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‘Snakes on a Plane’s’ slithery slope

How one movie with a straightforward title became a phenomenon. By Amanda Schupak
/ Source: Forbes

Just over a year ago it was little more than a running joke among a handful of Hollywood insiders: New Line Cinema was making a movie called “Snakes on a Plane.” It was honest. It was unabashed. It was arguably the worst title in movie history.

Or best, depending on your point of view. Entertainment blogger Jeremy Smith loved the name, saying, “It felt like a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s B movies that weren’t afraid to advertise their essential trashiness with their title.” But the studio changed the title to the more innocuous — and much less enticing — “Pacific Air 121.” The rechristening came as “a great source of great consternation” for Smith and his camp-loving industry cohorts. The film’s star, Samuel L. Jackson, was none too pleased himself.

In August 2005 Smith asked the actor about his upcoming role in “Pacific Air 121.” “‘Snakes on a Plane,’ man!” Jackson interrupted. “We’re totally changing that back. That’s the only reason I took the job: I read the title.”

Smith posted the interaction on the media and technology Web site Three days later, Josh Friedman, a screenwriter who’d been asked to work on the film’s script but turned down the job after learning of the name change, rejoiced over the reinstatement of what he called “the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles.”

And within days, “snakes on a plane” became a Net buzz word, even taking on a meaning of its own, akin to “What’re ya gonna do?” or “That’s life.”

“Sorry I’m late, there was killer traffic.”

“Snakes on a plane, man.”

Soon, up sprouted Web sites, video parodies and proposed sequels (Snakes on a Bus, Bears on a Train), a full year before the $35 million (production cost) horror flick would be released on Aug. 18.

By the end of the year, New Line caught on. “It was like a bizarre zeitgeist effect with the Internet crowd,” says Gordon Paddison, New Line’s vice president of new media marketing. “We figured, why not give the people what they want?” In March the studio spent five days reshooting scenes to cater to the fortuitously erupting fan base.

Meanwhile, the company fueled the mania online, pitting fanatic against fanatic in a series of contests. There was an original song competition for a coveted spot on the movie soundtrack and a contest to win the chance to video-chat with Jackson. Entrants in the Snakes on a Plane #1 Fan Sweepstakes are still vying for a private screening for themselves and 100 friends. (The current leader, Max, has 29,000 votes.)

Moreover, New Line added viral content to the Web, often masking clips on YouTube, the video-sharing site, and dedicated Web sites so they would appear fan-generated.

On Aug. 3, New Line launched a Web campaign with digital audio company VariTalk, allowing people to send friends personalized phone messages in Jackson’s voice. More than 2 million messages have been sent.

As the release date approached, New Line prepped moviegoers online to create an interactive experience, hoping to reach the cult status of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which still gets audience-participation midnight shows across the country two decades after it came out.

One thing New Line hasn’t done is hold screenings for the press. Afraid the movie might get panned? Good reviews could be even worse — treating “Snakes on a Plane” like cinematic art would defeat the purpose altogether.

Snakes on a Plane went from nearly discarded movie title to potentially industry-changing paradigm. Here is a year in the life of an Internet phenomenon: