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Why Syfy is Embracing Transmedia With Its New Series While Chiller Looks to Indie Directors For Its Horror Originals

Why Syfy is Embracing Transmedia With Its New Series While Chiller Looks to Indie Directors For Its Horror Originals

The foundation of this “Third Golden Age of Television” is often credited to “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “The Shield” and “Mad Men,” but arguably as influential was the 2004 version of “Battlestar Galactica,” reimagined by Ronald Moore and Dave Eick, which aired on Sci-Fi (as it was then called). “Battlestar Galactica” regularly made the top 10 lists of major television critics and won Peabody and Television Critics Association “Program of the Year” awards — not bad for a basic cable channel that had launched just over a decade earlier as a small genre-based sibling to USA Network, primarily created to exploit classic film and TV libraries.

Dave Howe joined Sci-Fi in 2001 after 15 years of guiding marketing and branding for the BBC in his native UK. In January 2008 he was named the channel’s president, leading the major rebranding effort the following year that gave us “Syfy” and a broader range of genre entertainment. 2013 saw two major events for the network — the five-years-in-the-making transmedia project “Defiance” and the social media-driven sensation of “Sharknado.” Syfy has a full development slate, with “Helix” (from executive producer Moore) premiering on January 10, and just last week Syfy ordered to series its recent pilot “Dominion,” based on characters from the 2010 feature film “Legion.”

In 2009, Howe also gained oversight of the horror-themed channel Chiller, which had launched just two years earlier. Chiller was a sponsor of the first Stanley Film Festival in May, where it premiered indie horror icon Larry Fessenden’s “Beneath” before a July theatrical and VOD release under its Chiller Films banner. Its next feature, “The Monkey’s Paw” received a limited release in October and airs on the channel on January 24, and the Drew Barrymore-produced “Animal” is on the 2014 docket.

In the eighth of a regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Howe about the importance of social media and transmedia to the future of television, Syfy’s efforts to create series with more gravitas coupled with the startling success of “Sharknado” and the importance of independent film directors to the growth of Chiller.

How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences have changed over the past five to 20 years, and how does Syfy’s original scripted programming fulfill those expectations?

The shift has really been quite dramatic and has, to some extent, been driven by networks that are not dependent on advertisers. Those of us who do carry ads are catching up with that, but the driver is characters and stories that are much more compelling and immersive than they used to be. People are looking for characters and stories that take them to viscerally challenging, emotionally charged, shocking, thought-provoking, provocative and ultimately emotionally satisfying worlds. That’s what you’re seeing from most shows that break out and tap into the phenomenon that is the digital water cooler. These series generate conversations and clamor that really propels them into the stratosphere from a ratings perspective.

Beyond what many might consider obvious, how would you describe the characteristics that define a Syfy scripted project?

Ultimately, the building blocks of great drama are the same, whether it’s sci-fi/fantasy or regular drama, and I think that surprises most people. You still need iconic characters and stories that are emotionally compelling. The point of difference with sci-fi/fantasy is the notion of a world that the audience has never experienced first-hand; one that is escapist, thought-provoking, scary and so fundamentally different to the world that you live in that you’re drawn to it in a way that makes it uniquely compelling and you become obsessed with it.

How did the 2009 brand relaunch change or broaden those characteristics?

I think we gave permission to more viewers to come sample the network. The sci-fi/fantasy genre, and sci-fi in particular, is misunderstood by a lot of people. The perception is that it’s narrow and “not for me,” and yet it is the biggest, broadest and most mainstream entertainment genre, period. This is consistently the biggest genre there is. Among the top box office movies of all time, 17 out of 20 are genre. If you look at TV, the biggest shows are sci-fi/fantasies: “Game of Thrones,” “True Blood,” “Under the Dome” and “The Walking Dead.” This is the nature of this genre: It’s big, and it’s for everyone. Same with videogames; same with books: “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games,” “Halo” the video game; these are the biggest franchises out there, and people don’t acknowledge that [they’re sci-fi/fantasy].

