Thank you, Snakes on a Plane. Thank you for proving what many in the print media and critical circles have long ago known and voiced concern over. Though it is currently the most powerful information and communication source on the planet, the Internet just can’t open a film. Unless you’re first name is Blair, and your last name is Witch, the Web has once again proven that it can’t put filmgoer butts into empty Cineplex seats. Now, there are a lot of factors involved in Snakes less than spectacular $15 million box office weekend bow. There’s the movie itself, a perhaps too ironic stab at a self-created schlock spectacle. There’s the piss poor timing – released right as the core audience (teens and college kids) are heading back to class. And there’s the genre elements themselves: in general, horror and thrillers are the least bankable of all the cinematic styles.
But none of that was supposed to matter. Why? Because Snakes had the power of the technology geek behind it. From the moment the title was made public, and the talent coups of Samuel L. Jackson and director Ronny Freddy vs. Jason Yu were announced, the ‘80s nerd and his post-Gen X cousins were all in a cross-posting lather. Raised on a vast VHS collection of crappy monster movies made by companies like Full Moon and Empire, and distributed by names such as Vestron and New Concord, this seemingly routine creature feature suddenly took on the air of a retro reminder of Saturday nights perusing your local Mom and Pop video store. Even When Yu dropped out (the first sign of the upcoming anticlimactic apocalypse) and Final Destination 2 director David R. Ellis stepped in, the web journal junkies smelled undeniable direct to video fodder, and gladly got onboard.
It is important to remember though just who the real DSL demographic truly is. It’s claimed that over 60 to 65 million homes in the USA have Internet access of some kind, with the mean age for the actual user somewhere between 26 and 33, depending on the survey you select. While computers are constantly sited as the dominion of the young, teenagers spend significantly less time in media oriented arenas or serious surfing, instead preferring to use the web for communication, interrelation, entertainment (downloading) and – in rare instances – education. Most of the people browsing the vast array of sites are not part of MySpace, could care less about YouTube, and would never spend hours creating their own trailers or photoshopping poster art. Therefore, logic dictates that anyone pimping an upcoming film, from Harry Knowles over at Ain’t It Cool News or Garth Franklin at Dark Horizons, is speaking for a very small group of people outside of the typical broadband user. And, more times than not, they are preaching to the already converted.
A perfect analogy to this situation is talk radio. On any given day, millions of people tune in to hear Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, or any number of local variations on their chat fest theme. Of that number, only a very small fraction would ever consider calling in and voicing an opinion or asking question, with even fewer actually picking up the phone and dialing. Therefore, the voices you hear as part of the ballyhoo represent only the smallest portion of the overall public. In general, we are not an extroverted lot. Even with the anonymity of the ‘Net, we tend to let others do the showboating for us. In the case of Snakes of a Plane, there was no true communal surge in interest. No, even with numerous magazine articles, TV feature spots and endless marketing hype, the film itself was only talking to a very small, very vocal pre-tuned in audience. And while they were cheering, the rest of the possible fan base was jeering, or just paying no attention at all.
Truthfully, this should be nothing new to studios that have relied on the web as a source of that all important word of mouth advertising to lengthen the “legs” of their film. Just two weeks ago, The Descent opened to some of the best reviews of the year. Critics called it a masterpiece, one of the best horror films of the decade. Even with a Region 2 DVD release available for months prior, speculation across the ‘Net was that this Indie fright fest would make a killing at the box office. In its first weekend, it barely made $9 million. True, it was up against the good old boy goofiness of Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights, but conventional wisdom argued that all this blog-based goodwill should have translated into Cineplex receipts. It didn’t happen.
It used to be that studios more or less shunned buzz, either because of the expectations it built or the fatalistic foreshadowing it created. On occasion, they would ride the coattails of positive speculation, using it almost exclusively as a Madison Avenue money saving device. Yet right after Artisan scored a knock out with its Blair Witch Project website campaign (used to create a false sense of reality in this otherwise fictional macabre mockumentary), the Internet became the unproven false idol being worshipped by those desperate to make a dent in the media morass. It was the dot.com revolution all over again, except this time, the World Wide Web was being used for promotion and propaganda only. No one remembered that ONE extreme example does not set the standard. Without a track record, the ‘Net is a more or less untested gamble, and one that rarely pays off.
It’s no wonder then that Snakes on a Plane was a fluke. It was destined to fail based on the entire technological bent of the hype, and even then, there was just a title, an actor, and a promise at the center of it all. Success can’t be measured by a kitschy name and an A-list celebrity. If that’s the case, non-existent pitches for product like Zombie Strippers Against the All Nude Apocalypse starring George Clooney or Robot Drug Lords featuring Angelina Jolie would be going great greenlit guns right about now. In time, when all the Monday morning quarterbacking is over, and the studios have sorted out what went wrong, the conclusion will be clear. As much as they like to believe that they are, the messageboard masses do not speak for the mainstream. They are their own loud, loyal constituency. Getting them involved guarantees a palpable amount of free publicity – but that’s it. The day the blog brigade can generate a true blockbuster opening will represent a landmark occasion in the ‘Net’s ongoing maturation process. As for now, said opportunity has again slithered away.
// Notes from the Road
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