The Snakes on A Plane Phenomenon

I am watching with great interest the growing hubbub about the new suspense/disaster film, Snakes on a Plane, scheduled for release later this summer and expected by many to yield some of the strongest opening weekend grosses of the season. In many ways, we can see the ever expanding cult following of this predictably awful movie as an example of the new power audiences are exerting over entertainment content.

Here’s what I think is going on here:


Enter the Grassroots Intermediaries

First, the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon has been building momentum for well over a year now. In the old days, the public would never have known about a film this far out of the gate. They might have learned about it when the previews hit the theatre — a phenomenon which itself is occurring earlier and earlier in the production cycle — or even given the fairly low-brow aspirations of this particular title — when the film actually hit the theatre. In the old days, this would have been an exploitation movie of the kind that Roger Corman used to crank out in the 1950s and 1960s and destined to play on the second bill at the local drive-in. The goal would be to use a easily exploitable concept, a vivid poster and advertising campaign to generate heat quickly: then get into town and out again before anyone knew what hit them.

But, these days, grassroots intermediaries such as Ain’t It Cool News are feeding the public’s interest for inside information, starting to generate buzz almost from the moment rights are purchased or stars cast for a forthcoming production. Much as day traders have used the online world to become much more aware of every tick and twitch of the Fortune 500, the movie fans are ever attentive to anything which might impact a film’s performance at the box office.

Alerting the public to a film so far in advance is a high risk matter for the movie producers — since people can form strong opinions based on leaked photos or footage on such sites and those first impressions can be hard to shake. (There was a reason why Corman wanted to get into and out of town quickly.) With Snakes on a Plane, the early fan response suggested that the whole concept was a really big hoot — this was going to be one of these films which is so bad that it is good.

Trash Film Aesthetics: From Niche to Mainstream

Think about that for a moment. The celebration of trash cinema used to be itself a niche audience taste. But over the past decade or two, this niche consumption practice has become progressively more widespread. Cable programs like Mystery Science Theater 3000 helped to introduce the pleasure of razzing a really bad movie to the masses. And so, we can now anticipate that a high percentage of the youth market and beyond will turn up just to throw rotten tomatoes at the screen and laugh about the whole premise.

Fan-Made Media

More than that, the film’s fans (if you can call them that) started producing their own movie trailers and music videos; they’ve created all kinds of bad art — like this or this or this. Check out this site, Snakes on a Blog, which documents the wild world of fan appropriations surrounding this film. This also reflects the growing ability of media consumers to archive, appropriate, and recirculate media content. These fans are using a wide variety of tools and distribution channels — including both Flickr and YouTube. What’s striking about the present moment is how easily such materials can attach themselves to a major — or in this case, minor — media property and get widespread attention. In fact, the fan response keeps generating news coverage for the film — Entertainment Weekly in particular seems to have a Snakes on a Plane story every few issue.

Hollywood Listens to Its Consumers

But that’s not all. In this case, you had a production company which was monitoring the fan response and like a real leader, figured out where the crowd was going and ran out in front, shouting follow me. You could imagine a film getting this kind of public drubbing and having the producer decide that the safest option was to pull it from theatrical distribution and send it direct to video.

In fact, though, the producers listened closely enough to hear the affection underneath the raspberries and realized that the audience was actually looking forward to going out to the theatres and see this turkey. It’s hard to tell now whether the film was going to be marketed as camp all along — somehow I doubt it — but everyone’s busy mythologizing the choice. Samuel L. Jackson is reputed to have insisted that the film keep its over-the-top title: “What are you doing here? It’s not Gone with the Wind. It’s not On the Waterfront. It’s Snakes on a Plane!”. The producers reportedly went back and reshot some scenes to include really bad dialogue proposed by fans. The new previews really play up the absurdity and improbability of the core premise — and when I saw the preview at a theatre in Boston the other week, the audiences cheered and clapped like there was no tomorrow. And I have never seen a official site which so aggressively played up fan response to a film which is still sight unseen by its potential audience.

So, if the film really strikes it big at the box office, we can see this as a powerful illustration of what happens when fans take charge of the promotion of a major Hollywood release.

Comments

  1. Shocking! -rofd61ng

  2. Amazing what can happen when you don’t sue the public the minute they use your I.P.

  3. Sadly, hollywood will attempt this again, and fail. The Snakes on a Plane phenomenon will be just that as the next go around will have Hollywood trying to emulate what was created around this beast. The issue they run into is they lack the ability to grasp the true reasons Snakes on a Plane took on this life, they will try to give it structure and place it within copyright law.