So when we made that subtle shift from S-c-i-F-i to S-y-f-y, we did two things: We created a brand identity that was uniquely ours and that made more sense across the range of what we do: sci-fi/fantasy, superhero, supernatural, paranormal, unscripted as well as scripted. It also gave us a portable identity in the non-linear world, which made it easier for people to seek out S-y-f-y shows as opposed to the generic category of “sci-fi” that in search is of no use to us.

Sci-fi and fantasy have always had their places in pop culture, but this genre entertainment has really exploded over the past several years, maybe to a greater degree than ever before. Why do you think such stories are connecting so much more now?

A saturation kicked in around scripted drama, in particular around procedurals: been there; watched it to death. People are looking for TV that is different and set in worlds that they haven’t seen before. People are looking for relatable but sufficiently different stories and characters in terms of the emotional journey. They’re drawn to this genre because they ask themselves, “What if? What if I was in that situation? What if I experienced that particular alien invasion or post-apocalyptic world where you have to fend for yourself?” We’ve all grown-up to live — and the younger generation, in particular — in quite a high-tech society and somewhat fantasized environment. We’re looking to escape to worlds that are a little more visceral and scary.

More frequently, we’re seeing people from outside the world of television — filmmakers, playwrights, longform journalists, radio producers — developing series. Cameron Porsandeh, the creator of “Helix,” began his career as an economist. What is Syfy’s approach to seeking out different creative voices?

That’s critical to the success of any creative enterprise. People are increasingly drawn to TV because it gives them an opportunity to do longform stories, especially in the increasingly serialized world that we’re living in. New storytellers recognize that the constraint of a singular stage play or movie — occasionally a franchise — isn’t enough. Really complex storytelling requires the time and space to set-up multiple layers and let them play out through all the twists and turns. I think that’s very attractive to anybody who has stories to tell.

Cameron is a great example of that. He took his background as an economist and his interest in how diseases and viruses spread, and he brought the two together. He has a gift for storytelling, and it’s amplified by Ron Moore and Steve Maeda’s ability to give him the experience and the skill set to help make that story come to life for a TV audience.

Digital technology has given audiences a larger say in how they watch their stories, and this shift seems to have occurred concurrently with this new serialized form of more sophisticated storytelling. Syfy took a big step towards catering to this reality with the “Syfy Now” app. How do you see the basic formats of television continuing to change?

The most groundbreaking thing that we’ve done was “Defiance.” No one had exploited this next generation of storytelling, which is true transmedia-across-platforms storytelling. The unique thing about our audience is that when they become involved with these characters, they want to live, eat and breathe them 24/7. They do not want the confines of just an hour a week for 13 weeks or sometimes less. True cross-platform transmedia storytelling gives you the opportunity to hang out with those characters and live those stories 24/7, 365 days a year.

[With “Defiance”], both of those worlds – the game and the TV series — were organically designed by a singular team, and I think that was a benchmark for how storytelling will continue to evolve. Having these multiple screens brought to life opens up unbelievable possibilities, especially as the software becomes a little easier to use and special effects become less expensive to create. The sky’s the limit in terms of really exploiting the technology to not only drive the clamor of social media, but also to give audiences the access and ability to influence and interact with the stories. Obviously, technology is in our audience’s DNA. They are genetically wired to want to live across these platforms and be pioneers of new technology.

What lessons did you learn from the development process and eventual release of all the various elements of “Defiance”?

“Defiance” was a five-year project, and it reinforced to us how critical it is to fully develop these mythologies, characters and stories, which were designed from the get-go to interact organically on these platforms. That’s unique as opposed to what most movies and TV series do, which is to spin-off something with licensing and merchandising into another platform and not necessarily involve the creative team. We’re increasingly seeing writers and showrunners who are uniquely interested in exploiting new technologies, which is a really great thing.

