharknado.”

THUNDER LEVIN
Screenwriter

I had made a film for The Asylum called American Warships, and we were talking about what to do next. They said they wanted me to do a movie called Shark Storm. And I said, “That sounds like a terrible idea. Haven’t we had enough shark movies and enough storm movies?” They went away grumbling. A month later, they went back to me and said, “Forget Shark Storm, now it’s Sharknado. And I said, “What do sharks have to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?” I had heard “Shark NATO” and was imagining sharks battling the army in Europe. They said, “No, a tornado of sharks.” And I said, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, so as long as I can play it that way, I’m definitely in.”

In the summer of 2012, Levin got to work on the script. But there were conflicting ideas over whether to play up to the campy title or stick to Asylum’s m.o., which is, according to Latt, “a studio film at a discount.”

LATT

We had said yes to Syfy, because our budgets go up and we’ve been friends. We’ll always jump at the chance to make films with them. But collectively, we were thinking there was no way in hell we were calling it Sharknado, because that is the dumbest title ever. They can sell it as Sharknado on their channel all they want to, but we’re selling it as Shark Storm, because our international buyers will not understand Sharknado.

LEVIN

When I turned in the first draft, which was pretty self-aware and had a lot of humor in it, I got it back [from Asylum] with a big note at the top that said, “This is not a fucking comedy.” And then they’d gone through the script and lined out every single moment that was funny. And it was like, “Guys, this is not going to work like this, but you’re paying the bills, so I will make these changes. But if Syfy comes back and says it should be funnier, I’m getting a big cartoon hammer and hitting you all over the head with it.” And in fact, their main note was, “This should be funny.” So I said, “Consider yourselves metaphorically hit over the head with a big cartoon hammer.”

Then came the search for a director, which proved something of a struggle. As it happened, Ferrante — who had just directed a film for The Asylum called Hansel & Gretel — was in their offices going over their slate.

FERRANTE

They have a grid of all the movies they’re doing, and I’m looking at this grid, see Sharknado, and am like, “Er, that’s Jake and I’s movie.” And they were like, “Yeah — Syfy gave us that title.” They were struggling to find anyone to do it, funnily enough.

LATT

Anyone else would have had lawyers on the phone, but Anthony’s not that guy. He was like, “The world is lining up, this is great, and I want to be a part of it.” We went back to Syfy and told them that he is the director for this, and they said, “No fucking way.” They were like, “He’s a great horror director but has not proved to be an action director, and this is an action film. End of sentence.”

FERRANTE

I was bummed. Asylum was great — they really pushed [for] me. But they went through this whole process — at one point, Fred Durst might have directed.

LEVIN

I was supposed to direct but had decided not to. They wanted Sharknado and a sci-fi [film] I was working on done at the same time, and since I’d already made a tongue- in-cheek disaster monster movie — Mutant Vampire Zombies From the Hood — I figured I should do something different.

After Ferrante eventually was hired, Sharknado’s 18-day shoot — taking place across Los Angeles and mostly, as Ferrante says, “in parking lots” — involved a two-story house being built in an Olympic-sized pool (one the director admits was half-finished when he got there and initially looked like “a child had cut something out of a piece of paper”). It also involved a mini-revolt from the actors who had thought they were appearing in a movie called Dark Skies.

FERRANTE

It was the third day of shooting and we’re in a hardware store, and all the actors are in this back area. And they go, “We’ve heard this movie is going to be called Sharknado! They can’t call it that, call it anything else!” I said, “Look, in B-movies, the titles change all the time. It may not be called that, but if it is called Sharknado, it will be a good thing.”

LATT

When we made the first offer to Tara Reid, it was definitely Sharknado. I’m not even sure she had read the script — her agent may have just said, “Here’s something, go do it, turn up at 4 p.m.”

The cast stuck around and Ferrante completed the film on time, managing to make a number of essential cost-cutting decisions that allowed for Levin’s script — which the writer says originally read like a “$100 million movie” — to be squeezed into the $1 million budget. As they waited for Sharknado to be unleashed on the world, there were a few more early signs of an imminent explosion.

LEVIN

On the July 4 weekend, two people from different ends of the country called me to say that people at their parties were talking about Sharknado. I was like, “Are you sure they said Sharknado?” That was a small sample size, but it seemed like something was going on.

FERRANTE

About a week before, my editor called me and was like, “I was just in the 7-Eleven and people were talking about Sharknado.” I was like, “Give me a break, you’re insane.”

On July 11, 2013, Sharknado premiered on the Syfy channel and all hell broke loose on social media. The B-movie world would never quite be the same again.

LEVIN

I figured we’d have about 100 people on the hashtag — 10 asking serious questions and 90 telling us how much it sucks. Only that’s not what happened. There were 100 tweets every time you hit refresh, and you just couldn’t keep up with them all. Then celebrities start tweeting: Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde.

FERRANTE
I was sitting with friends and family watching the film — we were live-tweeting and doing a live chat for Fangoria — and all of a sudden, someone was like, “Hey, Mia Farrow is tweeting about this.” And then Judah Friedlander tweeted, “Yes, I directed Sharknado under the pseudonym of Anthony C. Ferrante.” I thought there would basically be a lot of people saying, “You suck, Ferrante.”

LEVIN
Damon Lindelof tweeted that he was going to write a sequel to Sharknado and have it finished before Sharknado was off the air. I tweeted back something like, “That sounds like a great idea, but it should be a prequel, only not quite,” because Damon had just taken Prometheus, which was a direct prequel to Alien, and made it sort of a stand-alone movie, not quite a prequel. He responded, “Touche.” And that was the highlight of the evening for me.

FERRANTE
I was on my way to another screening at a friend’s house and got a call from BuzzFeed, then CNN. And I’m like, “OK, this is weird.” The next day, I pretty much did every single place you can possibly imagine.

LEVIN

The next morning, in the midst of the deluge of press requests and in the midst of finding a publicist to help me take advantage of this ... all these people were asking me about a sequel. I called Asylum, but Latt said there would never be a sequel and that this would blow over and something else would come along and our 15 minutes would be over.

No, Sharknado’s 15 minutes weren’t over. While the premiere scored about 1.3 million viewers — not a particularly phenomenal figure — the eruption on Twitter peaked curiosity, meaning that, when the film was rebroadcast a week later, it did the unthinkable and landed a bigger audience — 1.9 million. And then its third airing attracted 2.1 million. A Sharknado 2 was unquestionably going to happen.

LATT

It took Syfy a couple of weeks to gather themselves and say, “Holy crap, what just happened there?” and “Let’s do it again.” We flew out to New York. We had this all-day meeting with every department. And we were like, this is probably what it’s like to do Krypton or a bigger show for them. You get the whole support of the team. The mood was really exciting. And now we get to do number two! Well, the gloves are off.

This summer’s The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time was Syfy’s concluding dip in the infested waters, but the Sharknado universe hasn’t had its final bite. A musical is due to land at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 2019, and an animated children’s series is being shopped to networks.

LATT

Sharknado is too big, too important, too enormous to get rid of. And it continues to gain riches that we do not deserve. We have been approached to do a high-budget film, but it might be too soon for that. I think people have to feel like they’re missing something after a few years to go, “Let’s see The Rock in the $200 million version of Sharknado!”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 1 daily issue at the American Film Market.