The meme-as-movie was both a relic of its time and a sign of things to come
New Line Cinema
Five years ago, Georgetown law student Brian Finkelstein was flown to Los Angeles, put up in a hotel, and allowed into the Hollywood premiere of Snakes on a Plane, the campy Samuel L. Jackson action flick whose plot is explained by its title. He was there on New Line Cinema's dime: The movie studio had invited him to California to thank him for founding SnakesOnABlog.com, the online epicenter for the bizarre, hilarious hype surrounding the movie.
Now, his blog is gone. He hasn't seen the film in years. And until The Atlantic got in touch, he hadn't realized that today would be the fifth anniversary of its release. "It's been a while since I've had one of these phone calls," Finkelstein said over the phone Tuesday. "It's not a central part of my life, as you might imagine."
Today, yes, it's hard to imagine Snakes on a Plane being central to anyone's life. The film grossed a perceived-as-modest $34 million in the U.S. It rarely comes up in conversation (right?). But in 2006, the film was big news. The story: Movie with strangely straight-forward title gets noticed by the Internet and becomes the object of intense chatter and creativity—all far in advance of the film actually coming out.
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It's remarkable to look back at just how much attention the film and its online following caught. In the pages of the New York Times, you could find assertions that the phenomenon lampooned Hollywood, tapped into biological biases towards hating snakes, and, most impressively, articulated post-9/11 fears of flying. But more striking now is the way that it was actually a sign of its times—those times being a younger, more-naive era of the Internet.
The hype started in 2005, with screenwriter Josh Friedman penning a blog post about how he'd nearly been hired on to help with the script. He'd heard that the studio was planning on changing the name from Snakes on a Plane to something like Pacific Air Flight 121. This, to Friedman, was distressing—it was the title that got him interested in the first place:
I ask Agent the name of the project, what it's about, etc. He says: Snakes on a Plane. Holy shit, I'm thinking. It's a title. 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.
Samuel L. Jackson apparently agreed with Friedman and convinced the filmmakers to change the title back to Snakes on a Plane. The craze just accelerated from there. Fans of the yet-to-be-made film churned out jokey images playing up the camp appeal of the title, the concept, and the idea of Jackson delivering a line about "motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane"—a phrase that, according to some reports, wasn't in the script until fans became obsessed with it (New Line ordered a few days of re-shooting in order to up the film's gore and sex once it became a phenomenon). The mainstream media began noticing what was going on, and Finkelstein appeared in stories by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and others, as well as on Countdown With Keith Olbermann.
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The idea of an Internet meme wasn't new in 2006. But it was certainly less widely understood than it is today. And so the attention paid to Snakes served as a kind of coming-out for all sorts of new-millennium cultural strains: the absurd humor of the message-board masses, the way content creation had become second nature for an entire generation (remember, 2006 was when Time named "you" its person of the year), the way lowly fans could now make enough noise for professional entertainers take notice.
And the film marked a shift in how Hollywood thought about courting its audience. A clip was screened at San Diego Comic-Con (where Finkelstein took part in a Q&A with Jackson), right as Comic-Con was beginning to attract huge crossover attention. And it came around the time that emo video blogger lonelygirl15 was outed as a professionally created fiction. Viral marketing and Hollywood's crashing of fan-boy events would quickly become cliches.
Could a Snakes on a Plane-like phenomenon happen again today? Sure, but it'd be different. We're in the post-LOLcat era, where the time between weird headline to hashtag to Tumblr to coffee-table book has been collapsed, where backlash and buzz happen nearly simultaneously. And Finkelstein pointed out that social-networking, which was far less widespread in 2005/2006, has changed things. If Snakes had happened now, who knows if he would have started something like snakesonablog.com?
"There's something about having a blog that is dedicated to one topic and attracts people who are interested in that one topic—no one is going to go to this blog and say how crappy this movie is going to be," he said. "Why bother? The presence of the hub encourages the development of excitement and interest."
Of course, the movie didn't live up to expectations ("People were expecting it to be a big blockbuster, and anything less than a big blockbuster was going to be called a failure," Finkelstein said). Today, it's often thought of as a cautionary tale about the limits of online buzz, or maybe about the problem of having that buzz peak months before a film actually comes out. But at times, it seems as though Hollywood tries to recreate the blunt-named intrigue that Snakes caused: Consider the naming of Hot Tub Time Machine or Cowboys & Aliens or Shark Night 3D, the latest film from Snakes director. Those titles are obvious and hilarious, but the novelty factor—and mystery—has worn off.
"I don't think you can pull the same gimmick more than once," Finkelstein said. "It was the perfect storm of concept and star and the fact that you didn't know what the movie was."
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