Even five years ago, Ron Moore, who’s our executive producer on “Helix” [and developed and executive produced “Battlestar Galactica”] was a pioneer in that space. He singularly wanted to do all of those things that took you beyond that linear TV experience: the live commentary, podcasts, behind-the-scenes stuff. He was prolific in terms of not just delivering the stuff but actually initiating and wanting to do more of it. With “Helix,” we have the TV series every week, but we will also have a website called “Access Granted” that unlocks various Easter eggs built into the show and takes you into the secret lab, which will give you an extension of the TV experience.

Earlier you mentioned the “digital water cooler”: What’s more important to Syfy? The conversation or the ratings? Looking at “Sharknado” this summer, for example, the ratings were okay, but the attention from the “digital water cooler” was sensational.

They’re mutually beneficial; one feeds the other and vice versa. What we saw with “Sharknado” was something that we’ve never seen in the history of this network, where the two consecutive repeats each did better than the premiere or first repeat. That’s unheard of and was driven totally by the social clamor out there around scenarios and characters that are so dramatically unique, different, fun and high concept that you really have no choice but to blab about them.

Syfy has long made a concerted effort to social media into its programming strategy. Do you think that the conversations around television have changed due to their movement from coffee-breaks around real-world water coolers to the digital space?

They’ve become much more sophisticated than they ever were. That quick exchange that you have about what you watched last night has now become quite an in-depth critique and analysis of some of these stories. It challenges us all as storytellers to be true to the stories and characters; to be cautious and careful about what we do and why we do it; to not cut corners, jump the shark, or change facts and storylines because the amplification of getting something wrong is that much greater. Especially around this genre, people notice when you break the rules, fall over the mythology or reference something incorrectly. On “Defiance” we had a mythology coordinator to make sure that we were doing the right things and being consistent to the stories and the characters across the board.

“Battlestar Galactica” was not just a defining show for the channel, but also an early success and influential entry in the evolution of highly serialized television, often ranked during its run as one of the best shows on TV. Why do you think “Battlestar Galactica,” in particular, struck such a chord?

I can’t take the credit for “Battlestar Galactica” as I wasn’t running Sci-Fi at the time, but I was head of marketing so I was part of it. The driver was that “Battlestar Galactica” threw out all the rules around space opera. We specifically said we want to go back to compelling emotional characters. So there was very little technology: There were no phasers, no transporters. It was a very clean, good-versus-evil storyline and a singular, high-concept survival quest and search for home. Plus the sophisticated and complex storytelling around these robot characters that were both invisible and overt kept you guessing throughout. 

I do think “Battlestar Galactica” was instrumental in transforming TV storytelling because it made these characters incredibly relatable and emotionally involving without getting bogged down in some of the traditional gobbly-gook technobabble that has dragged down a lot of genre shows. That’s now increasingly part of the success of the genre: It’s no longer science-based because the science is inherently not that interesting anymore. We all have an iPhone, Android, PC or iPad, and there’s nothing interesting around the technology in terms of how it works. The interesting thing is what you can do with it, where it can take you, what you can experience, and how you can communicate in a way that you couldn’t before. That’s transformative. 

“Battlestar Galactica” was also one of the first shows in [basic] cable TV, which is advertiser-driven, to tackle some pretty deep, thought-provoking and shocking subjects, such as genocide and terrorism. Actually, this is true to science fiction generally: It holds a mirror to what’s going on in the world. You find a metaphor to talk about waterboarding, torture, weapons of mass destruction; all of those resonant and relevant subjects were built into “Battlestar Galactica,” and that’s also true of a lot of the really breakout scripted dramas. You pick-off the taboo subjects; those things that no one’s ever tackled before. You tackle them smartly and where appropriate cautiously and responsibly, but you nevertheless tackle them.

Why then do you think the “Battlestar Galactica” prequel “Caprica” didn’t attract a bigger audience?

I loved “Caprica.” We’re all very proud of “Caprica,” but we made a few missteps with it. What shocked us most is that we expected the “Battlestar Galactica” crowd to come, and it didn’t. Maybe because it wasn’t set in space, and it was a bit too soapy for them; maybe a little too philosophical, and it didn’t quite have the level of action. There was a big learning curve with that.

“Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica” were fun thrill rides, but they also possessed a sense of gravitas, taking on serious subject matter and contemporary issues. Other Syfy series like “Eureka,” “Warehouse 13” and “Haven” have felt more playful and existed as pure entertainment. “Defiance” and your upcoming series “Helix,” as well as several shows you have in development, seem to be headed back in the direction of more gravitas. How important is that kind of serious, relevant drama and prestige programming to Syfy?

It’s absolutely critical to us. That is where we’re going. We have to make the stand-out, groundbreaking, thought-provoking, highest possible production value series that we can. That’s ultimately the only way that we can compete in the social media-driven world that we’re in because those are the stories that people want to experience. Driven by social media, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. If you have a me-too, in-the-middle mediocre show, it’s ultimately going to languish over time. You need a show that grabs the audience by the throat, holds them, excites and angers them sometimes, and certainly provokes them. That’s what hooks them. 

In season two, “Defiance” tackles some quite tough subjects. It is ultimately an immigrant drama. It is a metaphor for the United States and all of these races and diverse people figuring out how to live together; coming up with a common thread that ultimately is about survival. As we go, we’ll still give it the action and the soap opera of the characters, but set it against a backdrop which is tethered in a deep mythology and a provocative point-of-view that keeps you thinking and guessing.

Do you see “Dominion” as also fitting that mold?

Exactly. It’s a post-apocalyptic world that we haven’t seen on TV before. It really is a melting pot of survival in which the world has become somewhat feudal and hierarchical with this juxtaposition of good and evil living together. We’re incredibly excited about it. It’s a very compelling, incredibly well-done series that pushes the envelope once more.

On the other hand, Syfy has been airing its low-budget Saturday night movies for years, but “Sharknado” seemed to come out of nowhere. The absurdity of these films plays a major role in their appeal. Do you think you can strike lightning again with these movies and the “Sharknado” sequel?

“Sharknado” is a very different thing. It wasn’t something that we planned; we’ve been doing those movies for a decade. They are kick-your-feet-up, Saturday night thrill rides. What you saw, again driven by social media, was a point in time and the juxtaposition of two universal themes that became lightning in a bottle. Sharks are timelessly appealing and scary; global warming concerns most of us. Weather disasters met the sharks, with a visual that ultimately came to life as soon as you heard the title “Sharknado,” and that was something that none of us expected. 

The [publicity and] marketing teams were very smart, and we really rode that wave. We got on it, fueled it, and kept it going for several weeks. We’ll keep it going hopefully with “Sharknado 2: The Second One.” I think at that point of the summer, there was nothing going on. Then suddenly “Sharknado” appeared from nowhere, and there was a snowball effect.

And you plan on keeping these movies going even if “Sharknado 2: The Second One” doesn’t have as large an impact? 

Movie are tough in the non-linear world. Movies on TV have traditionally been the default for when there’s not much else going on. The challenge of these movies — and I think we met that challenge with “Sharknado” — is that you have to basically give people a reason to watch, and you really have to come up with a subject matter, title or something which jumps out at and draws in the audience. That’s what we will continue to do. 

What we’ve been trying and will continue to do – as we did with “Sharknado” — is these ripped from the headlines, relevant subjects. We amplify some story in the news around some killer fish or an obscure lake in Canada, and it becomes “this could happen.” Anything that reeks of “this could happen” plus the wink-at-the-camera ridiculousness of “Sharknado” makes it fun summer entertainment. We’re in the fun summer entertainment business, and we’ll continue to be. The challenge for us is how do we make sure that we come up with those topics that tap into the zeitgeist of the moment and bring them to life.

Last April you touted a new anthology series from Jamie Foxx and then in June announced it would be pushed indefinitely. What’s the show’s current status? 

We’ve pushed it to Halloween [2014]. When we’ve gone through the holidays, we’ll be back in development with Jamie, figuring out when and how. He is incredibly driven by this series. This is something that he personally wants to lead the charge on creatively, including the writing and directing. That’s something that any network would kill for, so we’re excited about it.

