Snake Eyes

Squawk. Slurp.

Squawk. Slurp.

This is the sound of me eating crow. I’ll admit that I fell prey to some of the hype about the Snakes phenomenon when I predicted several months ago that it might result in one of the strongest opening weekends this summer.

Now that the dust has settled, it is pretty clear that this isn’t what happened. In fact, Snakes did manage to be the top box office earner last week but it barely broke beyond $15M, there’s some dispute as to whether it really came out on top of the Talladega Nights, and there were three other films (none of them huge box office champs) that were only a few million dollars under it. All told, it was a pretty lackluster weekend at the box office — as might be predicted by a late summer release date.

At the moment, New Line is getting caught by the expectations game. The media has turned the Snakes box office into a referendum of sorts on the new kind of collaborative relationship between media producers and consumers. They are taking its “failure” to meet some inflated expectations as evidence that internet based marketing doesn’t work. I suppose we should use the below expectations performance of any number of films this summer as signs that movie previews and television commercials just aren’t enough to open a movie.

Let’s be clear that the hype surrounding Snakes was partially built on line and partially built through traditional media channels. What portion of you first learned about Snakes on the internet and what portion read about internet interest in the film in Entertainment Weekly or USA Today? The new seems very good at innovating and experimenting; the broadcast channels though play a crucial role in amplifying those voices and getting them in front of mainstream consumers. In the case of Snakes, the double whammy of internet activism and media hype has succeeded in creating a very high level of awareness of this particular film but was not enough to overcome some core skepticism about the core premise. I found this out talking to my mother-in-law and sister-in-law this weekend: neither is much of a film buff; most films pass through town without registering on their radar; but both knew about s Snakes and knew that it was the film that was generating such interest on line. That’s no small accomplishment for viral marketing.

Of course, one might well question the motives of traditional journalists who have jumped with such glee on the Snakes phenomenon and tried to flatten the idea that fans might play an active role in promoting a motion picture. Here’s a sample of some of the scorn thrown at fans of the film following the box office returns:

The Internet buzz over “Snakes on a Plane” turned out to be nothing to hiss about. (Yahoo)

The horror-comedy starring Samuel L. Jackson took in $15.2 million last weekend, a tepid opening that dashed the hopes of Hollywood and especially of New Line Cinema, which released the movie, that vigorous marketing on the Internet would be a powerful new way to propel fans into theaters at a time when movies are working hard to hold their own against other forms of entertainment. ( *Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Despite a year of blog-fueled fanatacism that spilled over into the mainstream media in recent weeks, Snakes on a Plane didn’t exactly sink its fangs into the box office. (E Online)

Of course, such writers may have a personal motive for proving that the public may not be ready to decide for itself which new releases are worth getting excited about. After all, these are the people who have historically played a gatekeeping function within our culture.

At the same time, fan groups are lining up to suggest that the low box office was actually the product of the studio’s efforts to capitalize on the grassroots buzz rather than letting things play out on their own, as reader Stefanie Kechayas, a media student at the University of Melbourne doing thesis work on movie marketing and the online community, explains:

SoaP has not been released in Australia yet (is released Thursday), but I wanted to add what I thought was a really interesting trend on the websites I’m looking at. Yesterday, all the sites began to Devin Faraci at CHUD, in particular, (just as he was with here suggests that many of them liked what they saw. They are going to go back and reassure their friends. We need to wait and see whether the film has legs — whether it’s pattern is closer to the classic sleeper that holds steady over a number of weeks. We need to see whether the high awareness of the film translates into strong dvd sales. We need to see how the film performs internationally. We need to see how the film does on college campuses and on the midnight film circuit. Only then will we really be able to judge how much and what kind of impact the online phenomenon had in terms of shaping the success of this film.

David Edery makes a similar point in his discussion of the film at Game Tycoon:

To be blunt: the naysayers are wrong. What they don’t seem to realize is that this movie could very well have been a disaster. The premise was ridiculous. Critics, not primed to think of the movie as camp, might have panned the hell out of it. Online fan communities gave this movie’s creators a remarkable opportunity to turn a zero into something more. And they did!

