August 21, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Snakes on a Plane is being widely viewed as a box office failure, although that's a qualifier for inflated and unrealistic expectations. Sure, the final theatrical gross will be around $25M (against an estimated budget of $35M and advertising costs of $15M), which is far from blockbuster status, but when all the dollars have been counted (including those for sales of the DVD Special Edition, coming to a store near you before Christmas), the film is likley to be dripping black ink, not red. And what did the so-called "experts" expect, anyway? Packed theaters and incredibly word-of-mouth?

Anyone who thought Snakes on a Plane was going to be a monster hit didn't look past the hype to the reality. This is not, as New Line Cineam wanted us to believe, a ground-breaking movie that has wormed its way into popular culture. It is not a world-wide "phenomeon." Instead, it is a cheesy B-grade cult flick that has achieved a measure of notoriety because of the interest it generated in some corners of cyberspace. Internet clicks, however, do not translate into box office tix. Consider this: 2,000,000 SoaP would-be fans surfing from site to site, posting on message boards, and generating chatter can create on-line buzz. However, 2,000,000 paying ticket buyers translates into about $11M - not exactly full houses. (Side note: I would be interested to know the piracy numbers for this film. I'm betting that SoaP will be one of the most popular illegally downloaded films of all time.)

Objectively, SoaP was successful. Subjectively, it depends what you were expecting. Does it matter? Of course. Had SoaP been a huge, indisputible hit, studios would have been lining up to copy New Line's approach and strategy. (After all, it saves advertising costs.) More movies would get Internet-influenced makeovers (not a good thing, IMO - I don't want the kids running the candy store). As it is, however, SoaP becomes a blip on a radar, destined to fade quickly from the memories of all who aren't charter members of its cult.

The film provided me with one of the most unusual movie-going experiences I have endured. When I walked into the theater at 9:45 last Thursday evening, about 80 of the 250 seats were filled. Those viewers - mostly male, all college age - jumped up as one upon my entrance and yelled, "Snakes on a Plane! Snakes on a Plane! Yeah! Wahooo! Show us your snake!" They then began to bat around an inflatable snake like a beach ball at a baseball game. This special treatment was not reserved for me - everyone got it as they entered.

It appeared that the majority of those who entered the theater before me had gotten a boost of liquid courage earlier in the evening. The atmosphere replicated that of a frat party. Then the girls started arriving, which added to the surreal atmosphere. Most of them did not appear drunk, but that didn't stop them from joining in fun. I started looking around for the Girls Gone Wild cameraman. (The only ones to do any flashing and removing of shirts, however, were the guys.)

The first sign the film might fail to generate much box office thunder was that, at the time the New Line Cinema logo came up, only 150 out of 250 seats were filled. I moved close to the front of the theater to avoid having my vision obscured by the people in front of me doing the wave. Also, I had high hopes of actually hearing some of the dialogue although, in retrospect, I needn't have bothered.

Some foolish part of me had assumed things would quiet down a little once the movie started. I expected the usual reactions to certain scenes and lines, but there were about 10 guys who continued yelling "Snakes on a Plane!" or "Show me your snake" or (to the girls) "Let me put my snake in your plane!" At one point, a girl gamely responded, "Is that a snake or a worm?" I can't say what provoked the comment because it happened behind me. I was busy watching a girl on the screen get her nipple nibbled on by a cobra.

There were two kinds of people in the theater that night: those who were drawn there by morbid curiosity and lost patience with the antics of the more exuberant customers, and those to whom the movie was secondary to the party atmosphere. SoaP was an excuse to get drunk and party. I would be surprised if, the next day, the more extreme fans could remember anything more than that the movie is about snakes on a plane, Samuel L. Jackson talked trash, and some poor guy got his penis swallowed by a snake. (Insert all sorts of family-inappropriate jokes here.)

Here are the final audience demographics from that first showing. The auditorium was a little more than half full. The breakdown by sex was about 50/50, with most of the guys arriving early and most of the girls arriving just before the movie started. There were almost no couples or single viewers. More than 75% arrived in same-sex groups. At age 38, I was the oldest (by a lot), and I didn't see anyone too young to drive. The majority of those in attendance were in their early '20s.

There still remains one unanswered question about Snakes on a Plane. Properly nurtured, could it become this generation's answer to The Rocky Horror Picture Show?