TV NotesThe Thing That Ate Saturday Night
By Brooks Barnes, The New York Times
- January 16th, 2011
Los Angeles.- Take two former pop princesses Debbie Gibson and Tiffany and cast them in a television movie involving illegally imported snakes and alligators on steroids. Stir in gobs of gooey cheese a Dynasty-style cat fight here, a trio of fisherman eaten alive there. Most important, make liberal use of computer-generated creatures and effects. Pythons blown up with dynamite! Thousands of hatching reptile eggs! Alligators the size of skyscrapers!
Then send out a news release promising down and dirty action, focusing in particular on Ms. Gibson and Tiffany, who had dueling singing careers, and hairstyles, more than two decades ago. We settle our old '80s music rivalry by putting on short skirts and throwing snakes and 'gators at each other, Ms. Gibson said.
A rare, colossal alignment of camp and corn? Not really. For the channel known as Syfy, Mega Python vs. Gatoroid is just another Saturday night.
Getting noticed on television increasingly takes something over the top. Glee on Fox is a big gay comedy-drama-musical hybrid. Jersey Shore on MTV needed drunken girl brawls and wall-to-wall profanity to stand out in the reality show cesspool. Syfy has its messy B movies, guilty pleasure titles that chew into the absurd like tanker-sized sharks.
It's about letting escapist entertainment wash over you, said Dave Howe, the president of Syfy. These are fun and easy Saturday night, put-your-feet-up, don't-think-too-much movies.
Syfy started making these breezy films back in 2002, but the channel has stepped up its reliance on them as a loyal audience has developed. Last year it churned out 25, allowing Syfy to match the Hallmark Channel as the leading producer of original television movies. Budgets have stayed the same, about $2 million each, less than most hourlong dramas. But Syfy is devoting more marketing dollars to the franchise. For instance Mega Python vs. Gatoroid will receive a red-carpet premiere, the first in the network's history, on Jan. 24 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York.
Routinely high ratings have helped make the movies an indispensable part of the Syfy schedule. An average of two million people watch, according to Nielsen, with some of the movies (Pterodactyl, Dragon Storm) attracting more than three million, on par with Syfy's biggest hit series, Warehouse 13 and Eureka. The Saturday night mayhem also fits snugly with the channel's effort to broaden beyond science fiction. In 2009 the channel re-branded itself Syfy (dropping the Sci Fi Channel name) in a bid to capture the full landscape of fantasy entertainment: the paranormal, the supernatural, action and adventure, superheroes. Recent movies have tackled unexplained phenomena (Stonehenge Apocalypse), furry beasts (Red: Werewolf Hunter) and horrific experiments with nature (Mega Piranha.)
Sharktopus, the blood-soaked tale of a hybrid shark-octopus developed as a secret military weapon, was one of Syfy's biggest hits last year. (The monster goes haywire and terrorizes bikini-clad women along Mexican Riviera beaches; 2.5 million people tuned in.) Roger Corman, known as the King of the B's for pumping out movies like The Wasp Woman and Humanoids From the Deep, said he reluctantly agreed to produce the film, which got its start when a Syfy marketing executive, brainstorming ideas for new creatures, came up with the aquatic crossbreed.
It's not easy to take a computer-generated shark that can walk on a beach with octopus legs and make it seem believable, Mr. Corman said. My theory is that you can go up to a certain level of insanity and still keep the audience intrigued. Go beyond the insanity barrier, and people turn against you. In my opinion Sharktopus' breaks that barrier. The results showed him that even at my age you can learn something.
Syfy's Saturday-night movies harken back to the so-called creature feature days of local television. Starting on a widespread basis in the 1960s and continuing through the 1980s stations programmed off-peak hours with old horror movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon.
The carnage ended as rights to those films became more expensive, and viewing habits, particularly among younger people, shifted away from Saturdays.
The popularity of Syfy's franchise in many ways is a simple case of supply and demand. While new B movies exist Piranha 3D sold almost $80 million at the global box office last year Hollywood has drastically reduced its reliance on the low-rent genre, choosing instead to build behemoth fantasies and superhero adventures. Those cherished bad movies full of jerry-built effects, abominable acting, ludicrous story lines have been driven to extinction, the critic A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times in 2005.