Industry observers like John Hamann of Box Office Prophets seem on the cusp of understanding this, even as they question the film’s “disappointing numbers.” A quote from Hamann: Snakes won’t change anything, but it could start a decent-sized franchise for New Line, with huge revenue from DVD in the cards. With a reported cost of only $35 million, this will be an okay performer for a studio that has struggled since the last of the Lord of the Rings films.

Huge revenue from DVD in the cards? That isn’t a consolation prize — that’s a real win (and perhaps a miracle for a film as poorly conceived as this one.)

Keep in mind that all of this rides as much on expectations as on realities. Suppose this had been a documentary, a foreign film, or an independent film: this level of performance would have been seen as spectacular. Suppose this was a few decades ago when something like Snakes would have been a B Movie playing at the local drive-end: the idea that this film could be the top money earner would have seemed astonishing. In another era, this film might have gone straight to dvd and certainly would have taken longer to reach the current level of success. We still haven’t adjusted to a world where there will be hits and there will be niche successes (and of course there will be flop.) No matter how you cut it, Snakes isn’t a flop: it simply isn’t a blockbuster.

We are at a transitional moment: web communities are capable of generating strong support for niche products but they still can’t compete with the mass market success generated from broadcast media. We need to learn to be more adept at thinkiing about the relations between the two. And we need to curb our enthusiasms enough to lower expectations.

Squawk. Slurp.


  1. love your stuff, and i know that you’re an academic, but please — think about shortening up the posts! i end up skipping by your excellent content because it sits there in my reader like giant boulders amid a sea of pebbles. when i’m zooming through blogs, i don’t have 20 mins to devote to a single post. i suspect i’m not alone or i wouldn’t have bothered to mention it.


  2. No offense to fans, but the movie just sounded stupid to me. No promise of well-developed character, plot, dialogue, etc. Not to say I always visit movie theatres for these qualities. But I saw a trailer that said, “Of all the movies you see this summer, only one will have SNAKES ON A PLANE!” I laughed REALLY hard. The lack of imagination in the trailer alone told me all I needed to know about the movie.

  3. J. Schnaars says:

    I’ve been following the SoaP story for a while now, and my sense is that the final point here really hits the nail on the head. If we rewound this thing all the way back to day one, and the film’s info never hit the web, what would the life of SoaP have been? Obviously, playing this type of revisionist history isn’t exactly fair, but let’s indulge. With its highest of high-concept premise, the alledged name change to Pacific Air and the original PG-13 rating, what should we have expected from this film? I’m guessing somewhere in Uwe Boll’s wheelhouse, below Alone in the Dark, but maybe right above Bloodrayne in terms of box. So this really is a question of expectations. And in that regard, I think it’s impossible to not consider this film a resounding success.

    As you discuss, however, the real story here is the behavior and reaction of both the studio and the media. From day one I had the feeling that this wasn’t going to end nicely. In my mind, this was a test run, as movie studios are notoriously bad at handling ravenous fans of the ilk that SoaP brought out of the woodwork. (In my mind, there biggest bungling was of the generic variety as most previews failed to situate the film properly into an easily associable genre that uninformed movie-goers could latch onto. But that’s another point all together.)

    There seemed to be a great deal of miscalculation at work on the part of New Line. They behaved sort of like a grandfather who starts listening to those “crazy” Arctic Monkeys because he heard they were on Conan, and he wants to be able to chat with his teenage grandson. The grandson in this case still showed up at the theaters, and as you mentioned, will really determine the long term success of this film by either bestowing or denying cult status. As Ms. Kechayas points out, New Line, with their grandfatherly behavior, muddied the waters a great deal, something which was then exascerbated by reviewers and the bloggers she talks about because neither was quite sure what their new role was in this unforeseen scenario.

    The next couple of weeks will provide a much fuller and clearer picture. Who really gets lost in all this is the general public, who from what I can tell, understand SoaP to be “the first movie made by the web,” which from the “Will it play in Peoria?” perspective is not a good thing. The web (in a lot of folk’s minds) is a place for nerds, shut-ins and pedophiles, so a large portion of the population immediately lost interest, but this will change very rapidly in the future. This was a film that depended on viewers or potential viewers having done a lot more research before hand than most films, something that is second nature to the internet generation, but not a given for older folks. All this goes to say (I think I had a point somewhere) that SoaP was a nice start, and should continue to provide a yardstick by which similar future efforts will be judged.

