Snakes on a Plane, the much-hyped movie starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent forced to battle…snakes on a plane, hits theaters on Friday. That news isn’t very exciting on its own. However, the movie’s journey – and New Line Cinema’s stance on fan involvement in the film – provides a fascinating look at not only how powerful social networking and other forms of Web 2.0 communication have become, but also how those tools have shifted the way media conglomerates approach their fan base.
The film would likely have faded into B-movie hell had it not been for a Josh Friedman, a script doctor in Hollywood, who posted a blog about his sometimes surreal work on a movie called Snakes on a Plane. Friedman’s hilarious deconstruction of the studio system became a minor cult hit online.
As the blog posting was passed from person to person, it developed a strange momentum. Netizens began to get very excited about the possibility of Mace Windu (Samuel Jackson) fighting snakes…on a plane. There was no reason for the excitement, other than the movie sounds like fun.
What took this from a kitschy cult experience online that fades into nothingness, though, was New Line Cinema’s decision to change the film’s title.
Fan sites, such as Snakes on a Blog, and countless others lit up the blogosphere, pleading with the studio not to change the name (spurred on by Jackson, who, on The Daily Show last evening said he’d actively engaged the community during this period). Eventually, the studio capitulated, dropping the new title and returning to Snakes on a Plane.
Sensing a groundswell of activity, Gordon Paddison, New Line’s head of marketing (and a collegial friend from my days at Wired News), decided that, much like he’d done with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he would tap into fan interest – or at least, stay out of the fans’ way, according to this Reuters article. And, taking a page from the video game industry, the company also released a creative content – images, banners, clips, audio – that anyone could use to create their own fan site.
Soon, there fans were creating parody videos, songs, and movie posters. New Line Cinema went so far as to partner with CafePress.com, a DIY merchandising store online, allowing fans to become officially licensed partners for the movie, and to sell merchandise they’ve created using New Line’s creative.
Most intriguing, though, is a quote suggestion site. If you look closely, you’ll see one of Friedman’s suggested lines, which had become the unofficial catchphrase for the film, despite its profanity. The studio has been paying attention to this, at least in some manner, because New Line ordered the film back into production to incorporate dialogue being suggested by the fans.
In recognition of the unprecedented Internet buzz for what had been a minor movie in their 2006 line-up, New Line Cinema ordered five days of additional shooting in early March 2006(principal photography had wrapped in September 2005). While re-shoots normally imply problems with a film, the producers opted to add new scenes to the film to take the movie from PG-13 into R-rated territory and bring the movie in line with growing fan expectations.
In the end, the success of the movie is almost secondary to how it was made. New software applications and distribution systems allowed fans to actively communicate with – and, at times, work with – the people who were creating what was obviously a fan-centric film.
Clearly, every movie won’t achieve this type of interest; however, it’s a good lesson in how these tools can be used by media companies to expand, change, and hone their projects.