‘Snakes’ couldn’t bite after too much hype

The big Hollywood story this week is the underperformance of New Line Cinema’s “Snakes on a Plane.” After months of wild Internet hoopla, the kitschy thriller starring cult icon Samuel L. Jackson opened to a dismal $15.4 million — far below even the most pessimistic estimates.

Was the film itself to blame? I went to North Haven to find out.

I plopped down in an empty cinema, munching Gummi Snakes and ready to pan this fantastic flop. My verdict? “Snakes on a Plane” is a B-movie creature film, retrofit with extra dialogue and camped up to sate its swollen Internet fan base. It’s bad, but not spectacularly so. I can’t imagine that anyone expected very much more, and as such the film delivers almost exactly what it promised: fun, cheesy action with a ludicrous premise and some slumming stars.

A not-bad movie tailor-made for its rabid, frenzied fans? In these days of empty brand image where any steak can sizzle, “SoaP” should have been a slam dunk. So what crashed this astronomical hype machine?

The Web is abuzz with theories: the hype peaked too soon; the R rating excluded a large chunk of its target audience; the film took itself too seriously; the public took it too seriously, thereby missing its camp appeal and refusing to see it; cult classics never make money at the box office; and so on. To an extent, all are probably true. But the main reason, I think, is different: You can’t dupe the Internet jokesters.

In the world of big business, Internet culture is not well understood. Sure, studios may commission glitzy websites and buy online ads, but the whole blog, chat and discussion board culture is foreign to them. This leaves studio execs in a bit of a pickle: They’re keen to harness grassroots Internet buzz — look what it did for “The Blair Witch Project” — but never quite sure how to do it.

In this, studios should be careful what they wish for. “Snakes on a Plane” was perhaps Hollywood?s best attempt yet to spark Internet buzz and achieve pre-release cult status. And as such, it succeeded beautifully.

I first heard about “SoaP” on a discussion board this spring, by which time the spoofing was already well underway. Like any good Internet meme, the concept was a highly efficient replicator, the story being “Can you believe it? They’re actually making this!” The campy concept — as simple as the title, really — lent itself to interpretation and exploitation through cartoons, T-shirt designs, videos and songs. Net users delighted in hastily-crafted mash-ups and Photoshop-fueled satire. Another inside joke roared around the Internet, and a good laugh was had by all.

This all sounds like good publicity, and without question, it was. So why didn’t it translate to actual box office performance? Hollywood wants answers.

The immediate temptation is to dismiss Internet culture as unimportant. After all, the memesphere seized upon this film and hyped it almost beyond belief, but those darn bloggers couldn’t fill theatres — and worse, their machinations didn’t sway the movie-going public. Ergo, the Internet is full of geeks whose perverse brand of grassroots spoof-worship isn’t worth the price of a pop-up.

But Internet culture isn’t geared toward boosting box office revenues. Quite the reverse; this is a culture that prizes free access to entertainment, legal or otherwise, the same culture that embraced Napster, YouTube and BitTorrent. People will spend all day surfing “free tour” porn sites, but paying subscribers are few. Online retailers complain of “phantom shoppers” abandoning loaded carts at the payment screen. The popular iTunes Music Store is widely used to preview songs, but those worth owning are sought on peer-to-peer file sharing systems. The attentions of the Internet crowd are famously fickle, and mysteriously vanish when you actually force a sale.

New Line Cinema courted the hype and forecast a home run. They figured people would shell out $10 for the culmination of the one-line running gag they’d harped upon all summer. In so doing, they fell for the oldest trap of online marketing: equating traffic with actual revenue.

In all, “Snakes on a Plane” did about as well as “Final Destination 3″ and “The Hills Have Eyes” — similar movies with virtually no pre-release publicity. Of course, “SoaP” has done something those other films will never do: It has achieved broad cultural recognition, and entered the hall of fame of Internet memes — right alongside “All Your Base” and the Star Wars Kid. It’s a grand and beloved inside joke for countless Web users. Unfortunately for Hollywood, you just can’t put a price on that.

There is perhaps a lesson to be taken from all this, particularly with so many bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Yalies starting school this week. The Ivy League is unquestionably hyped in its own way, idolized by high schoolers as a gateway to happiness, riches or whatever. There is a temptation to attach unrealistic expectations to this, to coast on the name. But the brand will only carry you so far. Devote yourself to fashioning a great product, and you can do anything you choose.

After all, no one likes empty hype.

Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in molecular biophysics & biochemistry. His column regularly appears on alternate Thursdays.

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