  4. Michael Chui says:

    I concur with Seth. When I saw the preview in the theater, I just shook my head at how stupid things had become. I mean… okay, so there are snakes on the plane. Why do I care?

    The industry would be foolish to hinge their expectations on convergence on a movie that probably wouldn’t have even made a ripple if not for that fan factor.

  5. Perhaps we need to change our expectations rather than lower them? I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasize the problem with equating opening weekend box office power (or allaround box office power) with fan power–it ignores the fact that there are other kinds of capital–time, energy, and creativity–that fans have to offer in spades. I’m interested in the way that fans can challenge a capitalocentric mode of thinking, and these challenges come in small ways and indeed have a slow burning effect. Obviously a one-week-in analysis comes too early, but perhaps the point here is that the movie itself is not the point, but rather the cloud of activities that surround it.

  6. executrix says:

    I think this is one film that can be excused for not having legs.

    And I would think that a $15 million opening weekend would be a capitalist triumph for a movie in which everyone except Samuel L. Jackson was working for scale (sorry). I mean, without the Internet, the opening weekend grosses would have been $1.98.

  7. While I have numerous issues with what SoaP means culturally, I will try to address only one.

    I believe one of the major problems with the marketing and “fan” influence as it comes to SoaP is that many of those involved in the buzz surrounding this film are not interested in it at any genuine level. It was not long after I heard of this project that I imagined Samuel L. Jackson screaming about motherfucking snakes on motherfucking planes. It’s a very funny image in my mind, as are many of the parodies I have seen over the many months since this marketing idea was released. However, I will NEVER see this movie. Many of the people actively involved in the production of the various parodies and indeed the entire “fan” community surrounding this movie are, I imagine, much like myself in that. This worries me in that while I would not decry somebody’s right to enjoy a movie like SoaP, I fear that the marketing campaign which created it could become a wave of the future. If this is what “fan influence” looks like, let me off. The danger in democratization of the creative process is that it allows in the opinions of those who are not involved or interested in a fandom to begin to have a hand in making something that they are not actually interested in except from the “detached,” “ironic” angle that allows people like me to laugh at the buzz around SoaP without ever seeing it. I enjoy multiple angles and satirizing of art such as that which fan fiction makes possible, but we do not all have access to the film industry’s ability to regularly create, market, and distribute a work on such a grand scale. I would hate to see the standards of films across the board lowered by the influence of appealing to something that can be as baseline as internet humor.

  8. It’s probably too early to tell, and using seeds isn’t the most reliable statistic. But, from a quick look, it seems like so far it isn’t even making it on fileshare (which could either be a measure of non-popularity or of loyalty if true). Anyone know the best way to track the popularity of torrents/KAD/Overnet over time?

  9. J. Schnaars – While not made clear in my quoted passage, the animosity directed towards New Line is not wholy indicatve of the the reaction towards the marketing strategy I’ve noticed the fans giving. During production and the marketing periods the fans were generally (at least at first) enthusiastic, excited and proud of what was occuring in the SoaP development. They were also very self-reflexive, and were completely aware of their influence. Some were happy about this, some not so much. Two of the most vocal represenatives of these groups, Faraci at CHUD and Harry Knowles at AICN, illustrate this struggle well. Harry, who is really blurring the line more and more between producer and fan relished in the whole story from beginning to end. Faraci, like all the group, was excited at the announcement but slowly became more vocal of his sceptisism and criticism of the phenomenon. The major critisism I’m talking about in the quote, however, really only exploded with the release of the B.O. figures.

