A big debate has been brewing for months now, and this weekend marked the event that will finally blow the lid off that debate. I’m not talking about “PS3 vs. Xbox 360” — partisans in that fight won’t rest anytime soon. I’m talking about the debut of Snakes on a Plane, the movie that bloggers (and a few media scholars) love to talk about, and cynics love to trash. There are lessons here for the game industry.
Intro to Snakes on a Plane
A brief recap, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this. Snakes on a Plane features Samuel L. Jackson, in a story so silly that as soon as bloggers got wind of it, they began gleefully making parodies and hailing the movie as the upcoming camp hit of the year. Makers of the movie (including Jackson) were probably not initially intending to create a camp hit, but when they realized what was happening, they did something relatively unusual in Hollywood: they adapted their marketing efforts (and even the movie itself) to conform to the camp expectations of the blogosphere.
For example: Samuel L. Jackson’s key line (“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane”) was reportedly inserted into the film only after bloggers made it up and spread it around. Other changes were made as well.
Many people — including Henry Jenkins, who noticed this phenomenon long before most and has written about it extensively [1, 2] — have argued that Snakes on a Plane represents a great example of how fan communities can be incorporated into the development as well as marketing process, especially for the purpose of creating a “Long Tail” hit that is profitable without a giant budget. Well, opening weekend is over. What have we learned?
The Results Are In…
Snakes on a Plane opened at $15.3M, making it number one for the week but drawing criticism from most observers, who called the numbers “disappointing” even as a very healthy number of film critics (and even more consumers) hailed the movie as great camp fun.
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!
Industry observers like John Hamann of Box Office Prophets seem on the cusp of understanding this, even as they question the film’s “disappointing numbers.” A quote from Hamann: Snakes won’t change anything, but it could start a decent-sized franchise for New Line, with huge revenue from DVD in the cards. With a reported cost of only $35 million, this will be an okay performer for a studio that has struggled since the last of the Lord of the Rings films.
Huge revenue from DVD in the cards? That isn’t a consolation prize — that’s a real win (and perhaps a miracle for a film as poorly conceived as this one.)
Not Everything Needs To Be A “Hit”
So we’re back to the Long Tail and its implications for the media industry. Low production, distribution, and marketing costs + rabid fans = worthwhile profits. I’m beating this horse to death. And the benefits of listening to (and respectfully courting) fans… that gets a whack in the head, too. We’re building a mound of virtual animal corpses here… somebody call PETA!
OK, OK. Next time I definitely need to write about something completely different. How about exertainment… that hasn’t come up in a while? ;-)
PS. If you want more information about all this, the Wikipedia entry for Snakes on a Plane is remarkably detailed. OK, maybe not so remarkable, given the kind of community that Wikipedia is. :-)