NEW YORK--The people in line outside AMC's Empire Theater in Times Square on Thursday night looked like a mix of hacker conventioneers and mosh pit survivors from a Fall Out Boy concert: a little quirky, a little geeky, extremely enthusiastic and almost exclusively under the age of 30.
But they weren't waiting to hear music or trade tech secrets. This was the opening night of the movie that wasn't supposed to be a blockbuster, "Snakes on a Plane." What had once been a relatively low-ranking action flick in New Line Cinema's 2006 lineup has become one of the most talked-about premieres of the summer.
If Sam Jackson thinks he's doing a movie called "Snakes on a Plane"...you're doing a movie called "Snakes on a Plane."
--Josh Friedman, screenwriter and blogger
A poll posted by Internet Movie Database ranked it as the most highly anticipated movie of August, easily beating recent box-office champ "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," with 30.5 percent of respondents citing "Snakes" as their must-see movie in August versus 21.7 percent who cited "Ricky Bobby."
"Snakes" leading man Samuel L. Jackson was cheered wildly as he made promotional appearances on talk shows ranging from NBC's "Today" show to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." Yes, "Snakes on a Plane"--or "SoaP," as it's popularly truncated--is a genuine cult phenomenon.
And, as with so many things these days, we have the infamous Internet zeitgeist to thank for that.
"I am so pumped for this movie!" one young woman squealed. She and her friends had dressed for the occasion by draping rubber snakes around their necks. Another was decked out in an airline pilot's outfit. Still others had showed up in movie logo T-shirts, some homemade, some purchased from Internet fan sites.
Down the street at Madame Tussauds wax museum, grinning tourists of all ages jumped at the opportunity to be photographed with a life-size figure of Jackson that had been set up outside the Times Square landmark.
Video: 'Snakes,' a test case
What brought folks to the movie opening in S.F.--typical movie hype or the clip posted on YouTube?
Unlike other viral Internet fads that seem to appear out of nowhere (who really started "O RLY?" anyway?), the "SoaP" phenomenon appears to have a concrete origin.
Experts on the subject--like Brian Finkelstein, a law student who runs a fan site called Snakes on a Blog--point to an otherwise innocuous blog called I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing, operated by "War of the Worlds" screenwriter Josh Friedman. A year ago, Friedman posted an entry about how he had recently turned down an opportunity to work on a New Line movie that had been called "Snakes on a Plane" and briefly renamed "Pacific Air 121" before returning to its working title at the request of leading man Jackson.
Thoroughly enamored by the movie's wacky title, Friedman wrote in the post, under the headline of "Snakes on a (expletive) Plane," that "if Sam Jackson thinks he's doing a movie called 'Snakes on a Plane'...you're doing a movie called 'Snakes on a Plane.'" He also suggested that the title had the potential to capture the popular imagination and emerge as a synonym for "what're you gonna do?" or "(expletive) happens." (Sample use: "Your laptop battery exploded? AOL is trying to dig up your backyard. Hey, man, snakes on a plane.")
"Everyone who read it had the same reaction that (Friedman) did," Finkelstein said in an interview.
Fans do "Snakes" dance
But even if the origin of a viral online fad is clear, the forces that propel it into public consciousness are complex and often mysterious. Like Chuck Norris jokes and Sen. Ted Stevens' series of tubes speech, "SoaP" spread like wildfire.
Fake trailers popped up all over YouTube, many of them incorporating a sample line of dialogue proposed by Friedman and inspired by Jackson's previous work in over-the-top action movies: "I've had it with these (expletive) snakes on this (expletive) plane!"
Fans rolled out rap videos, T-shirts and artwork. And would-be obscure news stories about people actually finding snakes on planes were picked up by national news media.
Some of the eager patrons at the Empire Theater on opening night counted themselves among the creative Web users who helped turn "SoaP" into one of the most anticipated films of the summer.
Among them were Chris Buccella, owner of Damnation-inc.com, which manufactured a variety of "Snakes on a Plane"-theme T-shirts; and Alexander Kieft, a recent Swarthmore College graduate who created a popular parody video called "Snakes on an Elevator."
Both Buccella and Kieft were grinning ear to ear at the prospect of finally being able to see "Snakes on a Plane." As Finkelstein had said, "It's one of those things where people are, for whatever reason, genuinely excited by this movie and genuinely attracted to it."
Just call it Cinema 2.0.
For word-of-mouth phenomena, the rapid ascent of the "SoaP" prerelease spectacle and its remarkable promotional power are unusual, if not unprecedented, even though the utility of the Net was behind it. They have frequently been compared to the chatter generated by "The Blair Witch Project," that low-budget 1999 horror movie that gained loads of prerelease buzz because its production company marketed it over the Internet as actual footage from a documentary gone awry.
"The Internet had a big part in making 'Blair Witch' the hit that it became," observed Paul Degarabedian, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. With an arsenal of fake Web sites that detailed a fictional backstory, "they created a mystique surrounding the movie."
But "SoaP" purists are eager to point out differences between the two movies. "The viral ads for 'Blair Witch' were calculated and manufactured (by the marketing team)," Finkelstein said. "I don't think there was anything that was fan-created or fan-driven."
Gitesh Pandya, editor of Box Office Guru, agrees: "It's been different for 'Snakes' because fans have felt empowered knowing that their feedback helped to change the final cut of the film." Besides, he added, the two movies don't have much in common when it comes to concept, budget or casting.
"For 'Blair Witch,' the Internet buzz was more about spreading the word about a low-budget film with no stars." "SoaP," meanwhile, is a summer action movie with a big-name star (Jackson) that needed to stand out in a season full of even bigger names, including "Superman Returns," "X-Men 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," to name a few.
But once "SoaP" fever began to spread, New Line was eager to keep things hot. Imitating the interactive-content-driven publicity blitz that fans had started, the studio's marketing team collaborated with social-networking site TagWorld on a "Snakes on a Plane"-inspired song contest. (An electropop act called Captain Ahab emerged the winner.)
"SoaP" enthusiasts were encouraged to spread the word to their friends through semipersonalized telephone calls from Jackson. Most important, not only did New Line step up the marketing, but it made changes to the movie based on fan feedback.
As recounted on hundreds of news outlets, blogs and fan sites, director David Ellis rounded up the cast for five days of reshoots, responding to the fans' reactions and upping the film's gore and obscenity to bump its viewer advisory rating from PG-13 to R. And now, as screenwriter Friedman imagined a year ago, the final cut of "Snakes on a Plane" really does include Jackson's character saying, with gritty action movie determination, "I've had it with these (expletive) snakes on this (expletive) plane!"
Since "SoaP" had no advance screenings for critics, it's still too early to tell whether movie audiences will truly embrace it. But the small amount of buzz overheard after Thursday night's debut has been--hold your breath--good. If it's a hit, as so many bloggers have hoped, we could see more fan-inspired elements in movies in the future, not only to create advance buzz but also to prevent flops.
That will depend, of course, on the studios' willingness to play along. Michael Coristine, an analyst at marketing firm Brandimensions, uses the example of "Poseidon," a movie that actually was supposed to be a summer blockbuster this year but fell embarrassingly short of expectations. Coristine attributed its failure to "casting missteps." Had its creators followed blog banter like the "SoaP" team did, he theorized, "they would have been able to better gauge the shrunken fan base for lead actor Kurt Russell."
Putting Jackson on a plane full of snakes, on the other hand, added big bite to the "SoaP" buzz. As one young patron in front of the Empire Theater raved, "He's perfect for it. He's just one total bad (expletive)."