"Snakes" snafu: New Line's bumpy launch for "Snakes on a Plane" is a good example of how bad things can happen to nice people on the Internet.
In this case, unfortunately, the "Snakes" flight was probably doomed to disappoint from the point that Internet bloggers began their wild embrace of the picture. Before looking back at how obscure bloggers generated such widespread attention in cyberspace for the R-rated "Snakes," let's consider why it underperformed to such an extent.
When the first numbers began circulating Saturday morning, they showed "Snakes" had grossed about $6.4 million Friday, of which about $1.4 million came from its previews late Thursday night. With that weak start, insiders were now estimating it would only do a little over $15 million at best for the weekend, which is exactly what happened when it came in at $15.2 million. This was a far cry from predictions across the board going into the weekend that had "Snakes" doing anywhere from a low of $20 million to $30 million or more.
Talking off-the-record Saturday morning to one marketing pro, I asked what went wrong and he replied candidly that in his view, the prognosticators who had anticipated blockbuster business "were stupid. The tracking (last week) showed the highest negative I've ever seen -- (percentages) in the low to mid 20s -- of people who had no interest in seeing the picture. The bloggers are stupid (to have anticipated a blockbuster opening). The tracking was never anything (impressive).
"Over 20% of the sample did not want to see this picture. That's high. If you have (a negative) that high, you'd better make sure that those who want to see it can get in. And going out with an R which shut out the teenage audience in most middle American communities was stupid, as well. The director (David R. Ellis, whose directing credits include "Cellular" and "Final Destination 2") prevailed and he talked them into an R (instead of the PG-13 rating the film was originally supposed to have) and Samuel Jackson was aboard (on making it R-rated). When you do that kind of picture, if you shut out teenage boys in small towns, you're dead. The biggest audience for this picture is teenagers."
Looking back to 1999, I asked him about Artisan Entertainment's spectacular Internet-driven marketing success with "The Blair Witch Project," which also was rated R. "Witch" had opened in limited release July 16, 1999 to $1.5 million at 27 theaters ($56,002 per theater). When it opened wide July 30 at 1,101 theaters it grossed $29.2 million ($26,528 per theater). It went on to do $140.5 million domestically and over $108 million internationally.
Why did the Internet work magic for "Witch" and leave "Snakes" writhing in the aisles? "Because there wasn't a negative on 'Blair Witch,'" he pointed out. "The tracking showed a huge negative (feeling about 'Snakes'). It looked like a silly picture that people didn't want to see. 'Blair Witch' never looked like a silly picture. 'Blair Witch' never had a high negative."
Coming back to the damage done by making "Snakes" R-rated, he observed, "If you go out with a picture like this and you put an R rating on it and the biggest audience is teenage boys and you're shutting them out in two-thirds of the country, you get what you deserve. It was a gross mistake. The director and Sam Jackson talked them into it. And they went heavy on the (very rough) dialogue and some scenes, which you could do without. I mean, you could approach the scene without showing the conclusion and that's the way you get a PG-13. There's no need for it. It's over the top. It defies all the laws of marketing. You have to know who the audience for that (film) is."
Yes, but aren't teenage boys a big audience on the Internet? "Yeah, but it's R-rated," he emphasized. "They can't get into the theaters in about two-thirds of the country -- except New York and Los Angeles where they sneak in. In small towns, they adhere to the law and (under-17s) can't get in. In New York and Los Angeles, they don't police it, but if you go into a small place like Des Moines or Keokuk, Iowa or small towns in the South, you can't get in (if you're under 17). They're small theaters and they police it. So part of their core audience was frozen out."
When I observed that women probably weren't keen on seeing "Snakes," he agreed, laughing, "Oh, c'mon! Teenage boys are the pushers of this kind of stuff. They would have done over $20 million if they'd let the (under-17) boys in."
To New Line's credit, the studio originally intended to make "Snakes" as a PG-13-rated horror film that would have been fully accessible to its core audience of teen boys. Unfortunately, the film's unexpected impact on the Internet last year put a series of events in motion that wound up persuading New Line to switch to its ill-fated R rating. Just as children frequently believe lies told to them by people in Internet chat rooms and then end up suffering tragic consequences, New Line believed what it was hearing about "Snakes" from cyberspace surfers and let them have their way about the R rating. The Internet bloggers were clamoring for an edgier film with explicit language, rough violence and the kind of over-the-top gore that could never be shown in a PG-13-rated movie and New Line went along with them. The die was cast when it gave Ellis the green light to shoot new scenes that would definitely be rated R.
In the end, the film New Line released was the one the Internet crowd wanted to see. So why didn't they turn out in bigger numbers to see it? For one thing, many of them were probably too young to get in to see an R-rated movie. In cyberspace, no one knows your age, but at theaters across the country when R-rated films are playing ticket takers are checking IDs. There's really no way of knowing if those people who were commenting on blogs about how "Snakes" needed to be edgier were adults or 16-year-olds or 11-year-olds.
On top of that, there's the possibility that a big chunk of Hollywood's Internet audience is happier spending time in cyberspace than it is going to movie theaters. As vocal as the Internet crowd can be about movies, it just may be that they're content to see the controversial bits and pieces of a movie like "Snakes" on the Internet and not go to the trouble and expense of actually seeing it in a theater.
In the end, "Snakes" became famous on the Internet for one very quick moment when Samuel L. Jackson shouts in frustration, "Enough is enough! I have had it with these mother#@&*%!^ snakes on this mother#@&*%!^ plane." If that's the one big thing from the movie that people are talking about and you can see it on the Internet for nothing and play it as many times as you'd like to do so, why would you want to go spend $10 to see the rest of the movie?
