Snakes on a Plane: Samuel L. Jackson, aviation, reptiles and internet marketing at its finest

09/08/2006

The internet activity surrounding Snakes on a Plane has made it the most anticipated film of the year. The IAB looks at how social media has driven the the hype around this summer blockbuster.

“Musicians are using communities like MySpace to bypass the modulated populism of record companies. But never before has a major [film] release been reworked to include fan input. Snakes on a Plane will be the first movie to arrive in theatres pre-baked to its followers’ recipes.” Andy Lowe – Total Film magazine
So what’s in a name?

Take Snakes on a Plane. It has the feel of something desperately plucked out of the air as the final act of a soon to be sacked script-writer, like Alan Partridge clamouring for a second series or a C-lister in one of those Orange Wednesday cinema ads. That said, it’s a terrific title for a film, but few could have predicted the online avalanche that has accompanied this film since it was added to New Line’s Summer 2006 slate. A worldwide online community has propelled Snakes on a Plane (or SoaP as it’s known amongst its many legions of fans) to its current status as one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year.

The wonderfully retro and camply kitsch title first attracted iconic Hollywood star, Samuel L J Jackson to the project and then an army of online fans. Writers of blogs and chatrooms have been getting their forked-tongues around plot and dialogue suggestions, internet music sites slither to the sound of SoaP related, cross genre songs and YouTube lovers are sinking their fangs into creating their own SoaP trailers.

“The everlasting gobstopper of movie titles…”

The film was originally pitched prior to the events of September 11, 2001, but following the terrorist attacks, movies involving planes were rightly deemed insensitive and Snakes on a Plane was shelved. But as soon as details of ‘Snakes revisited’ were announced a few years later, the internet activity began in earnest.

The buzz, or should I say hiss, surrounding the film can be traced back to a blog entry from War of the Worlds screen-writer, Josh Friedman, in August 2005. Upon hearing that the title of the movie he was actively pursuing involvement with was being changed from Snakes on a Plane, to the far more prosaic Pacific Air Flight 121, he withdrew his interest and got blogging. Encapsulating the SoaP fascination in one sound-bite, he wrote, “It's a concept. It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It's perfect. Perfect. It's the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles.”

If by changing the film’s title New Line Pictures were doing the typical studio dance of ‘not getting the point of the film’, the internet community had grasped it, in a python-like grip.

Don’t manipulate, control

New Line eventually saw the light and changed the title back, dubiously claiming it had nothing to do with the online uproar. They were able to sit back and watch in awe as their marketing job was done for them across the web as T-shirts, posters, trailers and theme tunes were created. Brian Finkelstein, creator of snakesonablog.com, was contacted by New Line, who praised the job his site was doing, as Finkelstein told CNN; “They are aware of what’s happening online, and they heartedly endorse it, but they are in no way in control of it.” A reaction that the IAB’s Senior PR Executive, Amy Kean welcomes: “In this world of consumer-generated-content the most important thing for advertisers to remember, and accept, is that they have very little control over the message. It’s essential to ‘let go’ of your brand online and react rather than manipulate.”

Despite not making an attempt to coordinate or control the internet activity around the film, New Line Pictures had the foresight to react to it. They funded re-shoots that enabled director David R Ellis to boost the movie’s violence quota and inject some venom into the language according to the internet communities’ wishes, “some of it was so good I had to embrace it. I had the unique opportunity to tweak and mould the film in the way the fans wanted.” Ellis marvelled.

Of course, despite the fervent internet proclamations questioning “how can this film fail?” nobody has yet seen Snakes on a Plane. But Empire’s Chris Hewitt believes the film’s quality will be a mere footnote in how SoaP will be remembered. “It’s more significant as a rallying point for a brand new community, where it inspired startling bursts of creativity and kinship,” he claims.

Blair Witch Project 1.0 v Snakes 2.0

As discussed in our Buzz on Movies and the Internet earlier this year, SoaP is not the first time the internet has played a major role in the success of a film. In 1999 the Blair Witch Project sent shock-waves through the film industry as its directors extended the life of their film on line, stimulating an “is it fact? Or is it fiction?” debate across the web.

Talking to the IAB, Colin Kennedy, Editor-In-Chief of influential movie magazine Empire, spoke of the insurmountable impact of the Blair Witch Project’s online marketing: “The recent internet-driven success of the Arctic Monkey’s debut album was predated and perhaps even over-shadowed by The Blair Witch Project movie phenomenon.” The extent of internet activity surrounding Snakes on a Plane is set to better even the heady events of 1999 and serves as a terrific example of how the internet has changed and its influence grown in just seven years.

If The Blair Witch Project made the most of the first incarnation of the internet as a read-only medium, SoaP will come to be viewed as an example of the read-write internet of the mid-naughties, or Web 2.0 as it has been termed. Internet users are no longer content to sit in front of the screens and be spoon-fed information. They are looking to be inspired to engage and contribute to their media through the internet and, as with the SoaP example, it pays for marketers to provoke and react to this.

So how can marketers get the SoaP effect?

I’m sure all you FMCG marketers out there are bemoaning the fact that your products have little to do with aviation or reptiles, but there are lessons to be learnt here. Yes, it is easy to dismiss the Snakes on a Plane marketing as an early Christmas Present for New Line Pictures, but strip the fortitude from the equation and you are left with several internet marketing fundamentals. Regardless of the product, if you can engage your target audience using interactive elements that encourage consumer input, whilst being flexible to the internet dialogue surrounding your online presence, your brand can achieve the same bite as Snakes on a Plane.