How did Snakes on a Plane become one of the most buzzed-about films of 2006? By inviting the buzzers onboard.
A year or so ago, Snakes on a Plane bore the extremely unimaginative title Pacific Air Flight 121, and the only person even remotely positive about the film’s existence was Samuel L. Jackson’s accountant, since a paycheck is a paycheck is a paycheck. It was likely destined for release during January (a.k.a. “almost every studio’s dumping ground”), if it even made it that far. Straight to DVD was a safer bet. Oh well, the film probably wouldn’t hurt Jackson’s appeal among fans and casting directors, and who knows — maybe it would pick up a cult audience after it entered the endless loop of basic cable. After all, Jackson is at least likable in almost everything he’s in, and the film does combine a couple of basic human fears: snakes and planes.
Fortunately for everyone involved, that cult audience arrived quite a bit sooner than expected. Now armed with a keep-it-simple-stupid title and bulletproof Internet buzz, Snakes on a Plane has a prime end-of-summer release date (August 18) and a chance to be one of this year’s real success stories. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have peppered broadcasts with references to the film. Entertainment Weekly and high-traffic gossip site Defamer.com are borderline obsessed with it. Hot Topic sells Snakes on a Plane T-shirts. In fact, at this point, expectations are almost too high for the film. I doubt Jackson, director David R. Ellis, or anyone at New Line Cinema (the studio behind Snakes) ever thought that would be a problem.
How did all of this happen? It’s not like Snakes on a Plane has the most inventive concept: Two FBI agents (Jackson and Wolf Creek’s Nathan Phillips) are assigned to protect a mobster-turned-government witness (Mark Houghton) as he flies from Hawaii to testify in a high-profile trial in California. If you’ve seen enough movies, you know that the Mafia obviously doesn’t want him to testify. What you don’t know — but given the title, might have guessed — is that, to silence him, a hit man sneaks aboard a crate containing hundreds of snakes of various types and sizes. The crate opens, the snakes do what snakes do, and that’s pretty much it.
Admittedly, that’s enough of a setup for me to give it a thumbs-up, but I’m the type of guy who happily whiles away Saturday afternoons watching You Got Served and S.W.A.T. In that way, and so many others, I’m not normal. So, again, how did Snakes on a Plane become one of the most buzzed-about films of 2006?
It was pretty easy, actually. After reverting back to the shooting title, the Snakes team embraced the Internet like a long-lost child, allowing their multimillion-dollar investment to become almost like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Consider this: The initial Snakes on a Plane poster, teasing its summer release, was based on fan-created art. Or this: Cast and crew reassembled to shoot extra footage — including a scene featuring a line of dialogue that is quintessentially Jacksonian and unprintable here — that was, in part, based on ideas culled from blogs and message boards. That doesn’t happen with most movies. Or any movies, for that matter. Though it probably should: I can think of plenty of films that would have been much improved with some Internet-approved tweaks — and no, not all of them are comic-book adaptations.
Bottom line: In the year since its original wrap date, Snakes on a Plane has become less like a film and more like a Wikipedia entry. For the first time, the Internet truly is the tail wagging the dog.
I’m not saying the Internet hasn’t previously been a factor in a film’s success. Lions Gate created an elaborate website for 1999’s The Blair Witch Project to push the did-that-really-happen mythos of the film. After cozying up to the online fanboy set with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson took it a step further while directing last year’s King Kong, filming exhaustive video diaries that chronicled the production and were made available to anyone and everyone at kongisking.net. Harry Knowles’s Ain’t It Cool News site (www.aintitcool.com) has long been considered something of a kingmaker (or coup leader) by film execs, so they’ve more or less welcomed Knowles into the fold, giving him on-set access and sneak peeks at concept art and production stills.
But all of those forays into viral marketing didn’t go as far as Snakes on a Plane has. Neither has any studio, not yet anyway. And even if Snakes on a Plane is a runaway success, very few studios will likely follow its lead. They probably shouldn’t. I mean, it’s one thing to offer glimpses behind the scenes. It’s quite another to set up a suggestion box back there.