Film directors responding to Internet feedback


HOLLYWOOD / / Long before the summer thriller snakes on a plane slithers into theaters in july, potentially venomous fans started rattling.

The film's title says everything you need to know about the plot: On a trans-Pacific flight, a Hawaiian mobster trying to eliminate a protected witness uncorks a carton of poisonous serpents.

But as Web sites posted details during pre-production and shooting 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 f-bombs.

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

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

"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 in production. Although common with films based on superheroes (Superman) and fantasy worlds (The Lord of the Rings) -- properties with established rabid fan bases -- the Internet's reach is gradually turning the already collaborative process of movie production 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.

"I think it's fantastic," said screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, whose credits include Fallen and Reversal of Fortune. "Because right now, the final product is refined because of test screenings. And test screenings are an abomination."

People who attend such screenings "are going not to be entertained, but to judge," he said. "You don't go to a movie to judge it. You're going hoping you'll enjoy being there."

Sites like post casting news, director interviews and other project-related intelligence long before the studios' publicity departments 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, writing, "It's a concept. It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be."

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."

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

"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," Kazan said. "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.'"

Snakes on a Plane may be the first feature film that fans had a hand in shaping. 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."

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."

Emmerich said it would be difficult to distill and re-create such online enthusiasm for another film.

"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."

Dawn C. Chmielewski writes for the Los Angeles Times. Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this article.

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