09/16/2006 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Snakes Had no Legs

Pitching a movie is one thing. Then they filmed a pitch.

Snakes on a Plane isn't just a title. It's the pithiest concept distillation in Hollywood history. And fans saw it right away. Certain fans, that is. They embraced the movie for that reason--I mean the on-line fans, the ones who created all that buzz going in.

These are people who live through media. They craft their identities and environments, their mash-ups and mixes, their blogs and websites--they present and re-present themselves constantly. They understand what it takes to pitch something. They are the vanguard of a Virtual Revolution (that's spectators against celebrities, as opposed to workers against capital) that's transforming the whole landscape. As soon as they saw that title, they knew they were being invited to create this movie, as a phenomenon.

Think about it this way: for the VR vanguard, text messaging has become an art form, a sort of haiku, constrained by technology rather than tradition. The ideal text message condenses the most context into the fewest words. But, unlike haiku, it's personal context. A text message is very intimate--if only because it shows up uninvited in that most private of all spaces (besides maybe your bathroom), namely, the screen on your cell phone. Having appeared there, it must earn its right to intrude by evoking something of the world you share with the messenger. Whatever the specific content, the ideal text message always says "I know you so well." It says "I can practically read your mind." When a
good text message is timed just right, it keeps you company like nothing else.

This movie's title read like a text message from the moviemakers to media hipsters in the VR Vanguard. It made them feel as if they were there in the room when Samuel L. Jackson (or whoever it was) sat down with potential backers and, the amenities concluded, let the expectant silence linger for an extra beat or two before raising his hands, fingertips touching, pausing yet again before parting them slowly, palms toward the onlookers in picture-this mode, and then punctuating that classic gesture with the simple words:

Snakes on a Plane.

The VR vanguard felt included in that meeting. That's why they leapt to the task of marketing the movie with all the resources at their command. That's why they generated so many links to the official Snakes web site. That's why they posted the phone numbers of their friends to that site, so that Samuel Jackson could call with a recorded message urging them to go to the movie (talk about a fun intrusion). And, above all, that's why they welcomed the chance to discuss the movie with its literal makers--who seemed to understand that a new possibility was emerging because they reshot some scenes in response to blogger input and even lifted the unprintable climactic line of the whole movie from cyber chat. And the more this sort of thing went on, the more that original sense of participation was reinforced.

But, ironically, this also explains why the flick didn't do that well after all--not nearly as well as its promoters were led to expect, given the unprecedented upsurge of folk-hype. It turned out that, for many of those on-line spinmeisters, "the marketing was more exciting than the movie," as Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations put it.

Sort of like the Dean campaign meant a lot more than Dean.

That's because he marketing is what they really created. The few blogger-inspired changes to the movie were like the calls from viewers that Larry King takes--more an appearance of participation than the reality. This is the irony that haunts all efforts by traditional media to include consumers in the process of production. Attention is the scarce resource that matters in a mediated age, and virtual revolutionaries want attention for themselves. You can't trick them. They aren't fans in the old-fashioned sense at all. They're competitors.

And besides a vanguard is just that--a vanguard. Which means there aren't that many of them. The great mass of virtual revolutionaries is as mediated as the vanguard, but they aren't as explicitly aware of it. They claim their share of media attention in more sublimated ways--by becoming "values voters," say, or buying magazines called Self or autobiographies by people with diseases they identify with. At the end of the day, and in spite of it's supplementary existence as a consumer-produced phenomenon, Snakes on a Plane was just a horror movie after all. But that supplementary existence has a wide open future that goes way beyond obvious things like, say--the movie idea I am working on right now.

Get ready for...
(Pause. Gesture.)

Lobsters on a Bus.