One of the things the Internet does is reduce life to digital bits and pieces. We get to see video snippets of Paris Hilton crashing her car or Britney Spears almost dropping her baby or Lindsay Lohan out partying or Mel Gibson's DUI arrest mug shot. Thanks to the Internet we get to see exactly what we want to see when we want to see it. We no longer have to sit through the whole "anything" if we don't want to or if we don't feel we have time to do so. We can cut right to the chase any time we choose and in the case of "Snakes" that's exactly what people did. They viewed the clips that the movie was famous for and they decided that they didn't need to see the rest of it.
In fact, "Snakes" took on a life on the Internet as something more than just a movie. Although I'm calling it "Snakes" here, on the Internet it was mostly referred to as "SoaP," an acronym that doesn't really sell the movie. The film's title actually became part of the culture as a phrase that people have now started using in place of earlier phrases like "What you see is what you get" or "@#$%^&* happens."
In movie marketing the two things studios want to achieve are high degrees of awareness and interest. You can create awareness, but it's hard to make people interested in seeing something if they're not already interested in it to begin with. Awareness alone is not enough to generate blockbuster business. If it were, "Snakes" would have hit those $30 million-plus projections. The trouble is lots of people were definitely not interested in seeing "Snakes" and too many of those who were interested were under 17 and couldn't buy tickets to an R-rated film although that's what they wanted to see.
Actually, the awareness of "Snakes" on the Internet stemmed not from a marketing campaign by New Line, but from actions that bloggers took on their own because they were passionate about the film's title. Much has been written about the impact the blogs had on the movie, but what's not so well known is that there was nothing organized about this initial outpouring of love for "Snakes."
We no longer have to sit through the whole "anything" if we don't want to or if we don't feel we have time to do so.
I actually read the whole article.
Thanks for posting this, it was a good read.
Yes doctor, I am sick. Sick of those who are spineless. Sick of those who feel self-entitled. Sick of those who are hypocrites. Yes doctor, an army is forming. Yes doctor, there will be a war. Yes doctor, there will be blood.....
Slate held a contest for readers to choose equally ridiculous movie titles of their own and submit them for a prize. Some of them are hilarious:
Slate.com wrote:I hear America singing—singing out some really bad (read: good) fake movie titles for the Snakes on a Plane reader contest. Thanks to the depraved lunacy that spews forth from you people's sick imaginations, I've spent the last four days laughing out loud in inappropriate locations as I scroll … and scroll … and endlessly frigging scroll through the entries. The final total of responses clocked in at more than 700, so forgive me for overlooking many, many excellent titles as I list just a few of the standouts here. I've identified readers just as they identified themselves, unless they requested otherwise in their entry.
Responses fell into three basic categories. Despite my assurance that it wasn't necessary to involve animals aboard forms of conveyance, or other threatening creatures in unexpected locations, there were many entries that followed the formula: "[Dangerous creature]+ [in or on]+[claustrophobic location.]" Some of my favorites in this genre include: Apes at a Rave, from Jonathan Wagner; Leeches in the Louvre, from David Parrott; and Zombies on a Zamboni, from Guy in the United Kingdom. Ileana Fred contributed the appealingly absurd, almost Warhol-esque Fruit Flies in the Fruit Basket; and Dan Mills had a nice all-purpose variant: The Creature Waits in the Structure.
The next most common category was that of titles that promise, in graphic and pithy language, a highly exploitive viewing experience: from Steven Vertel's That's Not Sangria!, to Manny Blacksher's Thigh Nazis Dance!, to Craig Frank's The Donner Dinner Party. Unpleasant situations were also deftly sketched by Handcuffed to Tigers, from Brendan Herlihy; Scorpion Sandals, from Vince Marchant; and Kittens for Breakfast, by jholziii.
A less common, but often very funny, category consisted of titles that were blandly explicit about their movie's highly conventional content, like Brad Hall's The Football Team Who Was Bad, But Then Became Good in the Championship Game. Ethan Gregory contributed Two Heterosexual Individuals Meet and Get Married, and Ryan Farrell hit a double with Stop Doing Crimes! and How Can I Prevent This Alarming Thing From Happening to Me? Dan Sullivan suggested The Lesson in This Prison Movie Will Be Learned by Viewers and Characters at Approximately the Same Time. Many entries in this category had a meta-Hollywood angle: Chris Cintino's Catch Phrase! (starring Will Smith), TC in Honolulu's Woody Allen Is Too Old for This, and Jordan Fish's brilliantly simple Best Picture.
A few readers sent not only titles but entire pitches for their must-see films. In the interest of space, I'll list just two of these. David Farley suggests Titanic Two: Two Titanics!: "They rebuild the Titanic, but not just one Titanic, two Titanics, one on each side of the Atlantic. One sets sail from NY, the other from Belfast, and they collide head-on in the icy waters of the North Atlantic." And in Robert Anderson's Hezbollahbaisse, "Lebanese militiamen crash a chef's birthday party and get more than they bargained for." And because no list of deliberately crass movie titles should be afraid of offending anyone, I must also mention Tim Weinmann's The Uplifting Retard and Joshua Weinstein's A Film About Black People (Made by Jewish People).
With entries this good, choosing a winner is almost beside the point, but let's say that Brian O'Neill of Chicago takes the prize for his multiple-genre entry, which included That Guy From That Movie You Kind of Liked Gets Kicked in the Crotch But Learns Lesson Later; The Lord Helps Nonthreatening Southerners; an erotic foreign film called I Am Explosive, Bosomy; and possibly my favorite of all, This Movie Really Effing Scared Japanese People.
Thanks for the exploitive, offensive, and deeply stupid laughs.
If you're a battery, you're either working or you're dead....