Syfy’s younger sibling Chiller has been running for over six years, but still no HD channel. Is that coming?

We hope so, yes. There’s no reason why it can’t be in HD other than from a distribution perspective. There’s been an explosion of channels, and most cable and satellite operators are pretty saturated in terms of their bandwidth. It is important for Chiller to increase its distribution and put it into HD, which is where it should be given that the vast majority of its content is sitting there in HD.

How do you see Chiller growing and expanding as you improve its distribution?

Chiller is potentially another Syfy in five or 10 years. It is uniquely defined in the marketplace. FearNET is the only comparison, but it isn’t nearly as well-distributed as Chiller. Like sci-fi/fantasy, horror is a big and growing genre. There’s been an explosion of box office hits, and a lot of them have been low-budget. We’ve been approached by lots of storytellers who really want to tell horror stories.

Given the limitations of a very small programming budget on Chiller, we’ve been very successful doing original movies with great auspices, whether it’s recognizable books, comics, writers and filmmakers. As we figure out how to increase distribution and get ourselves into HD, I think the sky’s the limit for Chiller.

This summer Chiller was a sponsor of the first Stanley Film Festival, where you also premiered Larry Fessenden’s “Beneath.” Did you see this partnership with the Stanley primarily as outreach to indie directors?

Yeah, it was just a great opportunity. The thing about horror is that a lot of it is in camera and doesn’t require much in the way of sophisticated special effects. It is about the atmosphere; the suspense, the fear and the thrills, and it’s much more intimate. These indie writers and directors really get that, and the stuff that they produce on a dime is beyond impressive. 

The challenge of the TV world is obviously our [commercial] breaks do break-up the notion of big stories where you really are scared out of your life. We’re learning as we go how best to do that in the TV environment. A lot of these writers and directors whom we’ve worked with are also being pioneers and really want to figure that out as well.

“Beneath” also launched a new distribution strategy involving theatrical and VOD releases in advance of the channel premiere. Was there any concern about theatrical and VOD diminishing the broadcast audience or vice versa? 

No, quite the opposite. These days, I don’t think one impairs the other. We’ve tried to figure out ways to distribute these movies so they’ll be self-promoting. Whether it’s the theatrical release or the SVOD release, that becomes a marketing tool in and of itself. People will always choose the convenience of watching or consuming something as it suits them. So the more simultaneous we can make the distribution and the premieres, the better off we are. Some people just aren’t sitting down at nine o’clock and watching a movie. They’d really just rather access it on demand when they choose. Having that Chiller Films brand has been a terrific marketing tool for us to get the word out very inexpensively around Chiller as a destination for original content.

Do you see producing original series for Chiller as well?

We see everything coming to Chiller in time. There’s nothing to stop us from doing [series] other than that with limited distribution, we have limited revenue and therefore limited programming and marketing. There’s a chicken and egg here: Chiller is an emerging network. It isn’t fully distributed; it’s only in about 40 million households, which is less than half of what it could be in.

The point at which it’s more fully distributed and that revenue stream is that much higher, then series are definitely in Chiller’s future. Having said that, we have discussed series already with some lower-budget acquisitions and international co-productions. Over time, we will share more material with Chiller. We may even premiere something on Chiller and then have it move to Syfy. That’s the world that we live in.

How would you characterize the difference between  Syfy’s original movies and a Chiller film?

The Syfy Saturday night movies are fundamentally different from the Chiller originals. The original Saturday night movies — the “Sharknado”s, the “Jersey Shore Shark Attack”s — are popcorn movies. They’re B movies, designed to be not taken too seriously. That’s what they’re proud to be. There’s a very loyal audience for them, and they punch pretty good ratings.

The opposite is true for Chiller. In the original space, we really want Chiller to be doing movies that are high production value but low-budget. There’s really not much to be had with tongue-in-cheek horror movies. To really scare people, you have to do it with conviction, and you cannot be winking at the camera. You cannot be seen not taking it seriously. The Chiller movies are designed to be entertaining, but also more serious storytelling.

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