    ABJ P – My issue with your argument lies with what I think is a common issue amoungst critics of fan/producer studies: your conceptualisation of the term “fans.” In my thesis I will be very carefully defining who I’m talking about, through both subcultural and genre analysis. The fans that are involved with the SoaP are a cybersubculture who I call Interet Movie Fans. They are unique from typical conceptions of fans in two major ways: their “fan object” is not a particular film text but their collective participation in discussion of Hollywood films at a particular genre of websites, and they are virtual. You seem to identify with those who find SoaP “ironic” and “so bad its good,” and differentiate those people from SoaP “fans.” The people you identify with are the fans. I argue there are no “SoaP fans.” SoaP did not have a pre-existing fan base like a comic book movie does. The people on the internet reading script reviews at CHUD and AICN are people who are fans of Hollywood films. They don’t LOVE a text like it was their own and demand ownership and correct filmic representation. Like I mentioned in the quote, they actively like to disassociate themselves from those hardcore fans. They have their own canon of taste and operate like a subculture with hierachies of power, lingos and virtual interaction. They heard about a film called SoaP. They, like you, thought that was funny, and identified it with other “so bad its good” movies (like maybe C.H.U.D., a movie CHUD is named after). THEN Samuel L. Jackson was cast. That was when the “hype” really started. Now, whether they were every really seriously going to see the movie 10 times I couldn’t tell you. There was always a “make fun of it” vibe I noticed. But they do genuinely love Samuel. In this subculture he’s one of the actors that can do no wrong. He’s part of their canon. And so although there are elements of geuine adoration of SoaP, these fans are different to Trekkies and Browncoats and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fans. Some are related, I don’t deny there are some shared characterstics with traditional fan groups. While you identify with one aspect of this group (the “laugh at SoaP” aspect), they are not like you (although I’m sure there are many people who share your veiws), they are active in their enthusiasm and their scepticism about SoaP, along with many other Hollywood films. And they perform these practices and activities exclusively on a website genre.

    And, as I hinted at, they are like you in that they share your scepticism and worries about having too much power over Hollywood. They never profess to have ownership of the text. Quite the contrary, they invest hevily in concepts of director as auteur and film as art. So I think there’s a real identity struggle. Because, on the other hand, come on, who isn’t happy that they got Samuel L. Jackson to say that line?

  10. I mean, without the Internet, the opening weekend grosses would have been $1.98.

    I don’t know if this is true. As Daniel Fienberg points out:

    But would you like a better idea of why [SoaP is] disappointing? Because back in 2004, two August weekends later (and therefore worse), another film about killer snakes — “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid” — was released. An entirely unnecessarily and undemanded sequel to a seven year-old movie, with a budget of only $20 million and no star bigger than Johnny Messner, “Anacondas” took in nearly $13 million.

  11. Won’t a PG-13 rated movie make more money than an R rated one?

    SoaP, thankfully, made for us grownups.

    Surely New Line, whose job it is to know these things, took this into consideration when they were going over their box office “expectations”?

  12. I liked what both ABJ P and Stefanie Kachayas wrote, but, in general, in analysis of SoaP find too much discussion of how the marketing affected grosses and too little discussion of the fan marketing as the entertainment itself. For those fans Ms. Kachayas mentions, actually seeing the movie (more than once) is a point of pride, but for many others, the marketing was the show.

    I can’t be the only one getting off on reading about SoaP who has no interest in seeing it.

  13. Your analysis of Snakes on a plane’s “downfall” presents the studios lack of experience with online viral marketing. The studios are wrong to wholly blame online fans for the disappointing result of the Snakes phenomenon. New Line Cinema embraced Snakes internet popularity, but should not have left the film’s campaign in the hands of the scattered online audience. New Line began to cater to the select internet audience (making changes to the script and title) without assurance of the group as reliable consumers. Snakesfailure is not mass (broadcasting) marketing being more significant than internet (niche) marketing, but not utilizing the latter properly. Viral marketing must have a balance of virality (popular “buzz”) and monetization (guiding the consumer towards the product) to work effectively. There is no question Snakes had overwhelming virality as your post revealed a diverse audience became aware of the film and it’s online reputation including non-internet users and infrequent movie watchers. But Snakes fell short with monetization because there was no push for consumers to step away from the computer and into a theater seat. New Line erroneously believed if the public were talking about the film, they would go watch it. There were no real incentives for those fans who promoted the film for New Line which created a fan backlash. Bottom line, buzz alone cannot make a film financially successful, but it can lay the foundation for a possible hit. The “hiss” of Snakes was far greater than the bite, but should not nullify the marketing potential of the internet. Snakes was just another random film release before becoming an online marvel. As an earlier poster commented, Snakes would arguably not even registered on box-office charts without the support of web community.