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.
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.