August 25, 2006
Snakes on a Plane a Disappointment How?

I am still a little confused by the reaction to Snakes on a Plane's $15 million opening weekend box office. Our director, Henry Jenkins, says that he's eating crow becuase of his inflated projections for the film's financial possibilities, but how is a $15 million profit for opening weekend a disappointment for a film that reportedly cost $35 million to make?

I just don't get it. Samuel L. Jackson's film earlier this year Freedomland had a $5.8 million opening weekend, according to Box Office Mojo, and that was a movie starring a comparable big-name talent in Julianne Moore. What's more, Freedomland's total domestic gross by this fall is $12.5 million, with only a $14.6 million overall worldwide performance. That means that the entire worldwide life of that film didn't match Snakes on a Plane's opening weekend.

The problem is that people fell prey to their own hyperbole and expected a campy B-movie to become a blockbuster, which I don't think it was ever designed to be. At HorsePigCow, Miss Rogue posted some of the major blockbuster opening weekends to discuss the perception of the Snakes falilure. Films like World Trade Center grossed higher, but their budgets were likely far bigger, and films like Talladega Nights, which grossed $47 million in its opening weekend, are much like likely to become long-term cult classics.

Journalists who want to criticize this movie's performance are taking pot-shots at calling this weekend's top grosser a disappointment at the box office, but they are setting up a straw man argument in this case. No one knew what was going to happen, and I think that, if the movie had performed this well under the bland original Pacific Air Flight 121 title, everyone would be shocked and praising the fact that a relatively low budget film performed that well at the box office and actually was the top-grossing movie of the weekend.

The folks over at the Church of the Consumer blog write, "New Line reduced its risk by listening to fans who wanted more snakes, gore and f-bombs. Making $15 million in one weekend is disappointing how? (Silly media.) If New Line hadn't listened to fans and released a PG-13 film called Pacific Air Flight 121, chances are no one would have talked about it, and it would have been just another low-brow Hollywood movie." I concur. The film would not have been a cult hit if it hadn't embraced fan culture, so that the entire experience is what sells, not just the quality of the plot itself, which is admittedly purposefully campy, as the film's own self-deprecating hyperbole of marketing indicates.

As Henry Jenkins writes, "Suppose this was a few decades ago when something like Snakes would have been a B Movie playing at the local drive-in: the idea that this film could be the top money earner would have seemed astonishing. In another era, this film might have gone straight to DVD and certainly would have taken longer to reach the current level of success. We still haven't adjusted to a world where there will be hits and there will be niche successes (and of course there will be flop.) No matter how you cut it, Snakes isn't a flop: it simply isn't a blockbuster."

Henry had a space on his blog for various audience reactions to the film, on which I posted my experience. I went to see the film here in Bowling Green, Ky., with my wife, my cousin and his wife, and Henry's son, Henry IV. We went to the 9:45 p.m. showing, and it was playing on two screens in big theaters. Still, there was a decent scattering of people in the theater, and people had shown in in Snakes on a Plane shirts, etc. As I mentioned on Henry's site, my wife loved the campiness of the film enough that she wants to go see it again, so it at least has developed a dedicated following, if depth of interaction counts for anything.

Henry writes that we may be using "the wrong criteria for evaluating the success of internet based marketing. The idea of large opening weekend grosses is itself a product of mass marketing. In a world where films are designed to appeal to the broadest possible public, broadcasting makes sense as a way of getting out your message and the success of this strategy is going to be measured by how many people you can get into the theatre the first week. But, if you read Chris Anderson's Long Tail argument, he suggests that niche properties require longer shelf time to find their audience: they start slower, they last longer."

C3 Affiliated Researcher David Edery is not oscillating in his deflection of criticism for the film's box office performance. He writes that, "to be blunt: the naysayers are wrong. What they don't seem to realize is that this movie could very well have been a disaster. The premise was ridiculous. Critics, not primed to think of the movie as camp, might have panned the hell out of it. Online fan communities gave this movie's creators a remarkable opportunity to turn a zero into something more. And they did!"