    Henry, I wonder how closely corporations listen to your writings and teachings and how much they pay attention to your studies. You do good work that they could take advantage of to tap into the “youth culture” they are so desperately trying to profit off.

  4. i think the producers of this movies got lucky, and then got smart.

    they got lucky that bloggers picked up on the ridiculous title of the movie, and they were smart enough to take advantage of it.

    i dobut that we will see many cases like this.

    but it is likely to change the way holywood views the internet, and we’ll see many more coordinated efforts to try and get internet users involved in early stages of the production.

    what the producers of Lost are doing is very similar. which should probably be a topic for another post.

    - avner

  5. I’m looking forward to this movie as much as the next net.geek, but I don’t expect as much of a box-office surprise as many seem to be anticipating, because I’ve seen it before.

    What am I referring to? Serenity. It would be hard to beat the online buzz Serenity was getting, and sometimes it seems like it’s difficult to find a blogger who isn’t a fan of the prematurely cancelled series “Firefly,” but all of that buzz and a good deal of critical acclaim still couldn’t get people into the theaters.

    The sad truth is that the truly participatory population of the internet is a far smaller proportion of the overall citizenry than we ourselves want to admit. We see these overwhelming trends and buzz rise up in our communities as the latest memes and fads go through, but the overlap between those communities is, IMHO, a bigger factor in feeding the appearance of real influence than most of us realize.

    Will SoaP make twice what it would have made if it weren’t for Internet buzz? Probably. Maybe even three times. But I’m betting that number will still be small.

  6. The difference between Snakes On A Plane and a multitude of other hotly anticipated movie releases (Serenity, Star Wars: Episode I, LOTR:FOTR, even this week’s Superman Returns) is that the audience’s enjoyment of the finished product will have little or nothing to do with quality. Nobody standing in line for SoaP will be muttering under their breath “God, I hope this is good.” Nobody’s fragile hope for a fulfilled vision is in jeopardy here.

    Because SoaP will not be a “good” movie. It will be ridiculous, over-the-top, predictable and trite. The direction, cinematography, special effects? They don’t matter. At all. The draw of SoaP rests entirely on the popularity of Samuel L. Jackson, or rather, on an audience perception of what makes Samuel L. Jackson so awesome.

    The audience for SoaP doesn’t care that Jackon’s a very good actor, capable of finding depth and purpose in even the most depraved roles (Jungle Fever, for instance). Instead, they want to see Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winfield drop furious anger on a plane-load of snakes. Nothing more, nothing less.

  7. The difference between Snakes On A Plane and a multitude of other hotly anticipated movie releases (Serenity, Star Wars: Episode I, LOTR:FOTR, even this week’s Superman Returns) is that the audience’s enjoyment of the finished product will have little or nothing to do with quality. Nobody standing in line for SoaP will be muttering under their breath “God, I hope this is good.” Nobody’s fragile hope for a fulfilled vision is in jeopardy here.

    Because SoaP will not be a “good” movie. It will be ridiculous, over-the-top, predictable and trite. The direction, cinematography, special effects? They don’t matter. At all. The draw of SoaP rests entirely on the popularity of Samuel L. Jackson, or rather, on an audience perception of what makes Samuel L. Jackson so awesome.

    The audience for SoaP doesn’t care that Jackon’s a very good actor, capable of finding depth and purpose in even the most depraved roles (Jungle Fever, for instance). Instead, they want to see Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winfield drop furious anger on a plane-load of snakes. Nothing more, nothing less.

  8. Mr. Jenkins, trash cinema in the old sense is absolutely a marginal niche market these days that has seen some expansion, but I wouldn’t call it widespread. The difference is that less like MST3K, the trash cinema we see now is more about seeing Hollywood films flop in grandiose fashion (e.g. Another Jackson feature, Deep Blue Sea, or the worst movie of all time, Timeline), thereby becoming amusing pieces in the film canon.

    The other kind of trash cinema may be exemplified by The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, which while amusing for a bit for its camp and kitsch aesthetic, has little to offer as memorable. Then there’s John Waters with his increasingly mainstream films.

    I think Snakes on a Plane will instead differ and succeed, not just because of its net hype, but because it will gain a great following of people from the meatspace that never had a heads-up on the internet hype.

    Personally, my main interest in the film is the extrapolation of an entire film from an idiom about things “going extremely badly” to be polite.

    Then again, I could be entirely off-base about SoaP — I haven’t followed it as closely.

  9. Trash cinema is one thing, but what about trash viral videos that are created by fans – because they love the film so much.

    Everyone is jumping on board because this film is going to rock. Watch this funny viral parody called, “Steaks on a Train,”

    Staring Michael Jackson.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wXI-DgdgfQ

    Not for the faint of heart.