Not only did the entertainment landscape lack B movies, but Saturday night had become a television wasteland, with ABC, CBS and NBC fleeing almost entirely to reruns.
The latest installment is the two-hour Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, which makes its debut on Jan. 29. Ms. Gibson, who rose to fame with ditties like Shake Your Love, plays a fanatical animal-rights advocate who spends her nights stealing exotic snakes from pet stores and setting them loose in the Everglades. Tiffany (I Think We're Alone Now) is a park ranger who looks out for alligators, which are being massacred by snakes that have grown to gigantic proportions.
To battle the slithering swarms Tiffany's park ranger, Terry, overdoses some alligators with steroids. Sample dialogue:
This is my perfect garden, my garden, Tiffany screams dramatically as the snakes start to take over. They ruined everything! They ruined the balance! And I'm going to take care of it; I'm going to take care of it tonight.
Park Ranger No. 2: What are you going to do?
Tiffany: We need a bigger gator.
By the end of the movie almost all of Florida is in ruins. Adding to the camp factor, Micky Dolenz, the drummer for the Monkees, plays himself. Kathryn Joosten, the Emmy-winning actress known recently for playing Karen McCluskey on Desperate Housewives, pops up to chew some scenery.
Mary Lambert, whose credits include the 1989 horror classic Pet Sematary and Madonna's Material Girl video, directed the movie. Tiffany even wrote and recorded a special song: Serpentine.
As with most of these movies, the creatures in Mega Python vs. Gatoroid look ridiculous. Computerized effects have come a long way, but when an alligator the size of the Goodyear blimp chases cars through the streets of Miami your reaction is more likely to involve laughter than terror. As for the digitally bred pythons, well ... they come cheap and look it.
Ms. Gibson who, for the record, has ended her unsuccessful effort to get people to call her Deborah and Tiffany, whose full name is Tiffany Renee Darwish, dove into their roles. To prepare, Ms. Gibson visited a nature preserve to learn how to look natural while handling pythons. Tiffany also worked with an animal trainer, although she passed on holding a baby alligator.
It started hissing, she said. I was like, I know I'm 'gator girl and everything, but that one's in a bad mood.'
Hiring actors who approach the silly characters with seriousness is essential to the success of the franchise, said Thomas Vitale, the executive vice president for programming and original movies at Syfy. If the actors don't take the story seriously, then viewers won't either, he said.
The people behind the camera know their movies aren't exactly high brow, but they similarly approach their work with gravity. Don't, unless you want a cranky filmmaker on your hands, call these movies campy. Mr. Corman, for one, prefers action science-fiction horror with a little bit of humor.
Jason Connery, who directed 51, a coming Syfy movie that revisits the Area 51 military base, said, I tried really hard to make the characters well rounded. Mr. Connery, who is the son of the actor Sean Connery, added, When you have a limited budget and time you have to play to the strengths of the genre, and character is one of them.
But art this isn't. Syfy's movies follow a fairly rigorous formula. About 40 percent of the time, by Mr. Vitale's estimation, a movie starts with a title. Think of Mansquito.
The topics generally fall into tightly defined categories. There are monster hybrids (Dinoshark), nonrealistic natural disasters (Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York) and giant creatures (Mongolian Death Worm).
Scripts need a quick start to the action, and plenty of room for Baywatch-style musical montages. Most important, plotlines must maintain (some) logic. How do you create an alligator the size of a skyscraper? Steroids, of course! People want to have some quasi-logical explanation for their suspension of disbelief, Mr. Corman said.
Finally, the movies are populated with actors who are familiar but not expensive: Bruce Boxleitner, Lou Diamond Phillips, David Hasselhoff. Syfy works with about 10 production companies to make the movies, which typically take 14 months from conception to completion, Mr. Vitale said.
Ms. Gibson, who became a Broadway actress in the 1990s, first popped up on Syfy in 2009 when her agent approached her about a role in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. She thought it sounded like a funny addition to her résumé.
I figured die-hard science fiction fans would see it, and that's it, she said. Fun, kitschy and under the radar.
Oops. When her agent called to tell her that millions of people had tuned in, he started the conversation with a plea: O.K., please don't fire me.http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/ar...ref=television