Seth Godin has been one of the most outspoken naysayers for Snakes on a Plane, reminding his readers that they shouldn't be entirely surprised by the film's box office numbers, which are low in his opinion. He writes, "I fear that people are missing a fundamental truth: just because people know who you are doesn't mean they're going to buy what you sell. There's a difference between infamy (or celebrity) and the consumer's desire to buy."

Mack Collier at The Viral Garden surmises that the blogosphere's debate about Snakes on a Plane proves that the film was not marketed toward everyone and that it's no surprise some media types weren't enthused by the product, because they weren't in the target young male demographic. Collier writes that, "the bottom line is that Snakes on a Plane will very likely have completely covered its production and marketing costs by the time it goes to DVD. Any money made from that point on will more or less be pure profit. This happened because New Line empowered the people that SoaP would appeal to, and didn't waste their time trying to change the opinions of people like Seth, who were never interested in the product. Some may call that 'bad' marketing, but I'm not one of them."

In summary, the film was not a disappointment. It was proof of the Long Tail Theory and the smart profitability of not-quite-blockbusters that are smartly marketed. Becuase of the non-traditional, word-of-mouth buzz and the low production costs, the film will be much more likely to be profitable than most, even though it is no "indy" hit. This basically confirms Grant McCracken's point about the importance of the films between blockbuster and indy. He writes, "I wonder if it isn't time for Hollywood to get chunkier. Maybe the real opportunities lie in the middle ground. A chunky approach to marketing says go for the sweet spot, the place with money enough to hire real talent, and enough freedom to set them free. (Freeish.) There has to be a habitable space between the deeply eccentric, entirely self indulgent freedoms of the indie and the 'fear of falling' rigidities that understandably beset the studio when spending $160 million." Snakes set Samuel L. Jackson and the blogosphere free, and it created a great atmosphere for watching films in the process.

I think the Church of the Consumer is correct in its final analysis that, if nothing else, theaters should learn from the power of the Snakes experience. The write, "It wasn't Snakes on the Waterfront, but some people said it was the most fun they'd had at a movie in years. That's welcome news for an industry whose revenues keep declining. Before seeing SoaP on Friday night, I had not been to a movie in five months." As I wrote about the drive-in theater a couple of weeks ago, this emphasizes an experience-based model of film distribution. Maybe cult favorites like this one will transform the idea of how to make and distribute films, middle ground projects that embrace communal viewing and give both cult fans and theater exhibitors alike exciting products.

Snakes on a Plane wasn't built to be a blockbuster, but it's going to be a profitable cult hit with a long shelf-life that has way more creative energy around it than the average horror thriller. And I hope it gave all of us who study or work or blog about mass media a lot of lessons to debate in the future.

Thanks to Siddiq Bello for directing me to some of the online discourse regarding the film.


On August 27, 2006 at 2:58 AM, Dustin Bratcher said:

I think it's getting to point where movie studios are going to have to put labels on their films so people don't view films like Snakes on a Plane as anything other than what it is. It's a good time movie that isn't going to set the world on fire, but will be a blast in a crowded theater.

If you ask me when was the last time I had a really fun time in a movie theater it was when my friends and I went and saw American Werewolf in Paris.

The movie was far from a huge success, but the theater was packed and it was like one big party. Everyone was having a good time and no one even really worried about making too much noise, but it never got out of hand. Scream 2 and 3 were the same way.

Every now and again a movie like Snakes on a Plane comes along and your only job is to buy a ticket and go have some mindless fun.

I'm not sure if I'll get a chance to see Snakes on a Plane in the theater, but hopefully it won't be showing on two screens so the theater will be packed.

On September 1, 2006 at 3:37 PM, Sam Ford said:

I think this is the key to films like this--cult films require being enhanced by communal viewing, and theaters have yet to learn how to fully capitalize on cultivating and encouraging this environment.