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 report on the "poor"

performance of SoaP at the U.S. Box Office at the weekend. In trying to analyse why the film performed as it did there seems to be a "blame game" happening. Devin Faraci at CHUD, in particular, (just as he was with Firefly) is preoccupied with the fan vs. studio angle. These websites seem to have a major issue with the way the film went from being a 'genuine' cybersubcultural fascination (because of subcultural manifestations of cool and knowledges about 'good' and 'bad' cinema turning the film into one big joke) to being capitalised by studios into a 'mainstream' marketing extravaganza (hence detracting from the film's - and subculture's - countercultural clout). Through this over-capitalisation and also a too long wait on the release, the film has lost its interest factor (its 'undergroundness') and hence underperformed, and this - according to these sites - is the studio's fault.

I find this fascinating because, I think, this convergence between producers and consumers has been happening for years now and this transition between what is seen as sub or counter-cultural capital and mainstream cultural capital is nothing new. I think the difference now is that these websites and subcultures are beginning to realise what's been going on, and are not sure how they feel about it. They are fan groups and they do display some of the hallmarks of textual poaching and ownership as well as strongly displaying their capital through professionalism common in most fan groups studied. Yet they are uncomfortable with the power shifts that are occurring. This is not he first time these sites have been poached for information by film producers (look at the "planted review" phenomenon, or the new film Fanboys), and yet there is still a great amount of animosity directed towards studios and their marketing techniques. When a film underperforms, wether critically or financially, these groups blame the

studios. When a film performs well at the box office, these sites either give the film text critical merit or credit the studios with good marketing. Interestingly though, the sites place themselves also in judgement of other more hardcore fan groups, like Star Wars Fanboys and Browncoats. Devin blamed the Browncoats' over-zealousness for grass roots advertising for effectively scaring away average movie goers, amongst other reasons. And yet he rejects the blame for SoaP, drawing a major distinction between Internet Movie Fans and 'hardcore' fans. The Hollywood Film Review Websites and Internet Movie Fans I'm looking at seem to want to situate themselves as a place of convergence of power between consumers and producers, and yet really seem to struggle with their place in it, when push comes to shove. Ironically, although the Internet Movie Fans are angry that the studios took what was originally going to be a 'cult hit' only known to a niche group and tried to make it mainstream, the film hasn't earned blockbuster levels and may well actually turn into a genuine 'cult hit.'

Both sides seem determined to prove that there can be no meaningful cooperation between media producers and consumers.

But let's not be in such a big hurray to dismiss what's happened here. I would have loved to see Snakes outgross Pirates (or at least Superman Returns). But that may have been the wrong criteria for evaluating the success of internet based marketing. The idea of large opening weekend grosses is itself a product of mass marketing. In a world where films are designed to appeal to the broadest possible public, broadcasting makes sense as a way of getting out your message and the success of this strategy is going to be measured by how many people you can get into the theatre the first week. But, if you read Chris Anderson's Long Tail argument, he suggests that niche properties require longer shelf time to find their audience: they start slower, they last longer.

In this case, the hype was enough to heightened awarenes about the film but not enough to overcome skepticism. Some thought the film wouldn't be any good. Others worried that the film wouldn't be bad enough.

The folks who came on the opening weekend might be seen as the early adapters. Most of what we've heard 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.