With the fourth installment of Syfy Channel’s Sharknado franchise out this summer, Thomas Vitale ’86, who developed and commissioned the first two Sharknado movies and worked at the Syfy and Chiller networks for more than 20 years before founding his own production company, discusses how a concept about man-eating sharks deposited on land via waterspouts led to a campy, pop-culture phenomenon, the secret ingredients of viral social media, and the value of a liberal arts education.
Where does a concept like Sharknado come from, and what was your role in getting it to Syfy?
Back around 2000, my team and I created the Syfy Original Movie. These movies were made mostly by independent producers and were designed to provide “escapist” entertainment for television viewers. We did over 300 original movies during my tenure. Often the ideas were developed internally by the great people who worked at Syfy. Other times, the concepts came from the incredibly creative producers and writers who were pitching the network. And every so often, a cool concept might come from friends and family of those at the network, which was always fun!
Regarding Sharknado itself, Anthony Ferrante, the wonderful director of all four Sharknado movies, used the word “Sharknado” as part of a funny line he put into a different script he was writing for the network. When people on the team at Syfy heard “Sharknado,” they knew that it would make a good escapist movie, but naturally no one could have predicted the incredible reaction.
Have you always been interested in this genre of entertainment?
I’m a fan of many different types of entertainment, but I’ve always had a special love for the imaginative genres and feel quite fortunate to have had a career in television at networks that have programming in genres I love. Syfy and Chiller are great networks and I loved my years there!
There was tremendous response to Sharknado on Twitter that helped it become a pop-culture sensation. Does the experience give you any thoughts about the nature of viral content? Is there a secret ingredient you can share?
I wish there were a single secret ingredient! Finding an exact formula for getting something to go viral is probably the holy grail of the entertainment industry. Overall though, there is always strategy from the players involved, plus you need potentially “buzzy” content, and you have to have the right stars and personalities attached. And like most things, timing and luck play a role as well of course.
You majored in economics at Williams. How did that course of study help you in your career?
Although I was always very interested in working in entertainment, I ultimately wanted to attend a liberal arts school rather than a communications college. I enjoyed the social sciences at Williams because they were “left brain/right brain” disciplines. In many ways, this is similar to working in the entertainment industry, which is both a creative endeavor and a business. I need to call upon both my creative and analytical abilities to find success. But as everyone knows, the best thing about Williams is that students learn to learn, communicate, influence, think and create. And that’s true for any major at Williams.
Can you talk a bit about what it’s like founding Planet X Productions?
I’ve always harbored a desire to do something entrepreneurial, and now, after nearly 30 years in the corporate world, I finally made the jump into entrepreneurship! As an entrepreneur, I’m working on a bunch of different projects that interest me, and there is a degree of not knowing what each new day will bring, which is both exciting and refreshingly scary! Fortunately, my partners and I have had a good first year in business, as we have sold some original programming to several networks and streaming outlets, and are now starting to talk to different investor groups. I can’t wait to see what’s in store over the next couple of years!