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Why didn't the snakes have legs?

That was the question hissing around Hollywood yesterday as the town tried to parse why the unprecedented hype surrounding the comic thriller Snakes on a Plane failed to jump from the Internet into the real world, leaving the studio New Line Cinema with only $13.8-million (U.S.) from weekend screenings. With an additional $1.4-million from late-night shows last Thursday, Snakes took in enough to win first place in the weekend's box-office race, but the tally was 50 per cent less than some forecasts.

"You ask most movie marketers, they don't necessarily put that much stock in using the Internet for marketing a movie, and this is exactly why," said Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box office for the studios.

"People were very aware of this movie," he added. "But converting Internet interest into actual movie-going, as a proven way of bringing people into the theatres, it doesn't really stand up yet." With the exception of The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999, few films have successfully mined grassroots appeal.

While Star Wars Episode III and the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies have been the subject of intense Internet chatter, their awareness was based on non-Internet material.

"We've seen church buzz is stronger than Internet buzz," noted Dergarabedian. "Those religious-based movies like Omega Code, Left Behind, Passion of the Christ -- that kind of buzz which was building at the grassroots level really did convert people into moviegoers."

The $15.2-million take is reasonable for the opening weekend of a horror film, so New Line will likely recoup costs that include a production budget of approximately $30-million. But it's an enormous disappointment after Snakes spent more than a year as fodder for Internet chat, jokes, gossip and spoofs, including hundreds of fake trailers.

"The Internet stuff was just fun that people were having with it, but I don't think that necessarily meant that those people wanted to see the movie," said Dergarabedian. "Those who had made that decision based their decision more on the traditional marketing than on all this Internet buzz."

"Maybe the people involved in this seemed larger in numbers than they were," suggested Dave Waldon, the author of Snakes on a Plane: The Guide to the Internet Ssssssensation. "If you do a Google search for Snakes on a Plane and get 22 million hits, that's a vast amount, but it's only a couple of thousand people doing this, and doing a lot of it. That's not going to translate into a huge score unless they each go to the movie four or five times."

New Line may have recognized months ago that the Internet interest wasn't going to do much to expand the audience beyond the traditional horror-film fans. Since the spring, it followed a conventional marketing plan, offering up star Samuel L. Jackson for dozens of personal appearances, newspaper and magazine interviews, and talk-show chats. The studio followed with public-relations stunts staged across the continent and bought an estimated $20-million worth of television and print ads, which is a little more than usual for the genre.

As with more than a dozen other movies released this year, New Line refused to screen Snakes for critics. The snub of the mainstream media flattered the bloggers who had initially championed on the flick, but ignored millions of moviegoers who may have been waiting for reviews before deciding whether or not to see Snakes. When they emerged midday Friday and Saturday, the reviews were generally friendly, but moviegoers may have already chosen another film to see instead.

Waldon, who had been predicting a $40-million weekend as recently as last week, believed there may have been too much attention on Snakes to make it a success. "Over-hype was a symptom which is not taken into account," he suggested. "That has been seen in all sorts of situations before this, in terms of a movie or TV show that is so hyped or so in our face that when it finally shows up, it doesn't meet expectations."

There's one other possible explanation for the disappointing showing. Industry tracking before the film opened suggested that women, by and large, may not have been interested in spending 105 minutes in the company of snakes.

In the end, the film's performance may have simply reflected an astute observation Jackson made during an interview more than a year ago when, speaking of the concept of a film featuring snakes on a plane, said: "You either want to see that, or you don't."

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

 

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