How did ''Snakes on a Plane'' become the cult movie of 2006? Four hundred snakes. Thousands of fans. One shocked studio.
Admit it: The mere thought of Samuel L. Jackson dropping F-bombs while swatting away plane-hijacking serpents makes you giddy. You’re not alone. Snakes on a Plane-mania has hit America.
Still months from release — it finally arrives in theaters Aug. 18 — the film reached a fever pitch on the Web in the past month. Originally considered nothing more than a grade-A punchline by many, including this magazine, the $30 million-plus movie is now New Line’s best and only shot at a summer blockbuster. Which leads to one really slithery question: How the hell did a film destined for B-movie greatness become one of the most talked-about flicks of the year?
First, some history. When director David Ellis (Cellular) began shooting Snakes on a Plane — about an FBI agent (Jackson) protecting a witness on an aircraft full of Mob-planted, poisonous reptiles — in June 2005, there was little buzz, save some snarky giggles directed at the film’s refreshingly self-explanatory title. The snakes bit back, though, when reports surfaced that New Line execs had renamed the movie Pacific Air Flight 121 last summer, drawing the ire of not only Jackson, but a community of online fans the studio didn’t even know existed. ”It was hard getting actors to read it because they weren’t taking it seriously,” explains Ellis. ”So we changed the name just for casting, and the Internet picked that up and got pissed off.”
The uproar over the title drew heat, hilarity, and attention to the flick. The joking turned into pythonic obsession, however, when a series of snake-filled production stills leaked onto the Internet. From there, it was a marketing executive’s dream: a totally organic, fan-driven phenomenon. And one that keeps uncoiling. ”Somebody the other day had a Sudoku based on Snakes on a Plane, ” says Brian Finkelstein, creator of Snakesonablog.com, a fansite created Jan. 12 that now gets as many as 15,000 hits daily. ”People write poems and songs.” At last count, Cafepress.com had 1,055 unofficial products inspired by SoaP, and sites like Defamer.com post film updates almost weekly.
Amid the hiss-teria, Ellis screened a rough cut for New Line executives. They were pleased, but had one highly unusual request: Add more violence. ”We [originally] asked David to straddle the line between [R and PG-13],” says New Line marketing head Russell Schwartz. ”But after we saw it, we said, ‘More gore!’ Then he just let it loose.” When asked how ”loose” he got on the five-day shoot in March, Ellis explains that he simply added what every horror fan craves: blood and breasts. According to the director, additional footage now includes a randier scene between two passengers aiming to join the mile-high club and a more graphic death for one particularly unfortunate traveler. ”We had the python wrap around him and the bones breaking,” says a gleeful Ellis. ”Now you see his eyes and capillaries busting and blood coming out of his nose, ears, and mouth. And then the python just chomps on his head.”
Even with a recut film, New Line faces a challenge trickier than wrangling 400 snakes (yup, there are 400 snakes): maintaining SoaP‘s hype for five months. ”I feel bad, because this has hit a plateau,” says Finkelstein. ”I don’t know if it will keep going up.”
For its part, the studio is painfully aware of the issue and has adjusted its marketing accordingly. Ellis says there was even talk of moving up the release date to cash in, but New Line couldn’t find a weekend without significant competition; the late-August slot allows Snakes to play through the end of summer virtually unchallenged. Previous fan-fueled successes, like The Blair Witch Project and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, have proved that this type of phenomenon can yield shocking box office results with the right strategy. So, New Line says its plan is to keep the film under wraps — and the hype tamped down — and let the fans do the talking. (The first official teaser won’t hit theaters until the May 12 release of Poseidon.) Ellis says aggressive marketing won’t begin until this July’s Comic-Con in San Diego. ”The Internet has done a lot,” says the director. ”Now it’s time for us to go to work.”