'Snakes' Is Defanged at Box Office

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Snakes on a Plane," a film title that became an inescapable pop-culture punch line, appears to have become an entirely missable film.

After months of Internet and mainstream-media hype, the movie opened tepidly this past weekend, grossing $15.3 million at North American theaters. That made it the first or second highest-grossing film in theaters (depending on whether you count its take from late-night previews Thursday), but it was well short of pre-release forecasts that had pegged its opening weekend take at twice what it made.

The modest returns prompt a question: Just what was all the noise about, anyway?

The buzz on "Snakes" began last August and took off with parody films, trailers, songs, T-shirts and graphics for other animals-on-the-loose movies, such as "Sharks on a Roller Coaster" (Tagline: "You must be this tall . . . to die !"). The media soon joined in, igniting even more Internet hoopla.

"Snakes" isn't headed to the DVD bin just yet -- New Line Cinema, which released it, says audiences are giving it good marks in exit polls -- but it's clearly nowhere near the phenomenon one might have expected from all that buildup.

The most obvious lesson here might be that talk doesn't equate with action -- whether in moviegoing, advertising or elections, says Brandon Gray, president and publisher of Box Office Mojo, an online box office reporting service. Many people might have been aware of "Snakes" before its opening, he says, but it's not clear that they were very interested in the movie beyond its amusing, self-explanatory title.

"I think a lot of people said: 'Oh, I get it. Now I don't need to see it,' " Gray says.

New Line now says it knew "Snakes" wasn't going to be a blockbuster. Based on tracking polls of moviegoers from a week ago, the studio internally estimated that "Snakes" would generate about $12 million to $16 million in its opening weekend, far less than outside estimates.

"We've always said [publicly] that we never knew how it would do," said Robert Pini, a studio spokesman. "We always were very cautious about it. We loved the fact that fans embraced the film and were enthusiastic about it. But you can never be sure that the people who are Googling your movie are going to go out and see it."

"Snakes" (or as fans prefer to shorthand it, "SoaP") is one of several movies in recent years that generated much discussion on the Internet but relatively few customers. Gray said other movies that fit this description include "Clerks II," "Team America: World Police" and "Serenity," none of which did as well as "Snakes" in its opening weekend.

Internet hype rarely seems to make much difference by itself, he points out. The most buzzed-about films online tend to be those that already have a built-in fan base, such as the "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" movies.

The exception might be "The Blair Witch Project," an eventual blockbuster that had intense interest before its release in 1999, thanks to a Internet marketing campaign by its distributor, Artisan Entertainment. But the key difference here is 1999 -- an eternity ago in terms of the Internet's development and the public's understanding of it.

"People thought everything on the Internet was true then," says Paul Dergarabedian of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "It was easier to build a real mystique about a movie."

It also helps if the movie itself has innate appeal. "Snakes" is a somewhat mixed bag on this score. It has one marquee star, Samuel L. Jackson, a modest production budget (about $32 million) and an unknown director (David R. Ellis). And although its title is intriguing, the name suggests a winking B-level horror-suspense film, a genre with few blockbusters.

New Line might have erred in marketing the movie, too, by withholding the film from critics before its release, says Douglas Gomery, a film and mass-media scholar. That not only signals that a bomb is afoot but also killed whatever momentum the movie might have built up, says Gomery, who notes: "They had the ball rolling, and then it came to a dead stop."

Critics didn't exactly hail "Snakes" as a new "Citizen Kane," but not all of them hated it, either. Time's Richard Schickel wrote that as Ellis's film "rattles along its thrill-a-minute flight plan, he does manage to induce a certain amnesia about its preposterous premise." As the review-of-reviewers Web site Rottentomatoes.com put it, "Snakes on a Plane lives up to its title, featuring snakes on a plane. It isn't perfect, but then again, it doesn't need to be."

New Line can't entirely complain. "Snakes" will surely turn a profit, once domestic and foreign box office receipts are counted and DVD rentals and sales come pouring in. "We're going to make money," the studio's president of domestic distribution, David Tuckerman, told the Los Angeles Times. "We're just disappointed that it's not as much money as we hoped."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company