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Its online buzz was better than its bite

'Snakes on a Plane' revealed how slithery the phenomenon of Web excitement can be.

December 31, 2006|Deborah Netburn | Times Staff Writer

"SNAKES ON A PLANE," which came out in theaters in August, was not just a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and a plane full of snakes. It was a phenomenon -- and then it was a punch line.

It was very nearly the most important movie of 2006, and then suddenly it wasn't. It was a film that proved that unprecedented Internet hype does not translate to ticket sales -- at least not yet. But it was the beginning of something, certainly. And on the eve of its DVD release Tuesday, it is a saga worth revisiting.

The most important element of "Snakes on a Plane" and the reason it was propelled to such dizzying heights of awareness is, of course, the title. Simple. Specific. Descriptive. Hilarious.

Screenwriter-blogger Josh Friedman, credited with starting the frenzy around the film, put it best when he wrote, "It's a title. It's a concept. It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be."

Friedman wrote that post in August 2005, a year before the film's release and a month before principal photography would begin. He had just been called in by New Line Cinema to do a rewrite of the script (which he never did), and while careful not to release details of the script he did see, the post alerted the online world that "Snakes on a Plane" was in the works.

A few months later, 26-year-old law student Brian Finkelstein launched a website called snakesonablog.com to chronicle his quest to get invited to the Hollywood premiere. The blog quickly morphed into a clearinghouse of information on the film and the hub of "Snakes on a Plane" activity on the Web.

By early 2006 "Snakes on a Plane"-mania was firmly established. In January, seven months before the film's release, Wired magazine proclaimed it the best worst movie of the year based simply on the title. Fanboy sites such as JoBlo.com and AintItCoolNews.com kept up a steady trickle of information on the film, and fans began to make their own T-shirts, posters, trailers, parodies and songs for a movie none of them had seen. Almost collectively the Web came up with a line of dialogue that seemed to crystallize their campy vision for the film: Samuel Jackson, gun in hand saying, "Enough is enough. I've had it with these #$@**% snakes on this #$@**% plane."

The "Snakes" craze reached its peak in March when the film's cast and crew reassembled in Vancouver, Canada, to spend five days reshooting. New Line promised fans the reshoot would add more gore, sex and violence to the film and bump the rating from PG-13 to R. They also shot Jackson saying the imagined, profanity-filled line. Message boards erupted in posts filled with more exclamation points than words and the fanboys almost died of joy.

Pop culture observers began to pontificate on the idea that "Snakes on a Plane" was the first feature film that fans had a direct hand in shaping. And while that was true, it was maybe less true than it was made out to be.

In June, "Snakes" producer Toby Emmerich told the Los Angeles Times that even though some of the new footage included scenes the fans had come up with, the decision to make the film gorier came from more traditional channels. After seeing an early screening of the film, New Line executives felt it was too tame to be successful and ordered the reshoot.

Obsession with "Snakes" continued to build throughout the summer as New Line sent out posters and trailers and finally, a 10-minute preview at Comic-Con in July. The buzz was everywhere -- on magazine covers and morning talk shows and, of course, the Internet.

Then the film came out.

Some had forecast a $40-million opening weekend, but that was not to be; instead "Snakes" took in about $14 million. The following weekend it dropped 50%. Eventually "Snakes" took in $34 million at the domestic box office -- a respectable total for a film that cost about $35 million, but certainly not the blockbuster New Line was hoping for. In the end, "Snakes on a Plane" was a film more fun to talk about than to actually see.

Finkelstein, reached on his cellphone recently, just before a law school final, said he doesn't think the box office numbers prove anything about the way Internet marketing works.

"There are only so many people you can convince to see that movie," he said. "It had a finite audience. But the amount of attention paid to it meant that everybody who was going to see it saw it. They made every ticket sale they could have made."

Good point especially since for most people (Finkelstein included), the movie was a letdown -- not serious enough, not campy enough, not scary enough, not exciting enough.

"I felt bad for New Line," he said. "The general public created this perception that it was going to be this campy, funny thing, but that wasn't the movie they had made. The fans wrote one line of the movie, but it was too late to impact what they had in the can."

Snakes on a bummer.

*

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

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