Saturday, July 29, 2006

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Interest group capture and Snakes On A Plane

Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen has a cover story on the movie Snakes On a Plane (SoaP), and the online fanboys who really like the title of the movie:

For nearly a year, SoaP obsessives have been chatting and blogging about the movie, not to mention producing their own T-shirts, posters, trailers, novelty songs, and parodies. As the movie has morphed from a semiprecious nugget of intellectual property into a virtual plaything for the ethertainment masses, Snakes and its cult are teasingly threatening to revolutionize the rules of marketing for the do-it-yourself digital era....

It's the promise of enlightenment that has drawn thousands of SoaP fans to Comic-Con for a peek at 10 minutes of the film's fang-baring snake-rageousness. But what thrills these SoaP fans the most on this ain't-it-cool Friday is confirmation that their jocular voices have been heard, which comes once they've seen the footage, when Jackson himself shows up to bellow his already-famous line, a line inspired by the fans themselves:


The crowd goes wild.

Now let's see if they actually go to the movie....

[Soap's diehard fanbase] raises some provocative questions. Consider the ''motherf---ing'' line, which was directly suggested by SoaP fan culture. Sure, it's something an R-rated Sam Jackson action hero would say. But should fans be allowed any input into the artistic process during the actual making of a film? Jackson offers a qualified yes: ''Films are a collaborative process, and this is the next step. If a film is vying for that mass teen dollar, then yes, they have every right to say: This is the kind of film we want to see. Films of social relevance well, no.''

Adds Snakes costar Julianna Margulies: ''On one hand, it's fantastic, because it put our film on the map. But it's a slippery slope. If we have to rely on the public to tell us what great work is I don't know if that's a great idea.''

In addition, a vociferous fan culture doesn't always translate to big grosses (see Joss Whedon's Serenity). Earlier this year, New Line conducted focus-group research that revealed that awareness of SoaP among potential moviegoers wasn't nearly as large as the fan base made it seem. Which meant that a small and noisy band of enthusiasts was independently shaping the image of the movie an image at odds with New Line's intentions. The studio wanted to position the film as a scary, if fun, Final Destination. But in co-opting the film for their own amusement, SoaPers were assuming Snakes was something campy or worse, demanding that it be. ''I don't really like that,'' says [director David] Ellis of the film's so-bad-it's-good rep in some quarters. ''[But] I guess it's good that they're talking about it, and when I get them in the theater, I can change their mind."

....New Line execs are worried. ''What's unique about Snakes is that the idea of the movie has excited people. But that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the movie we made,'' says [New Line president Toby] Emmerich. ''I'm hoping it does. But I just don't know what people are expecting.'' And [New Line's domestic marketing president Russell] Schwartz thinks it's impossible to use the film as a marketing template: ''If this movie opens, I [still] don't think we've shown the Web can open a movie.''

New Line execs are not the only people freaking out -- Chuck Klosterman has a rant on this in the August issue of Esquire:
I have not seen Snakes on a Plane, so I have no idea how good this movie is (or isn't). But I do know this: Its existence represents a weird, semidepressing American condition, and I'm afraid this condition is going to get worse. I suspect Snakes on a Plane might earn a lot of money, which will prompt studios to assume this is the kind of movie audiences want. And I don't think it is. Snakes on a Plane is an unabashed attempt at prefab populism, and (maybe) this gimmick will work once. But it won't keep working, and it will almost certainly make filmmaking worse....

When it comes to mass media, it's useless to ask people what they want; nobody knows what they want until they have it. If studios start to view the blogosphere as some kind of massive focus group, two things will happen: The first is that the movies will become idiotic and impersonal, which is probably predictable. But the less predictable second result will be that many of those movies will still fail commercially, even if the studios' research was perfect. If you asked a hundred million people exactly what they wanted from a movie, and you used that data to make exactly the film they claimed to desire, it might succeed. Or it might not. Making artistic decisions by consensus doesn't work any better than giving one person complete autonomy; both strategies work roughly half the time.

There are several possible ways this could play out. However, the one that interest group theory suggests will happen is that by trying to please the most ardent base of fans, the movie will reduce its appeal to a wider audience.

Of course, both Jensen and Klosterman miss one important point in their analyses -- they're generalizing from a $30 million dollar film. $30 million is a lot to you and me, but to Hollywood that's barely enough to pay for Jessica Alba's skin care products. Somehow I doubt this kind of interactive filmmaking process would take place with a tentpole movie, as it were. With a bunch of lower-budget films, however, this kind of feedback might increase the viewing pleasure of specialized viewers, even if it doesn't make the movie seem any better to a general viewer.

There's more to discuss here, but I'l leave it to my readers and a plaintive cry for help from Virginia Postrel.

All I want to know is, why isn't Salma Hayek in this mother f*&%ing movie?

posted by Dan on 07.29.06 at 11:07 PM


I'm a little surprised by Samuel Jackson's and Julianna Margulies's comments in the EW piece. Both seem to suggest that input from a film's intended audience is likely to artistically hurt an unfinished film. It's not clear to me why that would be the case.

Film is communication between the filmmakers and the audience, and I suspect that preliminary feedback from the audience would often improve a film's effectiveness. We have already seen this happen in some of the great films, such as "The Rules of the Game" and "2001," which were changed--and, in my opinion, improved--by their directors after stiffly negative reactions at early screenings. The input of audiences could similarly help an incomplete film. It's not likely that plot details will be improved, but audiences will certanly have useful suggestions on presentation and perspective from the fragments of the film they see. I imagine the advice from audiences will likely be both better and less cumbersome than that from producers, studio heads, and marketers.

posted by: mschrist on 07.29.06 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

I concur with your analysis that this probably won't create any of the disturbing trends that Klostermann is worried about. It's not like we haven't movies with quirky production arcs create huge buzz, moderate box-office, and minimal follow-on. _The Blair Witch Project_, _Serenity_, _Sky Captain and the World of Tommorow_ and even _Reservoir Dogs_ all promised big changes to how movies would be made, but the reality just didn't live up to the hype.

posted by: Dave on 07.29.06 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Klosterman: "the movies will become idiotic and impersonal"

"will become?"

What theater has this guy been going to, and how can I get tickets? Or has he simply not seen any mass-market movies for the last 30-40-50 years?

posted by: JakeB on 07.29.06 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Julianna compensates for the absence of Salma.

Thank God for old movies on DVD, I don't have to buy overpriced popcorn and watch these turkeys in a theatre full of homrmonal teenagers on cell phones.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 07.29.06 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Just out of curiosity, does Steve Irwin have a role in this movie? "Krikey! Snikes on the pline! Danger, danger, danger!"

It just seemed to me from a trailer I've seen that this movie could present an ecologically unfortunate view of our legless friends, who after all occupy important places in the higher positions of the food chain. I wondered whether perhaps it had made room for a different perspective, or at least for a character able to suggest that a typical commercial airliner has an air conditioning system powerful enough drive the cabin temperature below the point at which snakes become torpid.

posted by: Zathras on 07.29.06 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

However, the one that interest group theory suggests will happen is that by trying to please the most ardent base of fans, the movie will reduce its appeal to a wider audience.

Huh... I never expected this post to be tied back into politics. When I read that, I thought I was reading a post on the primary election system.

posted by: Justin on 07.29.06 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

Anyone remember Blair Witch Trial?

posted by: kwo on 07.29.06 at 11:07 PM [permalink]

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