Monday, August 21, 2006

“Snakes on a Plane” is a great title for a movie, but a more fitting one would have been “Bust at the Cinema.”

The thriller, which opened Friday against microscopic competition, earned an estimated $15.3 million in its first three-plus days. (Some “Snakes” faithful caught the film at late screenings Thursday night).

Not bad, you might think, for a B-movie with one star — Samuel L. Jackson — a scrawny budget and a premise sure to alienate the rom-com crowd. But after the avalanche of Web hype suffocating the project, based chiefly on the movie’s evocative title, its weekend box office tally is abysmal.

As its title denotes, “Snakes on a Plane” follows an FBI agent (Mr. Jackson) who must find a way to land an airplane brimming with deadly snakes. The movie sparked more Internet chatter than the buzz surrounding the as-yet-unseen newborn Suri Cruise. Web sites raved about its name, debated story leaks and rose up in outrage when rumors suggested the film’s studio, New Line Cinema, was at one point considering a title change.

The brouhaha, in turn, led to major media play — including a cover story in Entertainment Weekly.

Surely all those netizens would fuel a huge opening weekend, right?

The last time the Internet buzzed about a film was for last year’s “Serenity,” the film version of the short-lived science fiction series “Firefly.” That film earned a meager $25 million despite hefty hubbub in online circles.

Peter Kim, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, isn’t so quick to label the debut of “Snakes” a dud.

New Line Cinema did recognize the mounting Web noise early and got the Internet community on board with the project “to an extent that’s never seen before,” Mr. Kim says. (Yesterday this critic received an e-mail from a pal linked to a personalized message from Mr. Jackson himself imploring me to see “Snakes” soon).

While that kind of awareness won’t hurt a film, maybe the studios shouldn’t abandon traditional advertising means just yet. “The smart marketers are realizing putting all your eggs in one basket, like a viral hit, probably isn’t the best idea,” Mr. Kim says.

Yet “Snakes’” official tag line — “Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the fright.” — sounded as unimaginative as its title seemed clever. Word of mouth could still rescue its bottom line. A previous Web-based film event, “The Blair Witch Project,” wowed audiences en route to its $140 million gross. It grossed $29 million during its opening weekend, another modest sum by modern blockbuster standards.

But “Snakes” is no “Witch.” It’s goofy fun, to be sure, but without the Web’s help few people would care about the proudly juvenile thriller.

Even if “Snakes” slithers down the box office charts, Mr. Kim sees the potential for a second life on video fueled, once more, by the Web. “There are ways to extend the movie into online video like YouTube,” he says. “Is New Line going to take the next step forward, using online tools after the big theater hit?”

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