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When Fans Hissed, He Listened

Times Staff Writer

Long before the summer thriller “Snakes on a Plane” slithers into theaters next month, potentially venomous fans started rattling.

The film’s title says just about everything you need to know about the plot: On a transpacific flight, a Hawaiian mobster trying to eliminate a protected witness uncorks a carton of poisonous serpents. But as websites posted details during preproduction and as shooting got underway last summer, B-movie fans began to react. They wanted more creative snake attacks, more gore, more nudity and more of star Samuel L. Jackson’s signature four-syllable obscenity.

How much of the chorus was sincere and how much of it was a desire to propel an already quirky plot over the top is unclear.

Nevertheless, based in part on the comments, director David R. Ellis went back and reshot scenes to make the attacks more violent, the sex more explicit and the language more profane -- including adding an expletive-laden line of dialogue for Jackson.

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“I had the luxury to go back and tailor the film exactly like the fans demand and they expect,” said Ellis, whose experience with “Snakes on a Plane” reflects the increasing influence that Internet fan communities have over what’s playing on multiplex screens.

It’s as if thousands of people worldwide are sitting in on daily rushes, in which the crew and studio executives offer advice and commentary on movies during production. Although most common with films based on superheroes such as Superman and fantasy worlds such as in “The Lord of the Rings” -- franchises with established rabid fan bases -- the Internet’s reach is gradually turning the already collaborative process of moviemaking into a global endeavor.

Since 1999, when Artisan Entertainment built online buzz for “The Blair Witch Project,” studios have embraced the Web to promote their films with campaigns that try to make potential moviegoers feel like they’re part of a Hollywood crew. Fans in turn insert themselves into projects that catch their fancy.

Websites such as aintitcoolnews.com post casting news, director interviews and other project-related intelligence long before the studios’ publicity departments traditionally roll out marketing campaigns. In the case of “Snakes on a Plane,” screenwriter Josh Friedman ignited the spark a year before the film’s release by rhapsodizing about the title on his blog. “It’s a concept,” he wrote. “It’s a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be.”

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Henry Jenkins, founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Comparative Media Studies program, said that if the movie had a big opening weekend, credit had to go to “the fan following and the response of the producers to the fans.”

Jenkins noted that Ellis and the studio, New Line Cinema, “could have buried this thing.”

“They could have not responded to this,” he said. “Instead, they recognized what was going on and embraced it.”

As a result, “Snakes on a Plane” may be the first feature film that fans had a hand in shaping. A Google search returned nearly 3.8 million online references to the film. The Snakes on a Blog fan site has attracted about half a million visitors.

“People have a very clear idea of what they want to see in the movie,” said Brian Finkelstein, 26, the law student at George Washington University who created Snakes on a Blog. “It’s given New Line a chance to make the movie match expectations. I think it’s a unique thing. Hopefully, they’ll be able to make a movie that would be more engaging than otherwise it would be.”

Two Emory University medical school students, Jonathan C. Seccombe and Prashant V. Shankar, said they were so inspired “by the film’s stupidity” that they created a tongue-in-cheek tribute -- a rap video now circulating on the Internet, “Cova’ of Maxim.” Dressed in baggy gangsta attire, with baseball caps defiantly askew, they rhyme: “We got our drinks/and some pretzels too/but we gotta bid these snakes adieu.”

Director Ellis has been watching it all unfold since the Internet enthusiasts began excoriating him for changing the film’s title to “Pacific Air 121" -- a working title he said he adopted only temporarily so he could get actors to read the script.

“We let it go for a while, because the controversy was attracting attention,” Ellis said. “So I just let it play out for a while, whether we were going to change the name or not.”

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After screening an early version of the film, producer Toby Emmerich said New Line executives concluded that the PG-13 version was “too watered-down.” Emmerich said the decision to make the film gorier and edgier had nothing to do with fan reaction, although Ellis said scenes were rewritten “to include the stuff the fans had.”

One scene, in which a couple smokes a joint and has an intimate encounter in the airplane bathroom, contained a mere suggestion of nudity and a hint of danger.

“Initially, the snake attacked [toward the] camera and we hear them screaming,” Ellis said. “The flight attendants are just listening, going, ‘Mile-high club. Those were the days.’ Now we have the snake actually attacking her breast. We just went for it.”

Ellis said one of his greatest creative challenges in the film was to address a concern that fans articulated in online forums -- how to keep the snake attacks from becoming repetitious.

In a nod to desire for inventive attacks, he filmed a character in a bathroom primping as he prepares to pick up a woman on the flight. The character is shown urinating on a snake “and it leaps up and attacks him in the groin,” Ellis said. “He’s falling all over the place, holding on to this snake.”

The pinnacle of fan involvement came with a new line of dialogue uttered by Jackson. Ellis reassembled the cast and crew to film Jackson saying he was “tired of these [expletive] snakes on this [expletive] plane.”

Online fan communities share not only an avid interest, but offer suggestions in the spirit of the open-source movement within technology, in which developers volunteer their time and talents to improve software cooperatively.

“This kind of feedback is very specific, it’s very creative, and the director is free to choose what he or she wants to use,” said screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, whose credits include “Fallen” and “Reversal of Fortune.” “And for a writer working on a script or for a director/producer/writer looking at a finished movie, when you hear these comments you respond to the ones which feed you. You respond to the ones which you think, ‘Oh my God, I wish I had thought of that. That would make the movie better.’ ”

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Some fans go even further -- writing original material based on popular characters.

“Star Trek” fans, currently deprived of new episodes despite several spinoffs and “Star Trek” movies in the years since the original television series aired in the 1960s, are using digital cameras, video editing software and a replica of the Starship Enterprise’s bridge to pick up where creator Gene Roddenberry left off.

The “New Voyages” have become so popular that George Takei, the actor who played Sulu in the original series, has made cameo appearances.

Savvy directors and television producers have learned to nurture budding fan communities.

Director Peter Jackson flouted the closed-set sensibilities of Hollywood and posted online production diaries throughout the making of “King Kong” that afforded fans their first glimpse of the big hairy ape and other behind-the-scenes footage.

Jackson is attempting to attract similar fan interest for his next project, a movie adaptation of the popular video game “Halo.”

Mark Schwahn, executive producer of Warner Bros.’ television show “One Tree Hill,” says he regularly reads the online message boards to gauge fan reaction to characters or story lines. He also reads fan fiction to see who the show’s aficionados pair together.

“The online forums have changed the rules regarding fan interaction,” Schwahn said. “I tell my writers you can’t obsess, you can’t write a show to please the online community. But you have to balance it out, you’d be silly to ignore it as well.”

Certainly, no publicist could fail to recognize the promotional potential of a devoted online fan following. But the studios still struggle with how much control to relinquish to fans.

“It is a phenomenon where the studios are having to keep a delicate balance between, on the one hand, wanting to use this enormous potential for publicity, and on the other hand have some control over copyrighted materials and over spoilers,” said Kristin Thompson, author of a forthcoming book with the working title, “Frodo, Fantasy, and Franchises: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood.”

Producer Emmerich said it would be difficult to distill and re-create such online enthusiasm for another film. If it was that easy, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" would have followed in the footsteps of the Internet-fan-driven 1999 box-office phenomenon, “The Blair Witch Project.”

“I don’t know that there was a lesson we learned from ‘Snakes on a Plane’ because the fan interest in it was so organic and pure, the spark that ignited it could not be manufactured,” Emmerich said.

“It literally is like lightning. I don’t think I know how to do that again.”

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Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this report.


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