HOW DUMB LUCK AND A DUMB NAME TURNED ‘SNAKES ON A PLANE’
INTO ULTRA-SMART KITSCH
Somewhere out there, there’s someone whoís not aware that ìSnakes on a Planeî is coming out Friday, but we canít imagine who that person might be. Or what accident caused him to lose use of all five senses.
Whoever he is, he doesn’t watch E! – we can tell you that much.
Quite simply, no film in recent memory has been as relentlessly hyped, flogged, drooled over, plugged and written about in the weeks and months before its release. (No film that doesn’t star droids, that is.)
You get the feeling that when Osama Bin Laden shows up in his next video shot in some remote Afghan cave, he’ll be wearing a “Snakes” T-shirt.
And the strangest part is, New Line, the film’s distributor, hardly had to lift a finger. The hype was created and endlessly circulated by fans.
The studio has benefited from a true grassroots campaign in support of a movie with a brilliantly schlocky concept – yes, it’s as simple as snakes set loose on a plane – that has captured imaginations just like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Lord of the Rings.”
The hype has been so overwhelming that there’s almost no point in seeing the actual movie. It can only be a letdown. Which is why the studio won’t screen the movie for anyone, especially critics.
But that won’t stop hundreds of thousands from hitting theaters next week and plunking down cash for a ticket. “Snakes” will most likely open big. Real big.
And when it does, studio executives will scramble to make sense of how this happened. And, more importantly, how they can re-create it.
It won’t be easy.
The “Snakes” phenomenon seems to be a rare collision of Internet fandom, an inspired concept and dumb luck. Calculated planning and PowerPoint presentations in an L.A. conference room had little to do with it. Still, there are lessons to be learned. And if you’d like to try it on your own, here’s a blueprint for creating a “Snakes” scenario in six easy steps.
Step 1: Dream up a ridiculous title
The concept for the movie was originally created back in 1999 by producer Craig Berenson. He and his co-workers passed time over Friday cocktails by coming up with ridiculous movie plots. Berenson lobbed the “Snakes” doozy.
His co-workers groaned. Right away, Berenson knew he had something.
The idea drifted around for a few years until New Line hired action director Ronny Yu to helm. But after just a few months of preproduction, Yu left the film due to creative differences. Fortunately, he had already signed up Samuel L. Jackson to star.
“That’s the only reason I took the job,” Jackson told collider.com. “I read the title.”
After Yu bolted, David Ellis came aboard as director. He, too, was enamored with the title.
“At first when I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh, are you kidding me?'” Ellis says. “But then I read the script and realized that, being the nature of what it was about, it was perfect.”
“I never heard of a movie with snakes on a plane. I had never heard of that scenario,” says “Saturday Night Live” cast member Kenan Thompson, who co-stars with Jackson. “Sam Jackson was into it and so was my buddy, [actor] Flex [Alexander], so I just signed up with those cats.”
“Plus,” he cracks, “they wanted to pay me.”
“It was something fresh,” Ellis says. “I felt that it would really appeal to the audience because it combined two of people’s biggest phobias: fear of flying and fear of snakes.”
Step 2: Give it to the geeks
The script eventually landed with a screenwriter named Josh Friedman. The simple genius of “Snakes” floored him. So last year, on Aug. 17, Friedman posted an entry called “Snakes on a Mother—-ing Plane” on his blog, singing the movie’s praises.
“Holy s–t,” Friedman wrote, “I’m thinking: It’s a title. It’s a concept. It’s a poster and a log line and whatever else you need it to be. It’s perfect. Perfect. It’s the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles.”
From that one post, hysteria spread quickly in cyberspace.
“I first heard about the movie back in December by reading Josh Friedman’s blog,” says Brian Finkelstein, a Georgetown law student who created snakesonablog.com, the go-to “Snakes” site. “You first hear the title, and you’re drawn in by the fact that’s it’s so open. There are no metaphors. Everything you need to know about the movie is right there.”
Ellis and New Line even began leaking info to the blog.
Plug the movie’s title into Google today, and your search will turn up an insane array of fan sites, amateur art and elaborately produced songs and sounds. There’s even a fake audio trailer created months ago by a Maryland resident named Chris Rohan, that has a Sam Jackson soundalike barking, “I want these mother—-ing snakes off this mother—-ing plane!”
Another die-hard produced a fan movie called “Snakes on a Home Birth,” the contents of which are best left to the imagination.
“It’s hard to explain,” Finkelstein says of the fandom run amok. “There’s something very engaging about the title. Before there was even a poster or a plot or commercials or anything, people got interested.”
Step 3: Listen to the geeks
Because “Snakes” mania was reaching such a fever pitch online, the director and New Line took the unprecedented step of reading fans’ posts about the movie. In some cases, they went so far as to talk to bloggers to figure out what fandom wanted in the film.
Even though the movie had wrapped, Ellis went back for five days of reshoots to take the film more in the direction he – and the fans – wanted. Scenes were made more graphic, and Jackson was allowed to let more F-bombs fly – including voicing a variation of the line that had been made famous on Rohan’s fan-produced audio trailer.
“I have no ego about [listening to fans],” Ellis says. “I’m making the movie for them, not for myself. I would be stupid if I didn’t listen to what they wanted to see. That way, the movie has more of chance to be successful.”
Step 4: Scandals never hurt
As the film was being cast, the studio changed the title to the less salacious “Pacific Air 121.” Ellis says the alteration was always meant to be temporary and simply a matter of getting people to take the movie more seriously. Agents were refusing to give their clients a script called “Snakes on a Plane.”
But the change set off a firestorm on the Internet and inflamed Jackson and the other actors. “What is Pacific Air?” wonders Kenan Thompson. “That’s not even a real airline.”
But as the mantra goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
“In some ways, by accident, it was a really good p.r. move,” Ellis says. “Whether the fans were talking good or bad, at least they were talking.”
Step 5: Shun critics
Unlike other films, “Snakes” won’t be previewed for journalists. After all, what’s the point? It’s like Jackson told Entertainment Weekly: “People either want to see this movie or they don’t.”
In this case, snubbing critics also seems to be a good way to build better solidarity with fans, further enforcing the idea that this is their movie.
Step 6: Lay groundwork for the sequel
“I’m not so much scared of snakes. I’m scared of spiders,” Thompson says. “How about ‘Spiders on a Boat’? That would be scary.”
Sounds excellent. Now, pardon us while we run and register that Web site.
HOW DUMB LUCK AND A DUMB NAME TURNED ‘SNAKES ON A PLANE’