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COLUMN ONE

When Fans Hissed, He Listened

The director's changes to the film `Snakes on a Plane' included scenes sought in online forums. The Web has made the public a collaborator.

June 29, 2006|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

Long before the summer thriller "Snakes on a Plane" slithers into theaters next month, potentially venomous fans started rattling.

The film's title says just about everything you need to know about the plot: On a transpacific flight, a Hawaiian mobster trying to eliminate a protected witness uncorks a carton of poisonous serpents. But as websites posted details during preproduction and as shooting got underway last summer, B-movie fans began to react. They wanted more creative snake attacks, more gore, more nudity and more of star Samuel L. Jackson's signature four-syllable obscenity.

How much of the chorus was sincere and how much of it was a desire to propel an already quirky plot over the top is unclear.

Nevertheless, based in part on the comments, director David R. Ellis went back and reshot scenes to make the attacks more violent, the sex more explicit and the language more profane -- including adding an expletive-laden line of dialogue for Jackson.

"I had the luxury to go back and tailor the film exactly like the fans demand and they expect," said Ellis, whose experience with "Snakes on a Plane" reflects the increasing influence that Internet fan communities have over what's playing on multiplex screens.

It's as if thousands of people worldwide are sitting in on daily rushes, in which the crew and studio executives offer advice and commentary on movies during production. Although most common with films based on superheroes such as Superman and fantasy worlds such as in "The Lord of the Rings" -- franchises with established rabid fan bases -- the Internet's reach is gradually turning the already collaborative process of moviemaking into a global endeavor.

Since 1999, when Artisan Entertainment built online buzz for "The Blair Witch Project," studios have embraced the Web to promote their films with campaigns that try to make potential moviegoers feel like they're part of a Hollywood crew. Fans in turn insert themselves into projects that catch their fancy.

Websites such as aintitcoolnews.com post casting news, director interviews and other project-related intelligence long before the studios' publicity departments traditionally roll out marketing campaigns. In the case of "Snakes on a Plane," screenwriter Josh Friedman ignited the spark a year before the film's release by rhapsodizing about the title on his blog. "It's a concept," he wrote. "It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be."

Henry Jenkins, founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Comparative Media Studies program, said that if the movie had a big opening weekend, credit had to go to "the fan following and the response of the producers to the fans."

Jenkins noted that Ellis and the studio, New Line Cinema, "could have buried this thing."

"They could have not responded to this," he said. "Instead, they recognized what was going on and embraced it."

As a result, "Snakes on a Plane" may be the first feature film that fans had a hand in shaping. A Google search returned nearly 3.8 million online references to the film. The Snakes on a Blog fan site has attracted about half a million visitors.

"People have a very clear idea of what they want to see in the movie," said Brian Finkelstein, 26, the law student at George Washington University who created Snakes on a Blog. "It's given New Line a chance to make the movie match expectations. I think it's a unique thing. Hopefully, they'll be able to make a movie that would be more engaging than otherwise it would be."

Two Emory University medical school students, Jonathan C. Seccombe and Prashant V. Shankar, said they were so inspired "by the film's stupidity" that they created a tongue-in-cheek tribute -- a rap video now circulating on the Internet, "Cova' of Maxim." Dressed in baggy gangsta attire, with baseball caps defiantly askew, they rhyme: "We got our drinks/and some pretzels too/but we gotta bid these snakes adieu."

Director Ellis has been watching it all unfold since the Internet enthusiasts began excoriating him for changing the film's title to "Pacific Air 121" -- a working title he said he adopted only temporarily so he could get actors to read the script.

"We let it go for a while, because the controversy was attracting attention," Ellis said. "So I just let it play out for a while, whether we were going to change the name or not."

After screening an early version of the film, producer Toby Emmerich said New Line executives concluded that the PG-13 version was "too watered-down." Emmerich said the decision to make the film gorier and edgier had nothing to do with fan reaction, although Ellis said scenes were rewritten "to include the stuff the fans had."

One scene, in which a couple smokes a joint and has an intimate encounter in the airplane bathroom, contained a mere suggestion of nudity and a hint of danger.

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